Conducting styles: Bruno Walter’s recordings of “Das Lied von der Erde”

Photo portrait of a young Bruno Walter

The archive of the Music University in Vienna houses part of the Bruno Walter estate. Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk, to be published (only in German at this stage), on the 6 recordings we have of his performances of ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. The recordings date from a live broadcast in 1936 with the Vienna Philharmonic; another live broadcast from 1948 with the New York Philharmonic; his famous 1952 studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic with Kathleen Ferrier and Leo Patzak; and another 2 New York broadcasts from 1953 and 1960 with his last word on the work from 1960, also with the New York Philharmonic, but this time as a studio recording. It was not a project I took to, but the head of the archive pleaded with me. He believed that I, as a recording producer, would have technical things to say about the different recordings Walter committed to posterity. To my surprise, once I started, I found it a fascinating exercise, not because of the audio differences, but because the interpretive and stylistic differences were so striking. It raised the question of whether emigration also resulted in losing a certain approach to music-making. Of course, there were also macro-factors over the intervening 24 years which played equally important roles: one was evolution of recording itself, but another was undoubtedly Toscanini, who introduced a more objective, sober approach to music than Austro-Germans were accustomed to. So what was lost and over what period of time? The first thing that strikes one upon hearing the live broadcast from Vienna in 1936 is how well-played it is. It is actually far better played than the 1952 studio recording with the same orchestra. The instrumental soloists each pick up the text cues and illustrate them to perfection. This is something that is utterly missing from the New York recording of 1948 where a flute or oboe solo is played as an opportunity to shine and not as a segue, or anticipation to the text. The other thing – indeed the most striking feature of this performance – is the same thing that struck me when I first heard the Busch Quartet’s recording of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets: a sense of ensemble tightness that was linear and not horizontal. There was no sense of bar-lines, or even of a consistent pulse that would indicate a clear meter of the work. Yet, astonishingly, everyone was together. Every member of the ensemble flowed as a single organic unit in the same direction with the same sense of tempo, structure and dynamic. Portamenti were used everywhere with the same near casualness of a gypsy band. When portamenti were especially indicated by Mahler, they became slides, and when Mahler requested slides (which he did with straight, diagonal lines), they became glissandi. These were the features that slowly, but perceptibly began to vanish over the next 24 years. Indeed, there is a near perfect symmetry with Walter and this work: it was 25 years between him conducting its premiere in 1911 (see the accompanying photo from 1912), and nearly the same amount of time again with his final recording of the work in 1960. He also used a variety of different voice types: mezzos and altos; lyric tenors and heroic tenors. He never used tenor and baritone, though his protégée Leonard Bernstein did. Nothing sounds ideal, but closest to my ears is the first cast, with a mezzo with a stunning lower range and a rather sweet sounding lyric tenor. The dramatic moments are even more unsettling with the tenor on at the edge of his capability, (such as the ape squatting on the graves of mankind). Yet a lyric voice enchants in the movements that require lightness and colour, while the heroic voice sounds like a bull in a porcelain factory – or in Mahler’s case in a porcelain pavilion. The other thing that struck me when comparing the broadcasts (as opposed to the studio recordings), was the difference between audiences: the New York audiences are noisy and restless, while the Viennese maintain the silence of the grave. The 1960 broadcast is ruined with the sound of doors opening and closing as people get up to leave or arrive late. I had always assumed after reading Soma Morgenstern, that the Mahler loving, Mahler-comprehending audience had fled Vienna for New York and expected to find a seamless transition. This was not the case, and with the 1952 studio recording of the work in Vienna, it’s clear that even the orchestra no longer has any natural understanding of the work. It was more than composers and their music that were lost with Hitler’s arrival, it was also a manner of making music – though I wonder if my own profession – recording – does not equally have as much to answer for in this respect?