The German-born conductor, pianist, and composer Bruno Walter made most of his late-career stereo recordings for Columbia Records and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It was not the best orchestra in the country because despite its membership consisting mainly of freelance musicians and members of the New York or Los Angeles Philharmonic (depending on where Columbia was recording them), it really only played together for recording purposes. Nevertheless, Walter made some of his best music with them, including the Brahms symphonies, Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Mozart, and Wagner. This Brahms Fourth Symphony, which Walter recorded in 1959, concluded his Brahms cycle on a high note, and HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) do a fine job remastering it.
Interestingly, the composers I mentioned above were also among those that one of Walter's contemporaries, conductor Otto Klemperer, also excelled at doing. I've often wondered if it was just because both men were born in Germany around the same time and so had an affinity for the work of German and Austrian composers, or whether it was because both men in their younger days worked closely with composer Gustav Mahler. Maybe a little of both? Whatever the case, Walter and Klemperer produced excellent sets of Brahms recordings.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) premiered his Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 in 1885, and it is one of the most wholly satisfying symphonies of his four. The opening movement begins gracefully and builds in dramatic tension using some of the composer's most memorable tunes. How a listener reacts to Walter's approach to the symphony will probably come quickly into the opening movement. A booklet note tells us that he had also recorded the Brahms cycle about a decade earlier (in monaural, of course) in performances that had "a lean, crisp sound." This time it's a little different. If you're looking for a big, dramatic reading, you're probably better off with conductors such as Klemperer, Bernstein, Kleiber, and the like. Walter, on the other hand, is relatively light and lyrical. He isn't slow by any means, just gentle and flowing and always with an unerring forward momentum. Nor does Walter's performance lack in weightiness or authority. It's simply a lovely, rich, sort of autumnal interpretation.
The third movement Scherzo is cheerful, festive, and exuberant. It provides the symphony a sudden note of excitement and happiness, and Walter uses it to advantage to help balance the more tranquil moments.
The Finale is powerful and relatively serious. Here, you'll find Walter concluding on a strong note, emphasizing the powerful architecture of the symphony. There is nothing showy or extroverted about the performance, yet the positive thrust of the music is always paramount.
Yes, you'll find more excitement in other recordings of this symphony. However, you'll not find more heart or soul than with Walter. This is as loving an interpretation as any you'll hear.
Producer John McClure made the recording for Columbia Records (CBS, Sony) in Los Angeles, February 1959, and HDTT remastered and transferred it to compact disc from a Columbia 4-track tape. The sound is some of the best Columbia provided in the Fifties and Sixties, and it comes up well in HDTT's transfer. It's very clean and clear, with a nice sense of dimensionality, left-to-right stereo spread and front-to-back depth. There is a hint of hard forwardness to the upper midrange, it's true, but it tends to reinforce the recording's transparency and should not be at all bothersome except perhaps to the most finicky of audiophiles. There is also a reasonably good dynamic range and a modest degree of hall resonance. This is not your old-time Columbia sound.
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To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: