Friday, December 28, 2012

Sunday Classics preview: Do I hear a Ländler?


On Jan. 18, 1961, the first day of recording (the date cited above is clearly wrong), Bruno Walter rehearses the Los Angeles free-lancers who made up the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in the second half of the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Producer John McClure also talks about the circumstances of the recording, and then we hear work on the opening of the second-movement Ländler.

by Ken

Before we continue, perhaps we ought to make sure we know what a Ländler is.
The ländler is a folk dance in 3/4 time which was popular in Austria, south Germany, German Switzerland, and Slovenia at the end of the 18th century.

It is a dance for couples which strongly features hopping and stamping. It was sometimes purely instrumental and sometimes had a vocal part, sometimes featuring yodeling. -- Wikipedia
There is a Ländler, as it happens, in Mahler's First Symphony. Here it is in the recording the 84-year-old Bruno Walter made during the same time period -- late January and early February of 1961 -- as the recording of the Ninth Symphony which is the subject of the above clip, narrated by original producer John McClure.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 1 in D:
ii. Kräftig bewegt (Powerfully animated)

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Jan.-Feb. 1961


Maybe we should reestablish Walter's connection to both the Mahler Ninth and the work that preceded it, the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) -- the supreme masterworks conceived and completed after the composer learned he was suffering from terminal heart disease.

Both works inescapably speak to us of "farewell," though Mahler never stopped composing, and of course had done substantial work on what he would have called his Tenth Symphony. (Probably if he hadn't had such superstitious dread of that number nine as applied to symphonies, which had spelled the end for Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, he would have numbered Das Lied as his Ninth Symphony. (As we know, since by that time the next full-fledged symphony was fully laid out, and he foresaw its path to completion, he thought he had the hex beat, since his "Ninth Symphony" would really be his Tenth. The joke was on him.)

In his lifetime it was Mahler's near-invariable practice to conduct the premieres of his works. He may not have commanded much respect among the musical establishment of his time as a composer -- the notable exception being young conductors, who appear to have been mesmerized by his music -- but as a conductor he was possibly the most highly regarded of his time. Alas, he didn't live to hear, let alone conduct, either Das Lied or the Ninth Symphony, dying on May 18, 1911. The respective premieres took place on November 20 and then June 26, 1912; they had been entrusted by the works' creator to his disciple Bruno Walter.

Incredibly, given the technical and commercial limitations (not to mention the political climate) of the time, Walter was able to make live recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic for EMI of both Das Lied, on May 24, 1936, and the Ninth Symphony, on Jan. 16, 1938, literally the eve of his flight from Nazi Austria. They are incalculably precious documents, and I can't imagine any collector wanting to be without them. As performances, though, they (as well as the May 1952 Decca Das Lied with the Vienna Phil) seem to me well outclassed by Walter's eventual stereo versions. The April 1960 Das Lied (with Mildred Miller, Ernst Häfliger, and the New York Philharmonic) and the 1961 Ninth Symphony aren't just great performances. For me they're among his most treasurable legacies. But then, as I've indicated before, for me Walter's American recordings -- including (often especially) the far-from-invariably-admired late stereo ones -- generally have worlds more character than his European ones.

For tonight I thought you might enjoy hearing how the second-movement Ländler turned out -- and hearing it alongside the 1938 version.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 in D:
ii. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers
(In the tempo of a leisurely Ländler)

Vienna Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, cond. EMI, recorded live, Jan. 16, 1938

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded Jan.-Feb. 1961


Farewell, Mahler-style.

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