After my first experience of the music of Gustav Mahler (his 3rd Symphony as broadcast by the Boston Symphony, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf), I was desperate to hear more. A quick trip to the public library found no recording of the Mahler 3rd (not too surprising in 1966). However, they did have a recording of Mahler’s 1st Symphony, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bruno Walter. So I brought home the recording, and began listening to it, and quickly fell in love with the music, and with the remarkable commitment that Walter brought to the performance.
So it was pure coincidence that I stumbled into the remarkable connection of Bruno walter and Gustav Mahler. As I sought to learn more, I would quickly read about their connections. How the 18-year-old Walter met the 34-year-old Mahler, and the two quickly became friends. Walter also aspired to being a composer, though he would clearly put that 2nd to his career as conductor. He and Mahler must have spoken of such things. They had been friends for almost 20 years when Mahler died, at the age of 50, in 1911. By then, Walter had become deeply connected to both Mahler the conductor and Mahler the composer. It would fall to Walter give the first performances of two of the composers last works - Das Lied von der Erde and the 9th Symphony. Indeed, we might think of both these works as slightly “unfinished,” given that Mahler, the perfectionist, tended to wait until after the first performance of a work to create the definitive score. He would constantly tweak the orchestration and particularly the dynamics in a score after hearing it performed. Since Mahler did not live to hear either the 9th or Das Lied, he was never able to give them a final polishing. I suspect that he would have clarified some of musical strata in the first movement of the 9th if he had heard it.
Walter’s performances of Mahler are committed and perhaps suggest the subjective way Mahler himself interpreted his music. While in college, I wrote a paper on Mahler’s Das Lied, and I recall listening to numerous recordings with the score in front of me. Only Hans Rosbaud came anywhere close to actually playing the piece as it was written. Everyone else added things - a crescendo here, a ritard there, an articulation change somewhere else. And not always to good effect, either. In Walter case, however, there were at least two, now I know 3, recordings of the score to compare, and the real difference came down to the singers. For me, the most astonishing performance of the score involves Walter with the Viennese tenor Julius Patzak, and the British mezzo Kathleen Ferrier. There’s the version release on London, easily found these days on CD. But there’s another recording, made only a month or so before Ferrier died of cancer. Walter, who had seen his friend the composer die before hearing Das Lied performed, now was con ducting the work with a singer who was dying. According to eyewitness accounts, both walter and Ferrier were in tears at the end of the performance, as the singer repeats the word “ewig,” over and over. The word means “forever,” and Mahler’s music doesn’t so much end as dissolve into the eternity of silence. Mahler was lucky to have met Walter, to turn this score over to someone who would perform it with such devotion.
Happy 138th birthday, Herr Walter.