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CD Review

Wolfgang Mozart

Opus Kura 118/9
  • Overture "La finta giardinera', K. 196
  • Overture "La Clemeza di Tito', K. 621
  • Piano Concerto #20 in D minor, K. 466 *
  • Serenade #13 "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik', K. 525
  • Symphony #38 in D Major "Prague', K. 504
  • Symphony #41 in C Major "Jupiter', K. 551
  • Three German Dances, K. 605
* Bruno Walter, piano
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter
Recorded 1936-1938
Opus Kura OPK118/9 2CDs

Those used to the leisurely gait of Bruno Walter's late Columbia Symphony Orchestra recordings may be taken aback by the fleeter tempos and sharper attacks of his 1936-38 Vienna Philharmonic sessions. While not a happy time in the conductor's life, most of his records from this period remain musically satisfying. Although I believe that nearly every one of his Vienna efforts was later superseded in New York and Los Angeles, having the complete Mozart 78s in one place is nothing to sneeze at. Thanks as always to Albany Music, which distributes these valuable discs to domestic customers.

Despite swifter tempos all around, there is still plenty of time for Walter's uniquely warm Mozartian sound, one which would later fall out of fashion. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful conception that mostly makes it onto these discs. The Vienna Philharmonic was playing in the shadows of wartime Europe, and they make some rather ugly sounds here and there. This is exacerbated by the primitive recording technologies and limitations of 78 discs in terms of play time. Outer movements tend to have a slightly breathless quality, and the result is either exciting or rushed. "Eine kleine Nactmusik' is especially quick in comparison to the altogether superior studio version on Columbia. Elsewhere, speed matters less than tonal quality, which is compromised most notably in the brass section when called for.

The symphonies are probably the most important works here, and happily they are also the best recordings as well. I already reviewed the "Jupiter' when it last appeared on Opus Kura, and it remains a fine performance with somewhat sour brass playing. Certainly it pales to either of Walter's later versions, but the approach is appreciable. The "Prague' is arguably the finer reading, in part because the slower sections are nothing short of divine. The sound is reasonably clear. Along with the Serenade, these worthy readings make up disc one.

Unfortunately, disc two is a less impressive affair, and a good deal shorter in terms of playtime. The two overtures are relatively rare and so prove welcome, but the Three German Dances are pure filler no matter how lovingly Walter shapes them. Perhaps of greatest interest to collectors will be Walter at the piano in K.466, but this proves more exciting on paper than on disc. The Philharmonic sounds decidedly scrappy in spots, despite fleet tempos and pretty wind playing. Before we chalk that up to a lack of period orthodoxy, we have to remember that there was plenty of great Mozart playing during this time, and that the faults here lie with orchestra and conductor as opposed to some outdated musical style. For his part, Walter plays with the requisite technical skill (and it does sound good on those grounds), but otherwise seems disinterested. He has no real personality in his playing, nor does he bring any new insights to one of Mozart's darker works. Still, collectors who search endlessly for unique records will be happy to have this evidence of Walter at the piano. If nothing else, it proves Walter could favor speed over musicality, a rare thought for those of us who see his Classical legacy as a rather relaxed affair.

As is par for the course, Opus Kura provides a bevy of notes in Japanese and two pointless and badly written paragraphs in English about next to nothing useful. The box says everything has been remastered for 2017, and the sound is a touch fuller than what I remember in reviewing the previous Walter release devoted to Mozart. The market for this set is even more limited than what I usually review, but it's exactly for this reason that labels like Opus Kura exist. Many thanks to Albany Music for allowing me to hear it, and you have the same opportunity as well. Walter was one of the great Mozart conductors. While this is not his best work, it still provides valuable insight into the arts during one of the more troubled times of the last century. For some, that might just be enough.

Copyright © 2017, Brian Wigman