Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. (Book Reviews).
I suspect that I am not alone in having first encountered the name Bruno Walter when I was an undergraduate in search of cheap records. Sam Goody's in Philadelphia ran weekly "label sales" that frequently had me scouring the bins for Odyssey pressings, Columbia's line of inexpensive re-releases, and even though the sound was usually monaural and often of lower quality, the price was right for a college student making his first acquaintance with the classical repertory. Moreover, the performances themselves were almost invariably excellent, and in reading the liner notes, I quickly learned of Walter's close association with Gustav Mahler, which in retrospect lent my uninformed choices an air of authority and wisdom.
A quarter of a century after my first hearings of his recordings, Walter's work remains widely available on compact disc. A search of his name at the Amazon Web site (www.amazon.com) generates well over two hundred items, almost as many as for Arturo Toscanini or Wilhelm Furtwangler, probably the two conductors prized most by collectors of historic recordings. Indeed, Walter need not take second place to any of his contemporaries on the podium, including Toscanini and Furtwangler. As this new biography--the first in English since Walter's own words over fifty years ago (Theme and Variations: An Autobiography, trans. James A. Galston [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1946; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981] )--amply demonstrates, Bruno Walter was one of the twentieth century's most important and influential conductors.
Although he began his career as a piano prodigy, the young Bruno Schlesinger decided to devote himself to conducting after attending a concert directed by Hans von Bulow, and a performance of Tristan und Isolde opened his ears to the music of Richard Wagner and other progressive composers. Following his conducting debut in 1894 at the age of seventeen (in a performance of Albert Lortzing's Der Waffenschmied in Cologne), he briefly served as Mahler's assistant in Hamburg before accepting a position at the Stadttheater in Breslau. The offer came, however, with the condition that he change his name, because "Schlesinger" was so common in that region of Poland; thus Bruno Schlesinger became Bruno Walter (p. 21). Walter's apprenticeship moved quickly through a series of similar positions, until Mahler called him to Vienna in 1901 to serve as second-in-command at the Hofoper. When Mahler left for New York in 1907, Walter took his place.
In 1913 Walter became Generalmusik-direktor in Munich, and over the next nine years he contributed to a glorious musical era in that city's history. As his fame increased, he accepted numerous invitations to guest-conduct, including his American debut in 1923. Initially, Walter remained above Germany's political difficulties in the 1920s, but when the Nazis gained power, he was driven first from the helm of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra, then from his concert series in Berlin, and finally, following the Anschluss, from Vienna. In 1939, he moved to the United States, where he established strong relationships with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic--he served as music advisor from 1947 to 1949--and several other major orchestras. In the postwar years he was a frequent guest conductor in Europe, and he crowned his career with a series of now legendary recordings for the Columbia label.
Coauthors Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky describe all of this and much more in Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere. In addition to quoting liberally from the conductor's autobiography, his published letters, and other obvious sources, these authors are the first to make use of the Bruno Walter Papers (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), a collection with over seven thousand letters. They have also combed the archives of several major performing organizations, consulted several smaller collections of papers of individuals associated with Walter, hunted down reviews of virtually all important and innumerable lesser performances he conducted, and interviewed over sixty individuals who knew him personally. Their dedication to verifying statements and authenticating facts is evident in the mere handful of endnotes that discuss a few unresolved details or conflicting accounts of minor events (e.g., p. 46 n. 18). Otherwise, the copious endnotes consist overwhelmingly of unadorned references to the appro priate documents. Despite their extensive citation from primary sources, indicated by the many quotation marks on almost every page, Ryding and Pechefsky have woven it all into a highly readable narrative that is accessible to a broad audience.
Among this book's few shortcomings are the intimations of Walter's purported affair with the singer Delia Reinhardt. While Ryding and Pechefsky never deliberately distort the evidence, the few paragraphs that actually discuss this relationship are simply not enough to warrant the publisher's hype on the book's dust jacket (pp. 122-23, 147-48, 321-22, 332, 379). Similarly, the authors frequently use rhetorical questions--usually in the form of What did Walter think of this?"--as jumping-off points for their own speculations whenever their sources fall silent, but to their credit, there is never any question of where the facts end and the authors' inferences begin. This strategy is also usefully employed to introduce later recordings by Walter whenever the authors wish to discuss the sound of an early performance from which no recording survives.
Finally, this is not a book with sophisticated discussions of music, and the relatively brief descriptions of Walter's performances and recordings necessarily read like journalistic criticism. There are frequent references to Walter's "lyric" style, his flexible tempos, and his tendency to slow down at second themes, but none of this is a revelation to anyone familiar with his recordings. In the context of this biography, however, the explanations that these traits derive from Walter's work with singers and his emulation of Bulow's Wagnerian style of conducting are sufficient. For anyone who might object to the lack of analysis, there are occasionally simple statements about the history of classical music in the twentieth century that will remind professionals of the amateurs (in the best sense of the word) who might also enjoy and benefit from this book. Such minor reservations aside, Ryding and Pechefsky have written a fine account of Walter's life, and it will be all the more useful if their readers seek o ut Walter's recordings to hear what prompted its writing.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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