Rudolf Barshai, and Bruno Walter, Week Two

By James David Jacobs

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Bruno Walter (1876-1962), like most conductors of his generation (Mahler, Strauss, Pfitzner, Weingartner, Zemlinsky), was also a composer. In fact, it was his composing that launched his career: at the age of sixteen, while still a student, he made his first professional appearance as a conductor leading the Berlin Philharmonic in his own setting of Goethe's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage - a performance that attracted the attention of Gustav Mahler, and led to his being hired as Mahler's assistant at the Hamburg Opera the following year. In addition to coaching the singers and directing the chorus, he also helped proofread and prepare the parts for the premiere of Mahler's Second Symphony. Walter said that he was greatly influenced by Mahler, especially what he called Mahler's "demonic aspect." One can hear that aspect in Walter's Sonata for Piano and Violin (the order in which he listed the instruments), which he published in 1910. While many of his works received negative reviews (as did Mahler's), this sonata was the one work of his that garnered generally positive critical attention. Critics like Julius Korngold (father of the composer who wrote for Vienna's Neue Freie Presse and was a rare early champion of Mahler's work), who had previously heaped nothing but scorn for Walter's compositions (while lavishly praising Walter's conducting), said of this sonata that it was "Brahmsian without being too Brahmsian". It's certainly a very passionate work, one that somewhat undercuts the gentle image most people have of its composer. We'll hear the sonata Sunday in the 10:00 hour in its only available recording, by the Orfeo Duo. And to test Korngold's comment, we'll also hear Walter's stereo recording of Brahms' Third Symphony with the Los Angeles version of the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, which by the time this recording was made in 1960 had blossomed into one of the country's great ensembles.

For a short clip of Walter rehearsing Brahms' Second Symphony in Vancouver in 1958, visit YouTube.

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The music world has been suffering some sad losses recently. On November 2 the great Russian conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai passed away at the age of 86. Barshai was a founding member of the Borodin Quartet and the founding conductor of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. On Saturday the latter ensemble (directed by Barshai) will help us join the Haydn/Mozart discussion the BSO is having this weekend by weighing in with a collaboration between Mozart and Michael Haydn (brother of Josef) - the piece known as "Mozart's Symphony no. 37." We'll also hear a recording Barshai made as a young violist back in 1958 with the already-legendary musicians Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich of the Piano Quartet no 1 in C minor by Gabriel Faure.

As for that Mozart/Michael Haydn situation: several listeners have asked why one never hears Mozart's Symphony no. 37. First of all, it should be noted that all the numbers of Mozart's symphonies were made up by the publisher Breitkopf & Haertel well after Mozart's death. He did not number any of his own symphonies, and the order B & H assigned to them is somewhat approximate, and sometimes flat-out wrong: they included in their numbering scheme several symphonies not by Mozart, and left out even more that are -- while his last symphony, the Jupiter, is called no. 41, he actually wrote over 50 symphonies, and new ones are still being discovered. That's why newer recordings increasingly leave off these numbers in favor of the Kochel number -- though that catalogue, too, is constantly being revised.

In the case of the so-called "Symphony no. 37" the confusion is Mozart's own fault. He copied out a symphony by his friend Michael Haydn, did some minor editing and touched up the orchestration a bit, and composed a slow introduction to the first movement. Common practice in those days; Mozart wasn't trying to fool anyone, he just needed some music in a hurry. The scholars, however, found a symphony written in Mozart's hand, so they assigned it a number in Mozart's catalogue. In the Michael Haydn catalogue, meanwhile, it's no. 25, and there are recordings without Mozart's additions that are listed with that number. Since we're playing the Mozart-edited version, though, the official name is Symphony no. 37, K. 444, but the bulk of the work is by Michael Haydn. A relic of life before intellectual property laws.

Another even more recent loss was the death of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki. On Saturday we'll hear the third movement of his Lerchenmusik - Recitatives and Ariosos for clarinet, cello and piano, op. 53. The movement is very stark, and seems to speak of searing pain, perhaps anger, that with its insistent dissonances could be difficult to listen to -- but I encourage you to give this music fifteen minutes of your time, because there's a lovely, transcendent transformation in store when it is revealed that the primary thematic materials of the movement are derived from the first movement of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto! We'll hear that parent work performed first, performed by the French pianist Helene Grimaud, who just had her birthday last week -- because it doesn't seem right to commemorate death without celebrating birth as well.

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