Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Walter

Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Walter

Sony Classical (Japan)  SICC-10286/92 (7 discs)

Stereo Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral

Beethoven: 9 Symphonies, Coriolan overture, Leonore overture No. 2, Violin Concerto

Zino Francescatti (violin)
Emilia Cundari (soprano)
Neil Rankin (mezzo)
Albert De Costa (tenor)
William Wilderman (baritone)
Westminster Choir
Columbia Symphony Orchestra
Bruno Walter (conductor)

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3 of 3 recommend this, would you recommend it?  yes | no

Analogue recording
Comments (14)

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - December 15, 2019 (1 of 14)

Snowed in all yesterday, I took the occasion to listen to this entire set. I had previously owned the earlier single release of the SIXTH, and remember it as a little rough around the edges. So I had some fear that everything would come across that way. Instead, the SIXTH has been revitalized and fits into a marvelous whole. There are so many fine performances in this recorded cycle that any one of them would be admirable alone. I think the odd-numbered symphonies especially stand out -- FIRST, THIRD, FIFTH, SEVENTH, NINTH -- but that is not meant to damn the very fine even-numbered ones with faint praise.
The symphonies occupy six SACDs — ONE with TWO, THREE alone, FOUR with FIVE, SIX alone, SEVEN and EIGHT, NINE alone.
A seventh SACD holds the 1961 recording of Beethoven's VIOLIN CONCERTO with the great Zino Francescatti. I have to say that this is the greatest disc in the set; all of the stars are in alignment. This one disc alone justifies the (considerable) cost of the whole set. Walter holds a firm grip on his orchestra, the recording engineers maintain a perfect balance between the soloist and the orchestra, and Francescatti is absolutely astounding. Alongside the 1980 video recording by Carlo Maria Giuliani and Yitzhak Perlman, this will be my reference recording of this work from now on.
This Beethoven set concludes with two RBCDs of rehearsal tapes -- one dedicated to the first and second movements of the FIFTH (January 1958), and the other to the second movement of the NINTH (January 1959), the first movement of the SEVENTH and the second movement of the FOURTH (both from February 1958). Walter communicates a clear picture of what he wants from the orchestra, but he pours on the charm, and they are quick to give him exactly what he wants. He refers to certain players by name, sometimes last name, sometimes first name. I suspect that some of them, like him, were transplanted from Central Europe as refugees twenty years before, and that they may have played for him already back then. Hollywood drew a lot of refugee musicians, because ad hoc orchestras were needed for film soundtracks, and these artists had agents in contact with the studios, so it was not hard for Walter to find individuals he knew from before, if they were in the area.
I was especially happy with the rehearsal for the Molto vivace movement of the NINTH. Walter wants total precision on the opening figure, which recurs throughout the movement, and he wants precision every time. Pierre Monteux can be heard making the same point in rehearsal footage with his London Symphony Orchestra players in 1962. As a consequence, I judge every recording of the NINTH by the opening bars of the second movement. If they cannot achieve precision then, when it is most important, there is no point looking for it anywhere else. Furtwängler, possibly the greatest conductor of the Twentieth Century, doesn't seem to have cared. He sent his instructions to his players mainly by ESP, rather than by a firm baton, and even the best players need a clear cue in order to come in together. The Berlin, and Vienna, and Lucerne orchestras knew what he wanted and gave it to him; his months in Stockholm were less felicitous, because the Swedes wanted standard signals that were not part of his vocabulary. Celibidache was notorious for slow tempi, but his baton movements were large and firm, and so his players stayed together well. The current European trend of delayed response, with the concertmaster initiating the music a second after the signal from the podium, has spoiled a lot of otherwise fine recent recordings, with the cause of the disaster well documented on video.
Walter makes the same point about the need for precision in the opening figure of the FIFTH, but he does not have to stress it for very long, because the tempo is slower there and it is easier for the players to come in together.
Anyway, this is an extremely fine set and highly recommendable. Sony Japan have excelled recently with Walter's and Szell's Beethoven cycles, Szell's Brahms cycle, and Bernstein's Mahler cycle. It would be wonderful if they could eke out the historically very important Mahler recordings by Walter, who was Mahler's protege.

Comment by breydon_music - December 15, 2019 (2 of 14)

I think they will, because that's just about all that's waiting a release date now in this series - his Bruckner comes 18.12, the Brahms recordings are set for January and a Dvorak/Schubert box for February. They surely wouldn't do all this and then forget the Mahler! Thank you, Joseph, for your detailed review - I have the superb Mozart set but Santa has not yet brought my ordered Beethoven! Like you, I thought all 3 of the older Columbia Walter hi-res issues were disappointing. Going back 30-odd years, I remember the astonishing (then!) early-CD Columbia remasters of Walter's indian summer catalogue. They were a revelation to me as the even older U K blue CBS label pressings of the same material had all been quite brash sounding, and never betrayed the marvellous master tapes that were actually there. It's wonderful that so belatedly Sony Japan have produced the hi-res remasters that this unique material deserves.

Comment by DYB - December 27, 2019 (3 of 14)

Thank you for your review! I ordered all the sets Sony Japan has issues so far for Walter, so I'm happy to hear it is a good investment.

You commented that you like what Sony did for Bernstein's Mahler? Does that box contain new masters of the recordings or the old ones? I thought it featured old masterings from the 2000s?

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - December 27, 2019 (4 of 14)

I felt guilty double-dipping by buying Bernstein's Mahler twice -- first the multichannel international SACD set, and then the stereo Japanese SACD set. I felt guilty until I actually heard the latter. It really is superlative — should one say comparative? — to the former. It is definitely a better transfer. I had no idea at the time that the spigot was open, and more wonderful things would be coming through the faucet. Wonderful! Bring them on!

My bad. I repackaged the multichannel Sony Japan Bernstein Mahler into the international CD box, and forgot that they came as separate issues. Sometimes I fail to meet myself coming and going.

Comment by breydon_music - December 28, 2019 (5 of 14)

Well, now I'm confused too. I have the original seperately issued stereo/multichannel hybrid set of Bernstein's Mahler, and my clear understanding (from reading somewhere at the time) was that the newer single layer stereo set used the same remastering. This would seem to be borne out by 2 things. Firstly, all of the Japanese sites quote (presumably copied from Sony's press release at the time) that the newer single layer set was mastered from "original multi-track analog master tapes" - this can't refer to the original 60's (mostly) tapes as multi-channel was not around then, so it most likely points to the multi-track masters created for the earlier SACD set. Secondly, they also cite the SACD remastering engineer as Andreas K Meyer, who was also quoted as the remastering engineer on the original issues. All of this, of course, is not to deny that possibly in some way (perhaps the old single layer v. hybrid SACD chestnut again?) the new set sounds different from the old, but that seems not to be due to a further remastering for the second set. By the way, there never was an "international release"; both sets were released by Sony Japan only.

Comment by DYB - December 28, 2019 (6 of 14)

I've definitely seem comments in more than one place that the new box of the Symphonies was using the old masters... And I found that rather odd, to be honest. Bernstein's Mahler cycle is one of the jewels of Sony's crown; it's amazing they did not create new masters, considering they are doing it for George Szell. It's the only reason I did not buy it.

Comment by Tony Reif - December 28, 2019 (7 of 14)

From the Sony publicity at 'To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bernstein's birth, the sound sources DSD mastered by Andreas K. Meyer in 2007 are boxed into nine single SACD single layers." Btw, "original multi-tracks" can mean anything from 3 tracks on up, and Columbia (like RCA) was recording on 3 tracks already in the late 50s, with a subsequent mix-down to stereo for release. Meyer, who I think is responsible for all the Sony Japan SACD remasters, always remixes the original multi-tracks. This may not have been done with Sony's original Walter/Szell/Bernstein SACDs, they may have converted the mix-downs (does anyone know? the credits just state "engineered for SACD by ...").

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - December 28, 2019 (8 of 14)

I have two residences, and spend half the week in each. One has my stereo system with all the stereo-only recordings; the other has my multi-channel setup with recordings in at least three channels. Today I retrieved the stereo-only SACD of Mahler Bernstein and brought it to the other residence, to compare again the two releases. Both are outstanding — and I am happy to have one or the other always at hand, wherever I may be located at the moment — but I do like the stereo-only better, better even than the stereo tracks on the multi-channel.
The stereo-only makes me feel closer to the trumpet soloist in the opening measures of Mahler's Fifth, and closer to the orchestra itself in the tutti passages (as if from row 10). The multichannel spreads the sound wider, but sounds farther away (as if from row 25). To my ears, this is the end result, but I am open to various explanations of how we got there.
I see that Andreas K. Meyer does his remastering in New York, where the old Columbia Records library of master tapes is located. So he has access to the best materials, and he obviously knows what to do with them. Bravo!

Comment by breydon_music - December 29, 2019 (9 of 14)

Joseph, you will be pleased to know - and I am too! - that Sony Japan has scheduled the Mahler box for release on 18.3.2020. It contains the stereo recordings of symphonies 1, 2 and 9 plus Das Lied and Lieder einer Fahrendes Gesellen across 4 SACD's with a "documentary" CD in the style of the previous boxes. Good times indeed!

Comment by Joseph Ponessa - January 2, 2020 (10 of 14)

Thanks for the heads-up on Walter's Mahler. I am glad that my wish is coming to pass so soon.
If wishes are horses, then my next wish will be for Sony Classical to do something in high resolution with the Toscanini legacy (which is also archived in New York). True, it is entirely in mono — but so is Furtwängler's, and that has been very well represented. The television series (especially Aida and Beethoven's Ninth) in blu-ray and the recorded legacy in SACD would be my highest wish. Toscanini himself conducted the premieres of La Boheme (1896) and Feste Romane (1929), and later made excellent recordings that recently reappeared in the Toscanini Essential Collection box set; if his Puccini (La Boheme), his Verdi (Aida, Falstaff, Otello) and his Respighi (Trilogy) could appear on SACD, they would be unmissable — and frankly, the field of competition for hi-res titles by those composers is hardly abundant.
I see that Walter's Brahms set has just appeared, and I am preparing to spring for that one, although I already have too many Brahms sets, if such a thing were possible. In the meantime, I want to go back to Walter's Beethoven and spend some quality time comparing it with other sets from the same era — Schuricht, Cluytens, Reiner, Szell, etc. That should more than occupy my free time until the next Walter set arrives. I will also listen again to the single, solitary SACD of Toscanini (Mendelssohn symphonies Four and Five), compared to twelve releases now for Walter, and seventy-four for Furtwängler!

Comment by Tony Reif - January 3, 2020 (11 of 14)

The text of this comment has been deleted by the moderator. Reason:

Deleted on request by poster.

Comment by Tony Reif - January 4, 2020 (12 of 14)

The text of this comment has been deleted by the moderator. Reason:

Deleted on request by poster.

Comment by DYB - January 5, 2020 (13 of 14)

Thank you for getting that info Tony!

One thing is clear now though: since Andreas K. Meyer is still remastering for Sony then there was no reason for them to do a new one of the Bernstein Mahler set since he'd be doing a new master of something he had already done.

Comment by Tony Reif - January 23, 2020 (14 of 14)

On Sony's insistence, Andreas Meyer requested deletion of my two comments above quoting him on his remixing/remastering approach, but here's the note that he wrote for this release that Tower Records put up on their page (Google translated):

For this remaster, my original studio in New York, where all of the original analog three-track masters are stored under strict temperature and humidity controls in a vast tape archive in the mountains of Pennsylvania. After carefully repairing extremely delicate analog tapes, we carefully replayed them under optimal conditions, sampled the sound, and remixed them to stereo. Since the legendary remastered CD in which John McClure was involved in the earliest CDs, there have been at least two new remasters in the CD era, including high-frequency and center channels (including the first LP). Remix that emphasizes the woodwind part), and the low-pitched, thin and bright sound has been recognized as a characteristic of Walter-Colombian sound. However, what is actually recorded on the master is a calm sound with a low center of gravity, which can be called Walter-oriented heavy sound in Europe. In remastering this time, we listened and compared these past LP masters and CDs, and focused on reproducing the sound recorded on this original master without losing it. It is supposed to be released as a CD for international projects and a hybrid disc in Japan.
--Andreas K. Meyer (Meyer Media LLC)

Apparently there are also Meyer notes in two recent Szell releases, the Mozart and Schumann symphony boxes. If anyone has those and can get them translated, please post!

Btw the original Sony classical SACDs were also remixed from the 3-tracks - engineer Dixon Van Winkle talks about them here: