The chamber music of a great conductor

The chamber music of a great conductor


norman lebrecht

August 05, 2016

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

The most successful and elusive of Gustav Mahler’s inner circle, Bruno Walter was ranked among the best conductors of his time, respected by the jealous and mutually hostile Toscanini and Furtwängler and showered with offers when he arrived in the US as a Hitler refugee in 1939….

Like many others in the podium, he tried his hand at composing.

Was he any good? Read the full review here.

And here. As well as here.

bruno Walter


  • David Osborne says:

    Oh well when you’ve conducted the two greatest recordings of Mahler- the Ferrier/ Patzak Das Lied von der Erde and the 1938 VPO 9th, you can afford the odd career mis-step…

  • Milka says:

    The review in itself is silly and pointless ……just one mans’ opinion trying to appear insightful .

  • Mick says:

    As far as I know Toscanini called Walter a ‘sentimental fool’. But maybe it was ‘with all respect’

    • David Osborne says:

      Furtwängler summed a Toscanini best: “A mere time-keeper.”

      • Greg from SF says:

        Meaning no disrespect to his musical genius, Furtwangler was one of the MOST jealous conductors ever, paranoid of ANYONE he saw as a threat to his position or reputation. He always held a particular grudge against Toscanini due to (in F’s opinion) Toscanini’s maneuvering him out of the NY Phil position in the late 20s.
        As to Toscanini being a mere “time-keeper”, give a listen to his recording of the Verdi Requiem (the one with Bjoerling), the RCA recording of Berlioz’ “Romeo et Juliette”, the live Brahms 1st with the Philharmonia, the Wagner scenes with Melchior and Traubel, the 1939 “Eroica” with NBC, or the Tchaikovsky 6th and “La Mer” with the Philadelphia Orch.
        “Time-keeper”, indeed.

        • David Osborne says:

          I don’t doubt you, there are some wonderful artists in those. Here are a couple of dogs of his though, both I think Carnegie Hall. The sound on both, as plagued many Toscanini recordings, is just dreadful but regardless of that these performances are so wooden, so overtly contrived and mechanical that it’s hard to feel any sort of emotional reaction to the music at all: Enigma Variations, 1951 NBC Orchestra. Just don’t go there; and the 1953 Missa Solemnis. As a rule I want to hear music from a conductor who inspires love, rather than fear in his performers. Walter could do that (as indeed could Furtwängler) and the special circumstances of the two Mahler recordings I mentioned above are what for me, take them to the next level. Mind you like Toscanini, Reiner and Szell were also reputably bullys, and I enjoy many of their recordings.

          • Sue says:

            Didn’t AT record those stunning “Mercury Living Presence” works in the 50’s? Those performances with the NBC, I think it was, are absolutely stunning to this day. I don’t say I’ve heard all those works, but those I have are characterized by incandescent playing and fairly brisk tempos. These remain important recordings.

        • Milka says:

          One of the most “unmusical ” and limited of conductors.

      • Greg from SF says:

        PS I meant late 30s.

  • John Canarina says:

    And Toscanini recommended that Furtwangler succeed him at the New York Philharmonic.


    You would be hard pressed to find a conductor who didn’t composer; it’s part of the essential skill set. Many of them were far better at it than they are currently given credit. Weingartner has impressed me with several large symphonic works and chamber pieces. Eugene Goossens also was exceedingly gifted as a composer. I recently listened several times to his opera Don Juan de Mañara, and came away impressed and baffled why this opera hasn’t been staged repeatedly. And there is the sterling example of the American Henry Hadley. These three are hardly the only ones, but to mention one more, I can say that I was less impressed with music of Otto Klemperer.

  • mbhaz says:

    Conductors of older generations certainly seemed to have spent time composing. We have recordings of music by Szell, Segerstam, Dorati, Maazel, Klemperer, Walter, Mata, Svetlanov and many others which suggests that it’s a good thing they could make a living conducting, because great composers they were not. Some others like Bernstein, Salonen, Previn, Boulez, wrote music that is more than acceptable, but completely overshadowed by their conducting prowess. The hard, arduous work of composing must give a conductor insight into how composers work. But I’m not so sure that today’s crop of conductors went through that same rigorous training. They don’t compose, many don’t play piano or ever worked in an opera house. They went straight from some instrument to conducting. They make have all the fancy patterns down, they look authoritative on the podium, but how many today have the profound background that the masters of yesterday had? How much music has been written by the likes of Dudamel, Gergiev, or Rattle? I’d like to know. How many “maestros” today could meet the exacting demands that George Szell made on conductors who wanted to work under him? Composing was a part of that experience. Maybe conducting today is so demanding and complex that there’s no time for composing. I hope not.

    • Gerhard says:

      I think you seriously underestimate Antal Dorati. Otherwise I agree with a lot you say. Perhaps a lot of the great conductors of the past simply wanted to compose in the first place. Richard Strauss for instance regarded his work as a conductor more as a “Brotberuf” and saw his real vocation as a composer. Since he was tremendously successful in this role, we see him today as he saw himself: composer first, conductor second. If his compositions would have caught on less well, he too would be on your list.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Conducting today is not more demanding and complex than in former times; it is the much fuller diaries of conductors which makes it impossible to spend time on composing. Conductors who are most in demand, mostly have to squeeze their score studying moments into the jet travel time spans.

  • SDG says:

    Elusive? No sure I know that in this conytxt.

    But “most successful”? – Klemperer? Is Klemperer totally forgotten these days?

    • mbhaz says:

      Sadly, I think so. Surely those of us of a certain vintage have deep respect for his work, and his recorded legacy is a treasure. But to the younger generation, the Pandora, iTunes kids, he’s a non-entity. They are completely ignorant of his monumental Beethoven, Brahms, and so much more. Since he didn’t spend that much time on flashier music, his position is shaky and will eventually fall into a void where only classical devotees will know of his work. He’s not alone for sure. Of course, people who don’t know Klemperer will also be spared ever having to hear his Mahler 7th…