Which Maestro wins the Pastoral wars?

Which Maestro wins the Pastoral wars?


norman lebrecht

April 17, 2020

Welcome to the 59th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Symphony No 6, ‘Pastoral’, opus 68 (1808) (part 1)

When I was around ten years old, the Pastoral was the only symphony I heard around the house. It was played by my stepmother on her one-piece gramophone and the recording was the one made by the aged Bruno Walter in 1958 with a pick-up group of Hollywood musicians known as the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, after the label which produced it.

I grew to hate this recording with a passion that fused many elements. My stepmother was a Hitler refugee with emotional disturbances. She had grown up in Munich, taught to revere Bruno Walter as the greatest living conductor, member of a cultural superclass that included his neighbour the novelist Thomas Mann, the composer Hans Pfitzner and the Archbishop of Bavaria, the future Pope Pius XII. Needless to say, I loathed the lot of them with a venom that increased as she played the record time and again until the scratches that crackled through the feeble speakers were louder than the music. Come to think of it, I may even have bought her this odious record for her birthday.

My stepmother’s other obsession was going on country rambles, taking me along in unsuitable shoes. The Pastoral Symphony is all about a country walk in which the heavens open and everyone gets soaked. It was imprinted in my psyche with the worst torments of my late childhood and it resides within that cabinet of personal horrors that I rarely choose to revisit.

Rediscovering symphonic music in my 20s, I attended the Pastoral in performances by other conductors, many as different as could be from the egregious Bruno Walter. I heard Otto Klemperer declare on television ‘Dr Walter is a moralist, I am an immoralist’. Solti, Haitink, Kempe, Boult, each brought redeeming aspects to the performance of a work that I came first grudgingly to admire, then to love.

Later still, as I immersed myself in Gustav Mahler researches, I uncovered some of the less appealing aspects of Walter: that, far from being a moral paragon, he was a furtive Lothario with several mistresses and a fetid home life; that he tried to reach an accommodation with the Nazis before being forced into exile; that, after the War, he exonerated unregenerate Nazis for whom he retained a personal affection. Walter, in other words, was far from being a perfect human being, let alone a shining light.

At the same time he was, with Klemperer, one of the two musicians who were closest to Mahler and I needed to analyse what it was about him that appealed to his mentor. I began listening to Walter’s performances for clues to how Mahler might have conducted. Rather than being conflicted, I found myself becoming gradually reconciled to the all-too-human Walter and respectful of his musical gifts. It was not his fault that my boyhood was blighted by his bloody rain-soaked Pastoral Symphony.

There are three extant recordings of the work by Walter, each set apart from the others. The first, dated Vienna 1936, took me by surprise with wiry pacing, almost breathless in the first movement where the country walk starts. Although the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, with Mahler’s brother-in-law Arnold Rosé in the concertmaster’s seat, there is none of the smarmy soupiness that so often infects its strings, rather an athletic spring to its step. Even the lazy scene by the brook movement has a nervous energy, an intimation of the looming storm. And the nightingale that pops up in the finale anticipates the one who sings in Mahler’s first symphony. In this same year Walter made the first recording of Das Lied von der Erde with the Vienna Philharmonic, in which no Austrian singer would take part for fear of incurring Nazi sanctions.

Walter recorded the symphony a second time in 1946 in the Academy of Music in Philadephia with an orchestra capable of great beauty but unresponsive on the whole to his shimmying shifts of tempo and dynamics. The storm breaks like a Disney cartoon and the finale motors along like a Cadillac on a multi-lane highway. The absence of struggle is a disturbing feature in this reading; perhaps it reflected Walter’s post-War urge to come to terms with his former German identity.

Which brings us to the third recording, the Hollywood one that shadowed my preadolescence and which many critics still mark as their first choice. On my panel, Richard Bratby acknowledges the ‘deep warmth and compassionate, lived-in style from a conductor I find it impossible not to love. Finale has the grandeur and beauty of Parsifal, but with a sweet, lopsided smile.’ I am not sure that I could ever love it the way Richard does but I appreciate the Parsifal analogy for the finale in which Walter exemplifies that panoptic ability of Mahler’s to draw upon the entirety of musical history in the interpretation of a single symphony. This is an outstanding quality of the 1958 performance, although in comparison to Walter’s previous efforts I find it too relaxed, with hints of self-satisfaction. For me, the Vienna 1936 recording is the best of Bruno Walter, its flexibility mirroring his incurable ambiguities.

The antidote to Walter is to be found in Otto Klemperer – particularly in his epic 1957 account with the Philharmonia Orchestra, three minutes longer than Walter in the opening movement yet taut as barbed-wire. Klemperer seizes the Pastoral by the horns, herding it into his field, stripping the brook scenes of sentiment and the peasants’ dance of sentiment. The storm has the suddenness of Shakespearian (or Wagnerian) drama and the nightingale a consoling remoteness. The tension is electrifying and the return of the original theme just before the end feels positively liberating. If this is how Mahler conducted Beethoven, I will take it any day over Bruno Walter’s trademark bonhomie.

More on Pastoral recordings in part 2 here.


  • Edgar Self says:

    Schade, Norman. Luckily there are Beecham and Furtwaengler from that timeas alternatives. Furtwaengler’s 50s mono EMI version with t he Vienna Philharmonic still sounds good to me and entirely satisfies what I want from this symphony.

    Nice ophoto of Thomas Mann and Walter with Toscanini at Sanzburg before WWII. I can agree, conditionally, only as to Pfitzner, whom both Walter and Mann loved for a time if only for his opera “Palestrina.

    Early life explains and influences, but does not necessarily define or limit. To comprehend all is to forgive all an says. I cannot overlook the evident great Mann, and Furtwaengler, judging them at their best, as we would all hope to be judged. Walter and Mann were friends, and Mann’s daughter Erika was evidently one of Walter’s paramours. Furtwaengler recommended Toscanini to succeed him at the NYPO. Yet strangely Mann and Furtwaengler were not friends, although well aware of each otherl. Mann loved Furtwengler’s “Tristan”, and F. read Manns “Faustus”, although not uncritically.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Toscanini recommended Furtwängler to succeed him at the NYPO. The arrangement was thwarted by J. Goebbels.

  • Ramesh Nair says:

    Congratulations to Norman for highlighting Bruno Walter’s pre-‘Indian summer’ recording period with the Columbia symphony orchestras. This sprightly 1930’s recording of the Pastoral is so different from that late 1950s version. ( And much the same with Mahler, where Walter’s Fifth with the NYPO from 1947 has remarkably swift, yet idiomatic, speeds for the opening movement and adagietto )

    One aspect of Beethoven interpretations that hasn’t been dealt with in this series is the question of observation of repeats, in particular, the exposition repeat in the first movements of the symphonies. I wonder what other readers think of this issue? I am one who feels that every single Beethoven symphony is architecturally, and musically, more effective with the repeat observed in the opening movement.

    The reason I bring this up in particular for the ‘Pastoral’ is that this symphony has given greater disparities in terms of the opening movement’s pacing. Karajan, fond of Porsche speeds for the opening movement ( but outmanoeuvred in this department in Carlos Kleiber’s only performance of the work ), never observed the exposition repeat. A friend of mine overheard Karajan say that he didn’t take the repeat since one couldn’t start a journey from the city to the countryside twice! This might seem overly flippant, but it does raise the issue of how much to observe programmatic aspects of a composition in the classical period, if the work is not theatrical ( where the music serves a visual end to what might appear on stage).

    To me, one obvious solution would be to observe two different tempi for the opening movement. Make the original exposition fast, even breathless, as is the case with both Kleibers, Walter and Toscanini pre-WW2, the Karajans. This would be in keeping with the ostensibly breathless pace of city life. Then for the exposition repeat and onwards for the rest of the first movement, slow down the metronome speeds. This would fit with the programmatic conception of de-stressing when one communes with the countryside. I can’t recall any recording with such dual-track speeds. On the other hand, Furtwängler took an extremely languid and heavy approach to the opening movements. Then for the finale, after a telling transition from the dying storm, his interpretation takes wing, accelerating in momentum with an irresistible release of joy. ( Presumably, not from an anticipation of leaving the countryside! )

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I too have an attachment to the Pastoral. It was the first Beethoven symphony I got to know. When I was growing up, I listened to the Pickwick Tell-a-tale tapes that accompanied the Ladybird books of fairy tales and retellings of classic novels. Many of these tapes featured the Pastoral symphony. I was thankful my parents pointed this out to me, and we listened to this piece often. Although I am fond of the other symphonies, this will also have a special place in my heart. As such I think many people might get to know this symphony first before they get to know the others.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Karl Bohm was also a great Pastoral Symphony conductor. It is not my favourite Beethoven symphony, but like all Beethoven I still love it to some extent. The same applies to Grosse Fuge, which I have never managed to understand. In that photo above there are two great giants in their field, Thomas Mann and Toscanini. Bruno Walter was not quite in the same league. I doubt his performances of Mahler would have been very similar to those given by the great man himself.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    The Klemperer performance is indeed superb.

  • Michael D. Scully says:

    Eugenio Pacelli, better as Pope Pius XII, was not the “Archbishop of Bavaria.” There is no such archdiocese. He was Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. (Benedict XVI was Archbishop of Munich for several years.)

    • Nitpickers Unite says:

      Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

      • HugoPreuss says:

        Yes, but (a) that’s not nearly all of Bavaria; there are other bishops in that state. And (b) Pacelli wasn’t that either, as Scully rightly pointed out. In fact, he had nothing to do whatsoever with the German church as such. He was ambassador (nuncio) in Germany, a Vatican diplomat. This is as if you call the current American ambassador in Germany Prime Minister of Bavaria…

  • Why don’t you provide links to the recordings you cite?

  • Mick the Knife says:

    Not exactly “a pick up group”. “The musicians in the orchestra were contracted as needed for individual sessions and consisted of free-lance artists and members of either the New York Philharmonic or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, depending on whether the recording was being made in Columbia’s East Coast or West Coast studios.” – Szell and Cleveland is the best, to my ears, for the Pastoral.

  • fflambeeau says:

    “…he [Bruno Walter]tried to reach an accommodation with the Nazis before being forced into exile… .”

    Well, you must have lived through the experience in order to judge him. A great conductor (Mahler’s assistant) and a better man than this hit piece makes out.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Not sure he really did “try to reach an accommodation with the Nazis”. More like, tried to pretend the Nazi regime would tolerate his position at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and allow him to conduct the other leading German orchestras. They didn’t and he left.

  • Tully Potter says:

    It’s Franz Schalk (VPO), André Cluytens (BPO, mono even better than stereo), Paul Kletzki (CPO), Karl Böhm (VPO) and Lovro von Matačić (Lausanne CO) for me!

    • Graeme Hall says:

      Totally agree on Cluytens. A much underrated conductor and his Beethoven was excellent.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      Are you fond of the Gardiner version, as well as Mackerras’s Scottish version, Antonini’s Kammerorchester Basel version and Abbado and the Berliners in their 2001 cycle?

  • Bernard Caplan says:

    Why would a singer risk the opprobrium of the nazis in Vienna in 1936 when the anschluss was in March 1938?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Mahler was rarely performed in the 1930s, and was deeply out of fashion. This was not just because of his Jewish background; his music was hardly performed outside Germany either. His music was considered overly long and lacking in musicality.

  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    “Archbishop of Bavaria, the future Pope Pius XII”

    no German bishop have become Pope Pius XII…

  • Pedro says:

    Walter’s came relatively late in my life. Klemperer’s was the second I bought (after Karajan’s 1961 – one of his very few bad recordings) together with Furwängler’s EMI -slower than Kkemperer – when I was 16. My favourite Pastoral’s are Karajan’s last one, Reiner/CSO, Toscanini/BBC, Bőhm/VPO and Kleiber son in Munich. The best live performances I attended were cinducted by Karajan and Gűnther Herbig.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Very interesting to hear your comment’s about Klemperer. In his old age, his tempi were notoriously slow. Here you describe his performance as being as taut as barbed-wire. So certainly, I will give it a listen.

  • Vincent v d Berg says:

    My all time favourite Pastoral recording.
    NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini
    Recorded January 14, 1952 Carnegie Hall

  • Lindsay Wallace says:

    Like Norman I love the Klemperer. But there are so many fine Pastorals out there from Weingartner in 1927 to Blomstedt in 2017.

    A quick listen to a few favourites this morning and I was very taken with Herbert Kegel & the Dresden Philharmonic from an early digital cycle in the 1980’s. Boult in 1977 is excellent too. Wyn Morris with the LSO & Leibowitz with the RPO are a couple of interesting “sleepers”.

  • We privatize your value says:

    Herbert Kegel made one the best recordings of the “Pastorale”. Some words on that great conductor tomorrow?

    • Micaelo Cassetti says:

      Agreed ! Kegel a highly intelligent musician, much more interesting than some others, that I shan’t name…

  • Micaelo Cassetti says:

    Cluytens’ with the BPO (from the first Beethoven symphony cycle in stereo that they recorded) is arguably the pinnacle of that cycle, and well-worth hearing, as is the whole set.
    A very good Wagnerian too, who could do a really luminous, transparent interpretation.

    • Graeme Hall says:

      Completely agree, Cluytens is unjustly overlooked when talking about Beethoven. As a boy his Berlin cycle on Classics for Pleasure was my introduction to the symphonies and many many years later they still give great pleasure. Frankly, for a civilised, humane approach to Beehoven you can do a lot worse than Cluytens.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Re Bruno Walter and his proximity to Mahler. Walter knew and worked for and with Mahler off and on for 17 years. He premiered “Das Lied von der Erde” and the Ninth, which is dedicated to him. His recordings of Symphonies 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, and “Das Lied”, some live and jultiple times, were among the first. He also recorded orchestral songs and some to his own piano accompaniment.

    He heard Mahler conduct, assisted him at some concerts, and heard Mahler play (and sing!) to him “Das Lied” and the Ninth before they were published or performed, and no doubt others.

    He was prominent among the circle of young devotees who rallied to Mahler that included Oskar Fried, Willem Mengelberg, Diepenbrock, and Otto Klemperer. Mitropoulos, Ormandy, and Bernstein were still to come.

  • Novagerio says:

    Schmidt-Isserstedt and the Vienna Philharmonic does it for me. For nostalgic reasons, I love the one I grew up with at home, with Ansermet and the Suisse Romande.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning the nonsense about the “Archbishop of Munich”. Eugenio Pacelli was Apostolic Nuncio to Bavaria between 1917–1925, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany 1920-1930 and Apostolic Nuncio to Prussia 1926–1929.

  • Dr. Havah Wall- Apelt says:

    Great to see Maestro Bruno Walter in a photo. He was my guardian.
    My Father was very friendly with him.