This performance has been a staple of the recorded Brahms repertoire, since it first appeared in vinyl. Now, having been reincarnated again and again, it has finally reached SACD disc in a new transfer that lets its special magic into your very own listening room once more, removing yet another sonic veil that you hadn't before realized was scrimmed between you and the music.
First, one must admit that the huge sonic purpose of this SACD transfer is that you can appreciate what the conductor and orchestra are doing in this symphony. Uniquely, Bruno Walter offers us an example of an almost lost art, with his flexible tempos. While other conductors slow down or speed up in exaggerated and will-o-the-wisply inspired readings; Bruno Walter tempos are inexorably wedded to the underlying harmonic structures of the symphony and its musical argument or narrative. Neither do Walter and the orchestra slight those soaring melodies, whether sung out fully on strings or on woodwinds or both.
Hearing all this again, you realize how indebted Bruno Walter must have been to the Great Forebear, Furtwangler. Who can fail to be grateful that Bruno achieved his own special autumnal glory in this most tightly organized work? It is a performance by a conductor who has loved the music over many decades, earned his heartfelt emotional chops, and managed to illuminate the high intelligence that Johannes Brahms had as a man and as a composer.
Supposedly, Arturo Toscanini once dismissed Bruno Walter's interpretive genius by saying, something like: "Oh, Walter. Well, when he hits somethings nice, he just melts." Clearly, on the evidence of this cherished recording, the charges are false or mistaken, indeed. Bruno Walter and the orchestra show us inner fire, and inner strength. Even if SACD has hardly yet begun to make hifi news with its multichannel capabilities, this stereo disc will remain a treasure, no matter how many channels the newer recorded performances get.
The surprise is not that this master tape finally made it to SACD. No, rather we must ask: where are the other three symphonies that Bruno Walter recorded, for the same label, with the same forces, in the same recorded era?
Considering the fact that the master tape has paid for itself, tenfold and more, it is absolutely shameless of Sony not to have made the other symphonies equally available. They say the slick international corporations who are the owners of these recorded archives don't ever listen to classical music any more; but just regard their holdings as property, as if all those master tapes were simply warehouses full of refrigerators, instead of almost priceless cultural and musical insight into the human condition.
Well, don't be that way. Get this SACD, returning to a day when both conductor and orchestra deeply believed that Brahms' fourth symphony meant something quite grand and quite alive, breathing the dramas and calms of all the large existential themes we demean when we classify music as "entertainment." Since these people were True Believers, hearing them again can help us understand a bit better, how and what and why they thought making music like this was a way of life and a higher calling.
Highly recommended. There are too many stars on show here to actually count.