Bruno Walter, an extraordinary conductor

I first encountered Bruno Walter when I was playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. At that time he would have been around seventy years of age. He was short, thickset with thinning, greyish hair and had a pleasant, almost jovial air about him.

We played Mozart and Mahler.  Although he did not have a great stick technique, he was able, like most great conductors, especially with a good orchestra, to obtain some wonderful performances.

There were no pyrotechnics, he calmly stood there waving his hands and the music just welled  out.  His Mozart was scintillating.

In Mahler’s 4th. Symphony he seemed almost overcome in one of the movements which he said was Mahler’s tribute to the animals who were killed for our food.  So many conductors play a symphony as though there is a disconnect between movements; not so with Bruno Walter who, like Klemperer managed to obtain a cohesive overview of the whole work.

In Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony which has been dubbed “programme music” there is a definite thread running through the whole symphony – the ardent lover taking opium in the first movement, the Ballroom waltz, In the Countryside, the March to the Scaffold and the Witches’ Sabbath.

Mahler’s 4th. Symphony, although it could be called “absolute music’ as opposed to “programme music”nevertheless has a thread running through it that Bruno Walter captured.

His concerts were sold out, and he was received enthusiastically by the orchestra and the audience alike.

There was an amusing incident that showed his humorous side. He asked the concertmaster what time it was,  (rehearsals were mostly 10 am until 1 pm)  somebody called out “one o’clock”, at which he smiled and drew out his own watch and said “No, it’s only ten minute before one, musicians’ watches – always fast!”

If I were asked to rate him as a conductor I would place him high amongst  the small Pantheon of elite conductors – and I have encountered many conductors in my time.

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