Bruno Walter

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Romeo and Juliet

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Though Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto has received thousands of performances and hundreds of recordings since its premiere in 1875, this particular performance has only four real competitors. That's because this performance features the incomparable Vladimir Horowitz as the soloist and his style is so acutely individualistic that comparing it to a recording by any other pianist is nearly impossible. Horowitz's combination of bronzed tone, golden technique, and mercurial temperament makes his 1948 performance with Bruno Walter leading the New York Philharmonic comparable only to his own 1941 and 1943 performances with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, his 1945 account with William Steinberg and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, and his 1953 reading with George Szell and the New York Philharmonic.

However, only one of the above recordings can truly stand comparison with this one: the 1941 Toscanini. And that's because Horowitz clearly did not feel a rapport with Szell, did not receive the support he needed from Steinberg in a generally wayward performance, and did not get a recording worthy of his performance in 1943. The live sound there is so harsh that listening to the performance can be painful. This is not to say that the sound here is anything to write home about. As demonstrated in the many other issues of this recording, the original source is severely compromised and Urania's barely remastered sound does nothing to ameliorate its conspicuous flaws.

But this 1948 performance does have two virtues that make it a potent rival to the 1941. First, it has Horowitz at the top of his form blasting out the concerto's massive opening chords with all the power of heavy artillery, tearing through its racing arabesques with all the speed of a downhill skier, and dancing in its central waltz episode like Fred Astaire. Plus it has Walter at the top of his form as an accompanist. While the usually iron-willed Toscanini complacently goes along with Horowitz's ultra-emotional interpretation, Walter challenges it, forcing the pianist to prove his points and thereby eliciting a more persuasive and some would say less idiosyncratic performance. For many, perhaps most Horowitz aficionados, the 1941 recording may remain the one to beat, but this 1948 recording may be a close second.

It should also be added that the remaining recordings on this disc feature not the fiery Russian pianist but the passionate German conductor in a handful of works: a 1942 performance of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. plus a pair of 1930 performances with the Berliner Philharmoniker of Strauss' "Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome and Waltz from Der Rosenkavalier. In all three recordings, Walter delivers first-class and wholly characteristic performances. His Romeo and Juliet is more driven than most, his "Dance of the Seven Veils" is sexier than most, and his Rosenkavalier Waltz has a sweetness that never descends into sentimentality. As with the Tchaikovsky concerto, the sound is cramped and often breaks up at climaxes.

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