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No more than curiosities

Bruno Walter: String quartet, piano quintet (CPO)


Context is a shocking thing. Looking through a list of concerts performed by inmates at the Theresienstadt concentration camp between 1942 and 1944, I was taken aback to find a chamber work by Bruno Walter. Most of the music performed was either by major Austrian and Czech names, with a fair sampling by composers who were themselves incarcerated in the camp — Ullmann, Haas, Krasa, Ilse Weber — all destined for deportation to the Auschwitz death camp. 

Bruno Walter was an outlier in this company

Bruno Walter was an outlier in this company. A conductor trained by Gustav Mahler in Hamburg and employed by him in Vienna, Walter more or less gave up composing as his baton career took off. His string quartet of 1903 is so anachronistic it belongs to the early years of the previous century. A charitable view would be that it attempts a pastiche of Mozart, but charity only goes so far.

Two years on, Walter’s piano quintet was premiered in a Rosé Quartet concert featuring works by Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky. Context rocks us again. Schoenberg and his brother-in-law were at the furthest frontline of the avant-garde while Walter was lodged, at best, in single-digit opus numbers by Robert Schumann. To keep up with the 20th century, he added gobbets of chromaticism and a hint of a quartet that Mahler wrote as a kid at the Conservatoire. 

Walter played the piano himself at the premiere and made a good fist of it, by all accounts. Seven years later he gave up composing for good, becoming music director in Munich and Leipzig before migrating in 1939 to the US where he enjoyed two decades as an eminence grise.

These two works are, therefore, no more than curiosities. The Vienna-based Aron Quartet play them with a tad too much seriousness when a wink of irony might have given clearer recognition that the mind behind these scores belonged not to a composer but to a very accomplished musician.

I reviewed a Naxos recording of the piano quintet seven years ago. This performance is slightly more endearing. What I would really have liked to hear is what the Rosé Quartet made of this trivial music and, even more intriguing, how it sounded to the doomed inmates of Theresienstadt.

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