CAREER: Harpsichordist, biographer, and writer. Performer at venues such as Weill Hall, Lincoln Center's Bruno Walter Auditorium, Brooklyn Museum, and Donnell Library; participant in Arkansas Music Festival, Aston Magna Academy, and American Festival of Microtonal Music. Brooklyn Baroque, founding member.
SIDELIGHTS: Rebecca Pechefsky and Erik Ryding, husband-and-wife authors of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, demonstrate in their biography that "Bruno Walter was one of the twentieth century's most important and influential conductors," wrote Scott Warfield in Notes. Pechefsky, a professional harpsichordist, and Ryding, the manager of catalog development at Sony Classical, "have written a detailed, well-documented biography of a respected musician whose career as a conductor was long and successful," wrote George Jochnowitz in Midstream. Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere is the first biography of the conductor in English and the second in any language, noted Allan Keiler in New York Review of Books. Ryding and Pechefsky "argue that the absence of any serious study of Walter's career in English since the publication of his autobiography in 1946 'is extraordinary . . . given the wealth of primary sources available, which could furnish material for a study many times the length of the current volume.' In view of Walter's preeminence as a conductor during the first half of the twentieth century," Keiler wrote, "one can hardly disagree with them."
Born Bruno Schlesinger in New York, New York, Walter began his career as a piano prodigy but turned to conducting "after attending a concert directed by Hans von Bulow, and a performance of Tristan and Isolde opened his ears to the music of Richard Wagner and other progressive composers," Warfield wrote. Debuting as a conductor in 1894 at the age of seventeen, Walter led a performance of the light opera Der Waffenschmied to positive, even enthusiastic reviews. "A few days later, he conducted an emergency performance of the same work," Jochnowitz noted. "The original cast was not available for this unscheduled performance. Two of the singers who were called in at the last minute hadn't sung their roles in years. One of the reviews was quite hostile. Then another newspaper came to Schlesinger's defense. Controversy may be an even better source of publicity than praise. At the age of seventeen, Schlesinger had achieved fame and success."
After serving briefly as composer Gustav Mahler's assistant in Hamburg, Walter accepted a position at the Stadttheater in Breslau. "The offer came, however, with the condition that he change his name, because 'Schlesinger' was so common in that region of Poland," Warfield wrote. Or perhaps, Jochnowitz noted, "the director of the Stadttheater thought the name Schlesinger sounded too Jewish. Bruno was not happy about changing his name, but he gave in to pressure; he remained Bruno Walter ever since."
"By nature mild-mannered, soft-spoken, benign, Bruno Walter was not caught up in controversy or touched by scandal," Keiler remarked, "nor did he have the kind of charisma or eccentricity that encourages worshipful followers or cult-like defenders, even among connoisseurs. In rehearsal Walter would plead and cajole, holding out with unyielding stubbornness for what he wanted, but he would never raise his voice to insult musicians." To Keiler, "it is no surprise that fellow musicians, singers, and instrumentalists with whom he collaborated praised him with great affection."
Pechefsky and Ryding trace Walter's career through his early career at the Stadttheater through a series of similar positions, until he went to Vienna in 1901 to serve as Mahler's second-in-command at the Hofoper. "When Mahler left for New York in 1907, Walter took his place," Warfield wrote.
Walter became Generalmusik-direktor in Munich in 1913, and "over the next nine years he contributed to a glorious musical era in that city's history," Warfield remarked. He accepted many invitations to guest conduct, including his American debut in 1923. Walter was, at first, able to remain outside of Germany's political problems in the 1920s, but as the Nazis gained power, Walter was forced from venue to venue until he finally came to the United States in 1939. There Walter was associated with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and other major orchestras. A series of now legendary recordings for Columbia Records "crowned his career," Warfield wrote.
Pechefsky and Ryding "describe all of this and much more in Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere," Warfield commented. "In addition to quoting liberally from the conductor's autobiography, his published letters, and other obvious sources, these authors are the first to make use of the Bruno Walter Papers (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), a collection with over seven thousand letters." Warfield noted that "Their dedication to verifying statements and authenticating facts is evident in the mere handful of endnotes that discuss a few unresolved details or conflicting accounts of minor events." Even accounting for extensive citations from primary sources, Pechefsky and Ryding "have woven it all into a highly readable narrative that is accessible to a broad audience."
Alan Hirsch, writing in Booklist, noted that Ryding and Pechefsky "illuminate the honorable and ethical man that he was as well as his interpretive approaches as one of the best-loved conductors of the twentieth century." Timothy J. McGee, writing in Library Journal, remarked that "The biography is deservedly full of praise for its talented subject, but the authors do not hide his faults or suppress the less favorable reviews or criticisms he received during a brilliant career."
Although he achieved great success as a conductor, Walter's personal life "was filled with disappointment and tragedy," Jochnowiz commented. "The fact that his compositions are unknown was one source of sadness. Another was his lovelife. He remained married to his wife Elsa for almost 44 years until she died in 1945, but loved a different woman, the singer Delia Reinhardt. He was deeply grieved when he had to flee Germany and then Austria after Hitler took over. Worst of all, his younger daughter, Gretel, fell in love with baritone Ezio Pinza and was murdered by her jealous husband, a man named Robert Neppach, who then killed himself."
Despite the strongly positive reaction to Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, Keiler noted a few flaws in the book. "I have the impression, and it is nothing more, that Ryding and Pechefsky, in their timely and welcome biography, are not as admiring of Walter as they are respectful, even in awe, of his long and impressive career. Indeed, what they give us is not so much a well-rounded biography of Walter the man and artist as a steady, evenhanded chronicle of Walter's career," Keiler wrote. Although they worked directly with primary sources and interviewed more than sixty people who knew or worked with Walter, "these sources do not leave a strong enough mark on the narrative, especially with regard to Walter's private and family life." In addition, Keiler notes that "The authors have painstakingly documented [Walter's] reception by critics and other musicians through the years, but they have not given us the kind of detailed reassessment of his art that one should expect from so serious and dedicated a biography, nor do they provide enough of a guide to his many recordings."
Despite any shortcomings, "Ryding and Pechefsky have written a fine account of Walter's life," Warfield remarked, "and it will be all the more useful if their readers seek out Walter's recordings to hear what prompted its writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Biography, fall, 2001, Michelle Krisel, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. 1008.
Booklist, April 1, 2001, Alan Hirsch, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. 1441.
Library Journal, March 1, 2001, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. 96.
Midstream, July, 2001, George Jochnowitz, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. 44.
New York Review of Books, February 14, 2002, Allan Keiler, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. 35.
Notes, December, 2001, Scott Warfield, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, pp. 385-386.
Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2001, Harvey Sachs, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, p. A12.
Houston Chronicle Online,http://www.chron.com (May 8, 2002), Lynwood Abram, review of Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere.
Rebecca Pechefsky, Harpsichordist,http://www.harpsichord.ws.futuresite.register.com/ (May 8, 2002).*