Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Klemperer Legacy Part 2: Brahms and Bruckner




EMI 50999 4 04338 2 (4-disc box set) (2013)
Brahms: Symphonies and Overtures;
Ein Deutsches Requiem
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra


Collectors who already have Klemperer's iconic 1961 reading of A German Requiem on disc may be pardoned for taking a pass on this recent box set. Yes, the price is virtually irresistible, and you do get the fine mid-1950s-era performances of the symphonies, the excellent Tragic Overture from 1957, and a very nice 1962 recording of the Alto Rhapsody with Christa Ludwig. It's easy, however, to get most of this material separately, and what's left hardly represents Klemperer at his best, nor are the rather tired-sounding transfers particularly impressive. (In all fairness, I should add that my benchmarks for this repertory have always been the classic 1960 performances of Bruno Walter (Sony) and Bernard Haitink's '70s-era readings for Philips, now available on Decca).

Here's a cursory rundown of what's in the box:


Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a (mono; recorded October 1954) (remastered 1992)
This is simply awful! One of the worst "Haydn Variations" I've ever heard. There are difficulties with intonation; the woodwinds sound harsh and are poorly blended in ensemble. Klemperer's pacing seems oddly indifferent from variation to variation, his approach utterly devoid of pathos or profundity. (To hear a truly great performance, listen either to Walter's 1960 recording with the Columbia Symphony (Sony), Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) or, best of all, Haitink with the Concertgebouw (1973), currently available in a 7-disc Brahms Collector's Edition box from Decca.)


Symphony #1 in c minor Op. 68 (October 1956 and March 1957) (remastered 1999)
A very fine performance, but EMI's engineers could only do so much with the muddy mid-50s era masters.


Symphony #2 in D Major Op. 73 (October 1956) (1999)
Klemperer virtually puts us to sleep during the first movement, and fails to rouse us in the finale.


Symphony #3 in F Major Op. 90 (March 1957) (1999)
This isn't bad at all apart from poor definition in the sound.


Symphony #4 in e minor Op. 98 (March 1957) (remastered 1999)
An extremely good performance; Klemperer's temperament is very much in sync with the composer's conception of a passionately dynamic "absolute" music.


Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 and Tragic Overture Op. 81 (March 29, 1957) (remastered 1999)
These are very serviceable performances, especially of Op. 81. The remastered sound is quite good.


Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 (Christa Ludwig; Philharmonia Chorus (men)) (March 1962) (remastered 1999)
The men's chorus may have been a bit too closely miced, but the young Christa Ludwig is compelling. The recording reveals Klemperer in his autumnal maturity.


Ein Deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) Op. 45 (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); Dietrich Fischer Dieskau; Philharmonia Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra) (March, April, May, 1961) (remastered 1997)
Of all Klemperer's definitive recordings, this is probably the greatest; a fortuitous meeting of brilliant musical minds. Fischer-Dieskau is exceptional, and the Philharmonia Chorus matches him admirably. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, too, is near the top of her form. (She is not a singer I always particularly care for, given a certain harshness in her tone). Klemperer's pacing captures the dramatic sweep and grandeur of Brahms' conception to near perfection. One of the true classics of the stereo age, this transfer, made with the 1997 re-mastering, is not a dramatic improvement over earlier CD issues, but those transfers were already exceptional.


In sum, this set is a decidedly mixed bag; nine performances running the gamut from woeful to wonderful; awe-inspiring to merely awful. Recommended only to die-hard Klemperer aficionados who simply must have everything; otherwise, my advice is to seek out a recent re-issue of the "German Requiem" from 1997 or later, and give this box set a fairly wide berth.






EMI 50999 4 04296 2  (6-disc box set) (2012)
Bruckner: Symphonies 4-9
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia

Klemperer's artistic temperament was ideally suited to the interpretation of Bruckner. Well-known in his later career, some might say notorious, for markedly slow tempi, the conductor's approach didn't always work well with every piece, and his failures could be as spectacular as his successes were sublime. Among those less-than stellar efforts, the odd, logy reading of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony from 1969, and the singularly awful 1966 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin come immediately to mind. Brilliant successes include near-definitive renditions of the Brahms Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh (1960) and German Requiem (1961), Schubert's "Great C Major" Symphony (1960), Mahler's 9th Symphony (1967) and Das Lied von der Erde (1964). Klemperer's Bruckner, if not always rarefied, is nonetheless, consistently fine. 

Though massive in scope, often sprawling in their cathedral-like scale, these symphonies aren't particularly complex or structurally convoluted, and this is precisely the kind of musical environment in which Klemperer was able to thrive. Like the most sensitive and committed of tour guides, he gives his listeners time to take in the full grandeur of Bruckner's architecture before moving them along, remarking on details that might otherwise easily be overlooked by a more hurried docent.

Issued in 2012, this attractive box set from EMI offers consistently well-turned performances of six of Bruckner's ten symphonies recorded between 1960 and 1970; #s 4 (1963) and 7 (1960) were recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra; #5 (1967), #6 (1964), #8 (October-November 1970), and #9 (February 1970) with the New Philharmonia. Remasterings were done between 1990 and 2004, and the quality of the present transfer is excellent. Bruckner aficionados should note that these are the Novak editions, with the exception of Symphony #7, which employs the Haas edition.
Comparisons with the near-contemporaneous recordings by Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony may be inevitable. I prefer Klemperer's 4th, especially the near-perfect pacing in the slow second movement. (My benchmark recordings of the "Romantic" Symphony include Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG as well as Daniel Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony on DG, both currently available as part of integral box sets.) Walter and Klemperer's interpretations of the 7th are equally satisfying, but I give the laurel unhesitatingly to Walter, with Karajan a close runner-up, next to whom Klemperer seems rather lightweight where dynamic contrast is concerned. Both Walter and Karajan's long-line are more forcefully coherent, and Columbia's recorded sound in the case of the former is breathtaking--a pinnacle achievement in early stereo recording. EMI's sound, while perfectly adequate, is not particularly memorable.
While it's too bad Walter never found time to record the 6th and 8th symphonies, these two works are among the true treasures of the Klemperer set. And, as much as I admire the superbly energetic and better-sounding recordings of Bernard Haitink (with the Concertgebouw on Philips) and Pierre Boulez (with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG), I absolutely LOVE Klemperer's stately reading of the 8th; the slower tempo of the scherzo lends greater weight to what is already a work of awesome power. There's less competition when it comes to the smaller-scale 6th. This too, is an excellent reading; one might even call it Bruckner at his most intimate, a spirit Klemperer captures most admirably. As to the 5th; I would give the unhesitating nod to Gunter Wand's electrifying reading with the Cologne Radio Symphony (currently available on Sony 99697776582 (2010)), though I have little doubt that those who admire the piece will also think highly of Klemperer's very-serviceable reading.




In the end it's lovely to have these superb performances gathered together under a single cover, and at an attractively modest price, too. Bruckner fans, Klemperer complete-ists, admirers of classic stereo, and lovers of great music should all be delighted.



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