Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Klemperer Legacy Part 3: Mahler

EMI 50999 4 48398 2 (6-CD box set) (2013)
Mahler: Symhonies 2, 4, 7, 9;
Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth)
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra

EMI (France) 50999 083365 2 (6-CD box set) (2011)
Mahler: Symhonies 2, 4, 7, 9;
Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth)
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra

Would-be Mahler complete-ists will want to add either of these attractive 6-disc box sets of Klemperer's 60s-era recordings to their collection, alongside the recent compilation of Bruno Walter's Mahler readings (Sony 88619201024 (2012)). Together, these sets from the composer's two most prominent younger associates and friends who lived into the age of stereo recording, offer as complete and authentic a picture of Mahler's musical mind as we will ever be likely to obtain short of time travel.

The Klemperer set was initially issued in 2011 by French EMI, and features very-fine recent 24-bit digital remasterings with overall excellent sonics. The 1961 reading of the 4th Symphony with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the Philharmonia Orchestra still comes across as rather turgid and, in places, poorly defined, but elsewhere, the sound quality is greatly improved, revealing detail and color often missed in earlier transfers.

Klemperer first met Mahler in 1907, when the young conductor led the off-stage brass in a performance of the Resurrection Symphony (#2), the work which opens this set. A superb performance it is, too, recorded between November 1961 and March 1962 with the Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, and soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), and alto, Hilde Rössl-Majdan. The pacing is excellent, the dramatic impact undeniable. It is interesting to compare this performance with Walter's 1958 Columbia Symphony outing; the conductors' two very different personalities are revealed in subtle variations of detail and emphasis, and in the end, who takes the laurel may come down to the chorus and soloists one prefers.
Klemperer's reading of the 9th Symphony is one of the very greatest; again, equaled only by Walter's 1961 performance with the Columbia Symphony, though Klemperer benefits from EMI's superior sound quality. The tempi are typically deliberate, revealing rich detail in the score without loss of momentum or coherency. The slow valedictory outer movements have never been so beautiful or poignant.

But the heart of this set is the 7th Symphony ("Nachtlied" (Song of the Night)). This performance, from September 1968, shows Klemperer at his most uncompromisingly determined and stubbornly controversial. Certainly, few others have ever plumbed the emotional depths of this music with such insight and empathy. The long funeral march of the first movement is utterly shattering in its kinetic force, all the more so because of Klemperer's theatrically lugubrious pacing. Yet, the finale, clocking in at a sprawling 24:15 briefly calls this approach into question. Markedly more deliberate than any other performance of the work, Klemperer is a full eight minutes slower than Solti's brisk 1971 performance for Decca, and nearly six to seven minutes longer than James Levine (RCA, 1982) or Claudio Abbado (DG, 2002). At times, one fears the music may collapse under its own weight, the structure disintegrate altogether, or simply peter out. And yet, somehow, miraculously, Klemperer pulls it off; his 7th an enduring profile in artistic courage.

Rounding out the set is a magnificent performance of Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth); perhaps one of the finest ever recorded, notwithstanding fierce competition from a dozen or more top-tier versions. Where many renditions of the piece feature one outstanding soloist paired with another less inspired artist (Walter's two well-known readings come immediately to mind), Klemperer had the good fortune to work with a duo of equally brilliant singers, both at the height of their powers, a young Christa Ludwig near the beginning of her career, and the inimitable Fritz Wunderlich shortly before his untimely death. The piece was recorded in two sessions in February and November 1964. The sound is impeccable, sparkling and richly textured, capturing every colorful nuance of the score. Vocal characterizations are nigh on to sublime, and, for once, everything is equally memorable, from the virile horn calls of the opening bars to the deep sighs of "ewig, ewig" ("forever, forever") in a fading autumnal halo of strings that brings the piece at last to rest, and all the glorious humor, passion and elation in between.

Filler on the set includes Ludwig's admirable performances of three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and three of the five Rückert Lieder, recorded during the same 1964 sessions as Das Lied von der Erde, and included in the original LP box-set issue of DLvdE from the following year. Interestingly, EMI chose to record a more extensive album of the Wunderhorn songs in 1966, not with Ludwig, but with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under Geroge Szell--a fine recording in its own right to be sure. Yet, Ludwig's interpretations are so wonderfully tantalizing as to leave us wishing for more. Her lovely voice and youthful passion simply make Schwarzkopf seem tired by comparison, and, quite frankly, past her prime.

Klemperer's Mahler is historically significant and artistically compelling. This set is highly recommended.

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