Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Klemperer Legacy Part 4: Romantic Symphonies and Overtures; Concertos

EMI 50999 4 04309 2 (10-disc box set) (2012)
Romantic Symphonies and Overtures
(Works by) Berlioz, Dvorak, Franck, Mendelssohn, 
Schubert. Schumann, J. Strauss II, Tchaikovsky, Weber
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia

Otto Klemperer understood Romanticism from the inside out. Indeed, few conductors have ever possessed so deeply personal an insight, whether born of intellect or experience, into the stylistic extremes of the period. Plagued for much of his life by what was very probably a form of manic-depressive (bi-polar) disorder, Klemperer's emotional struggles often seem to be mirrored in his music-making; from the triumphal, ecstatic highs, to the anguished, despairing lows. For artists so afflicted, music can be at once refuge and burden, torment and salvation. Yet only the most exceptional, sensitive, and technically gifted find the means to sublimate their sufferings in order to offer the world something truly, transcendently great. Still fewer get to record with a world-class orchestra.

Issued in 2012 as part of a series marking the fortieth anniversary of the conductor's death, this attractive 10-disc box set from EMI certainly has its share of peaks and valleys. Klemperer leads magnificent, near-definitive performances of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Franck, along with respectable essays of Berlioz, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Weber and Johann Strauss Jr. The Schubert Symphony #9 is among the greatest of all "Great C Majors" ever recorded; the conductor's characteristically deliberate pacing combined with his long, elegant legato phrasing conveys the lyric grandeur of the music as few others before it--certainly since--and the 2000 re-mastering sounds better than ever. The Schumann symphonies 1, 2, and 4 are brilliant, revelatory readings, though, alas, the lax, overly-casual tempi in the outer movements of the "Rhenish" sap the joy from that most essentially joyful and endearing of all Schumann's orchestral conceptions. Klemperer's Mendelssohn is consistently fine, especially in the dark, misty opening bars of the "Scottish" Symphony, and the slow movement of the "Italian". (I do think the laurel still goes to Charles Munch with the Boston Symphony (RCA/Sony) in this repertory.) Perhaps most surprising is Klemperer's fervent, probing rendition of the Franck d minor symphony, a performance that balances keen structural insight with genuine emotion, though it is, admittedly, hardly in the same league with Pierre Monteux's fiery, heart-pounding 1962 performance with the Chicago Symphony on RCA.

Aside from the Schumann Third, and a Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique" that seems to peter out towards the end, there are no real "clinkers" in this collection. The Tchaikovsky and Dvorak are better than run-of-the-mill--if that sounds like damning with faint praise, the fact is, competition in this repertory is precipitous to say the least. The disc of Weber and Schumann overtures and Strauss waltzes is fine, though not especially scintillating. I do wish EMI's transfer engineers had used the material on that disc as filler on others so that it would not have been necessary to break up some of the major works across discs, especially the Franck and Tchaikovsky "Pathetique" symphonies.

Set contents:

DISC 1: Schubert Symphony #8 D 759 in b minor "Unfinished" (February 1963); Symphony #9 in C D 944 "The Great" (recorded November 1960 (Walter Legge original engineer)) (re-mastering from 2000)

DISC 2: Schubert Symphony #5 in B-flat Major D 485 (recorded May 1963); Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture Op. 26 (February 1960); Symphony #3 in a minor Op. 56 "Scottish" (recorded January 1960)

DISC 3: Mendelssohn A Midsummer Night's Dream Incidental Music Op. 61 (Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Philharmonia Chorus) (recorded January-February 1960); Symphony #4 in A major Op. 90 "Italian" (recorded February 1960)

DISC 4-5: Schumann Symphonies
#1 in B-flat Major Op. 38 "Spring" (October 1965)
#2 in C Major Op. 61 (October, 1968)
#3 in E-flat Major Op. 97 "Rhenish" (February 1969)
#4 in d minor Op. 120 (May 1960)
Scenes from Goethe's Faust Overture (recorded February 1969)

DISC 6: Carl Maria von Weber: Overtures to "Der Freischutz", "Euryanthe" and "Oberon" (recorded May and September 1960): Schumann; Genoveva Overture Op. 81 (October, 1968); Manfred Overture Op. 115 (October 1965); Johann Strauss II: "Die Fledermaus" Overture; "Wiener Blut" Waltz Op 354 and "Emperor" Waltz Op. 437 (October 1961)

DISC 7: Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique Op. 14 (April-September, 1963)

DISC 7-8: César Franck: Symphony in d minor (February 1966)

DISC 8: Dvorak Symphony #9 in e minor Op. 95 "From the New World" (October-November 1963)

DISC 9: Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in f minor Op. 36 (January-February 1963)

DISC 9-10: Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 in b minor Op. 74 "Pathétique" (October 1961)

DISC 10: Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 in e minor Op. 64 (January 1963)

Remasterings from the late 1980s to early 2000s are consistently fine to superb. This set is heartily recommended.

EMI 50999 4 04348 2 (6-disc box set) (2013)
(Works by) Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms
Daniel Barenboim/Annie Fischer/David Oistrakh/Yehudi Menuhin
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia

I purchased this set mainly to obtain the electrifying 1960 performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh. One of Klemperer's pinnacle achievements, this classic reading has been re-issued a number of times over the past several decades (most recently as part of David Oistrakh: The Complete EMI Recordings (EMI 50999 2 14712 2 (2008)). Out-of-print single-disc albums seem to be commanding ever-heftier prices, and EMI's latest budget series offers the recording only in MP3 format. You can call me old-fashioned--I came of age collecting LPs along with the odd cassette back in the `70s, and have built a collection of well over 1,000 classical CD albums since the mid-`80s--but I still prefer physical media. The idea of getting my music from something called a "cloud" simply doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence (not to mention that the cloud is hardly as eco-friendly as some would have us believe).  Nor does it engage the senses or nourish nostalgia--elements as essential to my enjoyment of listening and collecting as my composerly understanding of musical structure, or an often-too-acute sensitivity to the subtleties of intonation and ensemble. The bottom line is this; if you want the Brahms on DISC at a REASONABLE PRICE, this may well be your last chance.

Released in 2013, this attractive box set offers a mixed bag of Klemperer collaborations. The sound quality is consistently excellent throughout, even if the performances themselves run a rather steep gamut from Oistrakh's brilliantly inspired, lyrical and passionate Brahms, to a laughably torpid Beethoven Violin Concerto with an uncharacteristically lackluster Yehudi Menuhin. To be sure, there is a good deal of perfectly fine music-making in between; the Schumann and Liszt Piano Concerti with Annie Fischer are spot on, and the complete Beethoven Piano Concerti recorded in 1967 with a young Daniel Barenboim range from serviceable to very good in the case of the "Emperor" and the Choral Fantasy. (Admittedly, my benchmark for the Beethoven has been Murray Perahia with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw on Sony.)
Klemperer's approach to Mozart seems positively schizophrenic here. The set features delightful, spritely renditions of the four horn concerti with Alan Civil (1960), along with a massive, heavy-handed performance of the K 503 Piano Concerto (#25), again with Barenboim. There seems to be a generational disconnect in this collaboration; the approach, by today's more intimate, chamberistic standards, seems, at best, wildly over the top; at worst, oppressively atavistic. (I've always favored Perahia's self-led performances with the English Chamber Orchestra on CBS/Sony, which strikes me as a perfect balance of scale and style.)

Here's a rundown of set contents:

DISC 1: Mozart; 4 Horn Concertos (Alan Civil) (1960): Liszt; Piano Concerto #1 (Annie Fischer) (recorded in two sessions between 1960 and 1962)

DISC 2: Mozart Piano Concerto #25 in C Major K 503 (Daniel Barenboim/New Philharmonia) (1967): Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Op. 61 (Yehudi Menuhin), (recorded over four days in January, 1966)

DISC 3-4-5: Beethoven Piano Concerti and Choral Fantasy Op 80 (Daniel Barenboim/John Aldis Choir/New Philharmonia) (recorded in October and November, 1967)

DISC 6: Schumann Piano Concerto in a minor Op. 54 (Annie Fischer; New Philharmonia) (recorded between May, 1960 and August, 1962): Brahms Violin Concerto in D Op. 77 (David Oistrakh; Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française) (recorded in Paris, June 1960))

Long-time collectors will probably decide whether or not to buy the set based on how much of this material they already have. EMI's recent series of economically priced boxes makes it easy to fill in gaps in serious collections while allowing for fresh reappraisal of Klemperer's rich and sometimes-controversial legacy. The present set is recommended for its treasures, if not for its quirks.

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