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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 4 (1899) Kindertotenlieder (1901)*
Elfride Trötschel (soprano), George London (baritone)
Kölner Westdeutschen Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester/Otto Klemperer
rec. live, Köln, March 1954, October 1955* ADD
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0292 [76:06]

There’s a man who has over two hundred recordings of this symphony not because he accumulates as such, but because he keeps finding something new in most of what he hears. Never will I reach that state of knowledge, but it’s an inspiration to me, to keep listening and learning. This particular recording is only one of many performances Klemperer conducted of this symphony. There are better versions – the sound quality of this is pretty ropey, for example – so it’s the top of no-one’s list of favourites. But anything Klemperer has to say about Mahler is going to be worth hearing, given that he’d known the composer personally.
The Kölner Westdeutschen Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester was a new orchestra, founded in 1948 in the post-war reorganisation of German radio broadcasting. It’s not quite in the league of London’s Philharmonia, where Klemperer was shortly to become principal conductor, but it isn’t bad by any means. These musicians were immersed in the Austro-German tradition and could quickly pick up on Mahler even if they hadn’t heard much of his music in previous years. Unlike modern players, they hadn’t grown up on Mahler, or assumed they “knew” the music, so working with Klemperer, who’d known Mahler personally, must have been an education. This perhaps accounts for the sense of enthusiasm in their playing. They played quite a bit of Mahler in those early years before the composer became fashionable. They worked with Mitropoulos, Kleiber, Böhm and Szenkar, and just missed, by a few weeks, making the first recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony (see review). One day, when and if the history of West German broadcasting is written, their place in it will be interesting.
Listening past the boxy recording reveals playing in the grand manner, rich and full-blown Romantic. This is Mahler in the great tradition alright, so details like the chill woodwinds, come over with a strangely modernist feel. It’s rather a good, if perhaps unplanned effect. The solo violin in the second movement is played with character, as befits its personification of Freund Hein, the fiddler of death. This gives a sinister underpinning to the ebullient string passages. Vivid as they are, you don’t forget the image of the fiddler as seen in medieval woodcuts, grinning with evil intent. In the Ruhevoll, the slower sections are carefully detailed, but overall, the recording makes the strings sound so shrill, that they kept me on edge. In the final movement, Trötschel sings with a measured pace. She was only in her forties when she recorded this, but she favours a dignified, matronly reading. Indeed, her voice shows some strain. It’s a reminder of how relatively recent is the current taste for transcendently luminous, “youthful” voices in this piece. Walter’s use of Schwarzkopf, when heard in the context of the times, was actually a good choice, even if it might not be fashionable today.
George London’s Kindertotenlieder is pretty hard to take. Although his timbre is dark, the voice lacks flexibility. He seems to be engaged in getting the sound around the words, rather than engaging with them on an emotional level. The orchestral playing, however, is supportive, following his pace, rather than leading. In the final song., where the longer elegiac lines don’t stretch him too much, he has some good moments. On this recording, stick to the symphony.
This isn’t a particularly imaginative or exciting interpretation in itself, but mainly interesting as a measure of performance history.
Anne Ozorio


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