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MAHLER: Symphony No.2    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Soprano) Hilde Rossl-Majdan (Mezzo-soprano) Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra Conducted by Otto Klemperer   EMI "Great Recordings of The Century". EMI CDM5 67235 2

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This great recording has never been out of the catalogue since its first appearance on LP in 1963, and this issue now supersedes its first CD release. The Second was Klemperer's signature work and there are at least five "live" recordings, as well as one other studio recording, available dating from between 1950 and 1970. This one can best be described as the "official" version. It was recorded in Kingsway Hall under the aegis of Walter Legge and it perfectly represents Klemperer's unique vision of this tremendous work.

With the opening of the first movement the undertow is urgent, with a spare sound palette reflecting the conductor's approach and going to the marrow of this work.  There is no lingering over the lovely ascending theme at the start of the first development, for example. The second development also opens with great clarity, the emphasis still on darker aspects, and the momentum Klemperer then sets in train never lets up. You remain aware, even as the music mounts to the great climax at the Recapitulation, of the need to always press on. That it never sounds rushed is a tribute to the rightness of Klemperer's chosen tempo: "Allegro maestoso" indeed and there is much evidence to suggest Mahler expected it to be played at a brisk tempo. There is a sense of anger and truculence also, heard at its best in the coda which keeps going with grim expression adding to the feeling of gritted teeth. Serious business as the coda creeps up with cat-like tread, menacing and nervous. One direct consequence is that Klemperer's second movement is a much truer contrast. He is also a touch slower than many and the effect is something with more character.

No conductor understood the way to bring out the bitterness and irony in the third movement better. It isn't just a question of a slower-than-usual tempo, though that helps. Note the rute clacking emphatically, the bass drum off-beats, the weird squeaks of the woodwinds and the outbursts from the brass. These latter have a degree of desperation to them, a human touch often missing and indicative again of the general approach. The solo trumpet is a model of character and idiom, a whole world of experience. The "cry of disgust" is certainly that: world-breaking and undermining, a summation of this work so far. Then to hear the music wind down to uneasy rest afterwards is to hear an object lesson in Mahler conducting.

The fifth movement launches with dark drama and Brucknerian colour. A mood which continues through the voice in the wilderness passage. Klemperer has an unerring sense of the diverse structure, each succeeding section that leads to the percussion crescendi paced separately with a feeling of trepidation. The wonderful passage of the brass climaxes before the crescendi is grand and imposing but tempered with that familiar trenchancy and sharp focus, making it all the more immediate. In the central march Klemperer was always slower than anyone else and, for many, this is a problem.  To me his sense of grim grandeur is absolutely right and it becomes hypnotic taken as part of the whole. The tension eventually becomes unbearable as the cumulative effect builds to the climax where the world collapses in on us allowing Klemperer to bring out inner detail on woodwinds that others miss. He always was one to balance and terrace different sections. Again, all this has the effect of making the music closer to us, accentuating struggle and conflict, humanity tested prior to deliverance. The passage during which the "O glaube" motive is heard on trombone with off-strange band crashing away is brought off magnificently with a real sense of neurotic disjunction.  Mahler's ground-breaking exploration of acoustic space is exploited to the full by the engineers too. The "Grosse Appell" ("The Great Call") follows a superb preparation with the distant fanfares out in space and note the soft drum roll over the earthly birdcalls. The final "Aufersteh'n" hymn is really muscular with a welcome sense of perspective to the spirituality. Taken with the rest of Klemperer's interpretation this confirms a hard-won goal by a man of action and experience rather than an easily-achieved one by a devout believer. It moves us but, crucially, it inspires us by its sense of humanity.

Klemperer asks questions of music too many are prepared to take at face value and, in so doing, I think makes this work more accessible, involving and ultimately more moving because it's as concerned with what we leave behind as with what we might inherit.

The recording is strong on detail and in conveying the kind of sound Klemperer preferred. Comparing this new version with its previous CD incarnation shows the new one has a touch more inner detail, especially to the higher and lower frequencies. The latter are now especially well-focussed at the close where the organ really tells against Willhelm Pitz's magnificent chorus. The effect overall is of a touch more body, slightly "cleaner". A splendid achievement.

I've always believed this symphony cries out for "live" recording. Its special brand of human involvement can only really be conveyed at personal proximity. EMI spoils us for choice in that they have, in their excellent "Klemperer Edition", a "live" recording by him from Munich in 1965 and I just prefer this for the more "complete" experience. But there's no denying the better playing and recording, especially of those off-stage effects, in this earlier studio version may carry the day.

This is an essential recording for any collection: the greatest interpretation of Mahler's Second ever placed before the public, made under ideal studio conditions and now in the best sound possible.


Tony Duggan

See also Tony Duggan's comparative review of recordings of this symphony

Technical appraisal from David Dyer

I first disovered Mahler on a Vox recording of this work in the early 1950s conducted by Klemperer, and I subsequently bought his later stereo recording when it became available on LP in the 1960s, and when it was reissued on CD. To this day it remains my preferred version. The recording to my ears has always been quite good with weight, space, and presence and, thankfully, without over-intrusive hiss.

This new version is even better with more life,space and an apparent increase in attack, the latter perhaps at the expense of a slight edginess on string tone.

The position of this recording is therefore reinforced as being one of the best.

David Dyer

Equipment used: Proceed CD transport. Chord DSC 1100 DAC. SPA3200 Pre-amp. SPM 1200B Power amp.  B&W Nautilus 802 Speakers.

See other Great Recordings of the Century

See Tony Duggan's complete survey of recordings of  the Mahler symphonies


Tony Duggan

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