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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat Romantic (1878-1880 ed. Nowak)
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Siegfried Idyll

Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Rec. Kingsway Hall, London 1963 (Bruckner), 1961 (Wagner) ADD
EMI CLASSICS 562 815 2 [79:01]


Following the success of their "Great Recordings of the Century" (GROC) series, EMI’s attention is now turning to "Great Artists of the Century". Otto Klemperer’s 1964 recording of the Bruckner’s 6th Symphony was issued as a GROC and is widely considered to be a primary recommendation for that work. I imagine that few would argue with Otto Klemperer’s early inclusion in this new project but the choice of his recording of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony could prove controversial. Although the 4th symphony is a less elusive work than the 6th for most conductors, something of its spirit seems to have eluded Klemperer.

As was commonly the case with Klemperer, he provided an unorthodox view on tempi. Whilst often these were slow, here they were markedly quicker than the norm, with the exception of the Scherzo. This is played in a rather ponderous vein, similar (but perhaps less obtrusively so) to his recording of the Peasant’s Merrymaking in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Overall, Klemperer’s timing of 61 minutes is 3-8 minutes shorter than the main competition for this work i.e. Jochum (DG 1965), Böhm (Decca 1973), Karajan (DG 1975), Haitink (Philips 1985) and Wand (RCA 1998). Given that his scherzo is almost a couple of minutes longer than is usual, that is quite a considerable difference. All the other movements seem slightly fast but it is the first movement which suffers most, losing the mystery of the opening horn calls and underplaying the romanticism implied by the subtitle of the work. However this is all a matter of taste and there are compensations. Klemperer’s is certainly an individual view, cogently presented and very well executed. The playing is magnificent and the recording, to my surprise, has greater clarity than Karajan’s 1975 recording, although that seemed to be pretty good at the time.

Like many of his symphonies, Bruckner’s 4th has a chequered history, undergoing various revisions and leading to the existence of several editions. The finale gave him particular trouble. With the 1878-1880 version he produced a work which has stood the test of time. First performed in 1881, this is probably Bruckner’s most immediately accessible and popular work – the ideal place to start exploring. Fortunately the vexed problems of editions are not generally at issue when choosing between recordings of this symphony. Almost all use the 1878-1880 score (there are earlier and later versions which are markedly different and essentially only of academic interest) and, in this case, Haas’s 1936 and Nowak’s 1953 editions are very similar. However, there is one unusual textual point in this recording:, whilst basically using Nowak’s text, Klemperer includes a variant from Haas’s rarely played 1944 edition. This entails using an oboe (rather than a flute) along with the clarinet for the charming opening melody of the trio, an effect which is quite different.

In summary, this is an interesting recording by a great conductor. It serves to make one think again about the work. But it is not a primary recommendation and certainly not a version of Bruckner’s 4th with which to start getting to know this symphony. In these contexts, any of the recordings mentioned above would be preferable. Haitink arguably has the most pressing claim given his straightforward approach, excellent sound, low price and superb reading of 5th Symphony as a coupling (see link to review below). Celibidache’s EMI Munich recording of the work is also worth hearing. This inspired live rendition is the antithesis of the Klemperer and runs for 79 minutes without ever seeming to outlast its welcome.

The coupling, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, is placed first on the disc. This is a fairly standard filler for a Bruckner Symphony but the first time that I have come across it so coupled on a single disc (with the relatively fast performance of the Symphony it just squeezes on). Here, for once, Klemperer’s performance does not seem particularly individual. However this is not a criticism of what is a very warm and passionate reading. Unlike many other versions, the forces used sound hardly larger than those assembled for the first performance (given on Wagner’s staircase on Christmas Day 1870). This is a delightful bonus but not perhaps a major factor in deciding whether to invest in the disc.

An interesting disc but not a general recommendation for the Bruckner. Ultimately I was a bit disappointed but, as ever, Klemperer’s interpretations demand a hearing.

Patrick C Waller

Link to review of Haitink’s recording :

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Oct02/Bruckner45.htm



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