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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphonies: 1 in c op. 68 (rec. 29, 31.10.1956, 28.3.1957)
2 in D op. 73 (rec. 29-30.10.1956)
3 in F op. 90 (rec. 26-27.3.1957)
4 in e op. 98 (rec. 1.11.1956, 28-29.3.1957)
Variations on a Theme of Haydn op. 56a (rec. 9.10.1954)
Academic Festival Overture op. 80 (rec. 29.3.1957)
Tragic Overture op. 81 (rec. 29.3.1957)
Alto Rhapsody op. 53* (rec. 21-23.3.1962)
Christa Ludwig* (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London, dates as above
EMI CLASSICS 5 62742 2 [3 CDs: 61:19 + 77:52 + 74:37]


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At about the time these discs arrived, in one of my other lives (though far from feline I seem to have about nine these days) I was working on the translation of a life of the Italian 20th Century painter Giorgio Morandi. Morandi lived a wholly uneventful, unmarried life, rarely travelling south of Rome or north of Venice (just twice he ventured as far as Switzerland), untouched by the acclaim his work was receiving in exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. For him celebrity just meant wasting time answering letters and receiving well-meaning visitors when all he wanted to do was paint with canvases steadily piling up on a narrow range of subjects (still-lifes arranged on his study table and views out of his own window) in a style far-rooted in the classical past yet (for those who saw beyond the surface) remarkably open to modern abstraction as well. The musician in me kept saying at various points in the story, "sounds like Brahms!". And then these records came.

What I wouldn’t have expected, quite honestly, is that Klemperer should have revealed the gentle, home-based side of Brahms, and that he should have done so in the Third Symphony. The problem with this symphony has always been, now I come to think of it, that the magnificent opening surge, with its vistas of high mountain ranges, runs out of steam so early on. There are conductors who attempt to maintain this electric surge right through the first movement – the "Toscanini-solution", except that Toscanini’s own commercial recording took a different view – but they often appear to be doing this in spite of the music. Others just frankly let the tensions drop, then rise again, then drop again … With Klemperer the opening attack is formidable, the brass tones thrilling, but as the volume drops we realise that the whole mountain range has been viewed, as it were, from down in the valley. When the carolling second subject emerges it sounds completely inevitable because we realise that Brahms has been here all the time. And so the whole panorama unfolds, for this is one of those Klemperer performances where something "clicked" and the entire symphony seems conducted in a single breath; a world of emotions, storms and aspirations is viewed from within the composer’s own quiet little Alpine valley. The final "unwinding" is not really an unwinding at all since it was already implicit in the opening. Don’t think this will be a "slow" performance by the way – the timings are 13:04, 8:17, 6:12, 9:14 compared with the normal-sounding tempi of Boult which come in at 13:08, 8:32, 6:03, 9:08 so Klemperer is actually faster in two movements.

However, elsewhere the set invokes different reactions. First to be recorded, in 1954, were the Haydn Variations, and here we still recognisably have the Klemperer of the Vox recordings of the late 1940s and early 1950s, tempi brisk and bracing (16:56 against the Boultian normality of 17:25, though I’d swear it sounds faster still), textures clean, lean and astringent, the phrasing expressive but in an anti-romantic, almost baroque manner. With a close and rather strident, but exciting recording, this sounds more like Vox-Klemperer than EMI-Walter Legge-Klemperer, raising the question whether the Vox recordings sounded like Klemperer rather than the other way round. This would not be my preferred way of hearing the work, but from time to time I shall need it.

Changes were taking place in Klemperer’s psyche round about the time of these Brahms recordings, changes which have been fully discussed elsewhere and which there would not be space to go into here. The "early-manner" Klemperer could still sometimes surface in 1957, as in the Tragic Overture which seethes with fiery, muscular tension and is actually the fastest of the several versions on my shelves (12:32).

It gains points compared with Boult – 13:52 and lively in a more generalised way, as well as too comfortable-sounding where Brahms’s nerves are most on edge – and Kempe – 12:58 and inclined to hysteria as the music moves forward – though away from comparisons I have admired both these performances on their own terms and praised them on this site. Where Klemperer loses points, though, is against Karel Ančerl’s much slower but action-packed reading which, far from being heavy, finds the widest range of mood from utter dejection to stark tragedy and compassionate warmth, all contained within a taut formal control.

Also impressive is the Academic Festival Overture. At the opening you will find the tempo brisk-to-normal, but most conductors start below tempo and Klemperer intends to go on like this. With an almost naughty relish of Brahms’s unusual (for him) instrumentation this is far from heavy, let alone academic, and properly festive.

About the remaining symphonies I am not sure, or maybe I have not yet understood what Klemperer wishes to say. Perhaps it was a mistake to hear his no. 1 immediately after the up-front version by Herman Scherchen see my review), but coming back to it later, having heard the rest of the set in the meantime, I modified my view only up to a point. I appreciated the weight of the opening and generally found Klemperer engaged in the work’s more stormy moments. Between those he seems content to let the performance go on automatic pilot; it is not so much the tempo that lags as the tension, with phrases sitting side by side instead of forged together. Also in the second symphony moments of positive engagement seem to alternate with more dispirited ones and the whole often assumes a rhythmic trajectory closer to big-band Bach than Brahmsian lyricism. Perhaps one day I shall see the point of this, but will I ever come to accept the way in which, in this radiantly pastoral symphony, Klemperer’s forward wind balancing often results in the intrusion of a particularly acidulous oboe (assuming it really is an oboe, it sounds like a mouth-organ to me)? In this symphony in particular, the melodic line brought out of the textures is not always the usual one and I am not always convinced that this is a deliberate choice on the part of the conductor as opposed to a failure to intervene and sort things out.

The fourth symphony has its strong moments but also takes on board some traditional gestures which Klemperer’s reputation might lead us to expect would be expunged – the accelerando at the end of the first movement, which even Mengelberg avoided, and the slowing down for the flute melody in the finale. Not to speak of his distracting delayed upbeats which litter the scherzo. All things considered, a less integrated reading than one would have hoped.

Last to be recorded was the Alto Rhapsody, mightily impressive in its Mahlerian angst, except that Klemperer’s apparent belief that the whole piece is to be played forte becomes counter-productive and leads Ludwig into a public-address style of singing which seems to want to combine Amneris, Azucena and Eboli in one. It is true that Boult’s more contained conducting for Janet Baker can sometimes sweep Brahms’s exposed nerve-ends under the carpet, but he allows his singer to bring her whole dynamic range to play and I am bound to prefer this.

There is no doubt that Klemperer’s is an individual and important statement on this music. If I have personally found revelation only in Symphony no. 3 and, up to a point, the Variations and the two Overtures, I shall nonetheless be returning to all the performances which may yet prove as inexhaustible as the music itself. Although this didn’t worry me unduly (except for that oboe) I should point out that the orchestral playing is often rough and ready both in term of ensemble and intonation and the recordings are a little coarse – but they are getting on for fifty years old.

Christopher Howell

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