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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68 (1855-76) [42:00]; Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880) [8:54]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Tristan und Isolde – Prelude to Act 1 (1859) [10:59]; Siegfried Idyll (1870) [18:36]
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Berlin 1927-28
NAXOS 8.111274 [80:28] 
Experience Classicsonline

These fascinating recordings were made when Klemperer was in his early 40s and had just been appointed as conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. It is perhaps better to ignore possible comparisons with his later recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra and simply to imagine that they are the work of some hitherto unknown conductor of the 1920s. You will probably be struck immediately by the relative absence of portamento in the strings, but also by the then normal flexibility of tempo within movements. You may also notice the individuality of the woodwind and brass lines as well as the clear sense of purposeful forward motion. 

To some degree all of these impressions may be the result of a creative imagination, since despite what I am sure is a masterly job of restoration from Mark Obert-Thorn the results remain sometimes difficult to hear with any clarity and uncomfortable to listen to right through. Nonetheless enough evidence does remain to show the very positive nature of all of the performances. Despite the inherent difficulties of recording a series of 4 minute sides without the possibility of corrections, and in the case of the Symphony of a gap of more than six months between the first and last sessions, these feel like real performances. There is no sense of the routine or even of the kind of careful avoidance of error with which too many modern recordings are cursed. The Symphony in particular has a strong sense of forward momentum. Although Klemperer’s performances in his latter years were sometimes best known for their slow speeds, his ability to persuade orchestras to phrase purposefully made absolute speeds unimportant. He certainly already possessed this ability by the time he made these recordings, although at that stage his tempi were much more akin to the norm of the time, and at times even above them. 

Once I had become accustomed to the rather low sound quality, I greatly enjoyed the whole of this very generously filled disc. The Academic Festival Overture is in many ways the highlight, with a performance whose careful tempo relationships, phrasing and balance make clear that it is a coherent symphonic piece rather than simply a pot-pourri of student songs. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde has a wonderful surge, certainly not the bloodless performance that some listeners found in his later performances. Only the Siegfried Idyll disappointed me - an affectionate performance but one strangely lacking in atmosphere. Overall though I have no hesitation in commending this disc to anyone prepared to make allowance for a sound quality typical of orchestral recordings of this age.

John Sheppard

see also Review by Rob Maynard


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