Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9, Das Lied von der Erde, selected songs from Rückert-Lieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn
See end of review for detailed track-listing
Soloists, New Philharmonia, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus/Otto Klemperer
Sung texts/translations not supplied
EMI CLASSICS 2483982 [6 CDs: 411:10]
There’s never been a better time to buy classical boxes, as even the most cursory glance at online music retailers will show. EMI, past masters at the art of reissues, are among them with a long list of Klemperer collections. Several of these have already been reviewed on MusicWeb, and generally well received to boot. There’s no doubt that this craggy-countenanced conductor was a mainstay of their catalogue in the 1960s and early 1970s, and while many of us already have these Mahler performances this freshly remastered bargain will be hard to resist.
The virtues and vices of Klemperer’s Mahler recordings with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia have been well rehearsed, not least in the late Tony Duggan’s detailed survey, so what follows is really a reappraisal of these performances; for the benefit of newcomers I’ve added pointers to recommendable versions that have appeared in recent years. First there’s the question of sonics. While EMI’s LPs of the period were generally well recorded many have suffered grievously in the transfer to CD. I’ve lost count of the number of vinyl favourites that have been ruined in the process; warm, spacious recordings have become cold and confining, and all too often the aggressive treble is simply crucifying.
Happily that’s not the case with these very full and unfatiguing 24/96 remasters. CD1 contains what was for many years my most revered - and played - performance of the ‘Resurrection’. Klemperer’s direct, unfussy view of this great score has never been equalled, let alone surpassed, although some have come pretty close. There’s an unerring ‘rightmess’ about this reading, a glorious processional that hoists the listener aloft and bears him all the way to that overwhelming apotheosis. Indeed, as I write Mahler’s Day of Judgement is ringing in my ears and my fingers are still trembling. Even after all this time - and so many other ‘Resurrections’ - this one still has the power to move, and move mightily.
What of the competition? In a sense there isn’t any, although I do understand that Klemperer’s implacable but never dull view of this piece won’t appeal to everyone; Mehta’s 1975 account with the WP (Decca) still sounds well, and James Levine’s live Salzburg performance on Orfeo - also with the Viennese - has a cogency and thrust that’s very compelling (review). I would also put in a good word for Simone Young, whose Hamburg set from Oehms has much to commend it (review). That said, among recent recordings Jonathan Nott and his Bambergers manage to combine Klemperer’s bedrock certainties with a thrilling sense of theatre; indeed, he conjures up one of the most riveting and transported Mahler 2s of recent memory (review).
CD2 contains one of Mahler’s sunniest creations, the Fourth, and a raft of songs from the Rückert-Lieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn. For such a forbidding figure - the phrase ‘imperious mien’ could have been coined for him - Klemperer certainly knew how to smile; tempi are very agreeable and he shapes everything so well. Once again there’s a sense that this is how the music should go; as for his players they lean into those lovely, echt-Mahlerian rhythms and phrases with affection and delight. Even though Klemperer recorded this symphony several times the refurbished sound of this version makes this the most desirable one by far. True, the upper strings and the preponderance of twinkling timbres invite a rather bright sound, but there’s enough bass warmth - ballast, if you like - to compensate.
The all-important horn passages are superb - how beautifully they are articulated in the closing moments of the first movement - and there’s an agility to the orchestral playing that can’t fail to please. Not surprising, given that the Philharmonia - shaped by Karajan in its formative years - was still a virtuoso band. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is suitably clear and artless in the child-heaven finale - there’s none of the archness that so irritated her detractors in Strauss’s Four Last Songs - and her soft high notes are exquisite. Klemperer is in robust if not particularly transparent support throughout. Both are only found wanting alongside Iván Fischer and the near-ideal Miah Persson, whose miraculously sprung, light-infused Channel Classics SACD and RCO Live Blu-ray/DVD set new standards for this work (review).
Christa Ludwig’s admirable diction and subtle sense of drama, allied to Klemperer’s pliant - and often radiant - accompaniment makes for an uncommonly fine and generous ‘filler’. What an intuitive artist Ludwig is, and how unerringly she gets to the nub of these songs; just listen to how she brings triumphant light into the darkness of Um Mitternacht, for instance. If I’ve understood the small print on the box these vocal items have not been re-mastered, which could explain the slight hardness in Ludwig’s voice under pressure. I’m delighted to shelve these three Rückert-Lieder alongside the complete set she recorded for Karajan; this was coupled with the Fifth Symphony, which has just been released on BD-A. Still, I’d happily surrender all else for the intoxicating scent of this older rendition of Ich atmet' einen linden Duft.
By the time we get to CD3 the ledger shows Klemperer is comfortably in the black, although this (in)famously long Seventh - 101 minutes as opposed to the usual 80 or so - will challenge the patience and devotion of even his most loyal fans. The first movement, shrouded in gloom, seems more impenetrable than ever, especially at these sluggish speeds. One could be charitable and say Klemperer’s is just an extreme view of a troubled and troubling symphony, but next to the likes of David Zinman and the Tonhalle on Sony it seems cruelly hobbled from the start. That said, the orchestra are on reasonable form - there’s some gorgeous, well-rounded brass playing here - and the sonorous, wide-ranging sonics are very respectable indeed.
I wouldn’t want to be without this Seventh, as infuriating as it is, simply because there’s a grim logic to the performance - and some startling epiphanies, not least in the piercingly beautiful Andante amoroso - that compels one to endure its less-than-heavenly length. It may not be this conductor’s finest two hours - it certainly wasn’t Boulez’s best 80 minutes in his perplexing DG and RCO Live accounts - especially when the lumbering Rondo-Finale threatens to come unstuck. Intonation problems and general untidiness don’t help; and yet I’d urge old hands and new listeners alike to give this recording a chance for, paradoxical as it may seem, Klemperer’s Atlas-challenging weight and resolute tread invest the work with a stoicism and grandeur that’s strangely moving at times.
Mahler performances don’t come more epic - or wayward, even perverse - than this, but if Klemperer’s Seventh doesn’t impress you there are some fine, relatively ‘safe’ audio and video alternatives. I’m particularly fond of Michael Gielen on Hänssler, whose Mahler 7 - like the rest of his sought-after cycle - burns with a steady but intense flame; meanwhile on DVD/Blu-ray Claudio Abbado’s ‘mighty, long-shadowed’ Lucerne account is let down by less than top-notch sonics (review).
As for Klemperer’s iconic Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde - spread across CDs 4, 5 and 6 - I haven’t listened to them carefully for a while, so I was curious to see if they are still earth-shattering. As leave-takings go these two works are in a league of their own, and that’s why they demand and deserve only the best interpreters. The lucrative Mahler industry means that everyone’s recording the Ninth these days, but Abbado’s various accounts - not his dreadful GMJO video - are well worth hearing. Don’t overlook Gielen’s seemingly understated yet deeply felt performance either, or Alan Gilbert’s searing Stockholm version from BIS; both deserve a place on your shelves.
Many critics still maintain that Bernard Haitink’s Philips account of the Ninth is indispensable, but if that doesn’t work for you - it never has for me - then his new Concertgebouw reading in the RCO Live box I mentioned earlier almost certainly will. This all-seeing, all conquering view from the summit of a long and distinguished career makes Haitink’s latest the most luminous and all-embracing Ninth I’ve ever heard. Definitely one for the desert island.
I suppose tone shouldn’t merely ‘hear’ these valedictory masterworks, one should ‘experience’ them; and that’s the case with Klemperer’s powerful, probing Ninth. I have it on a very shrill EMI twofer, but I’m pleased to say this new re-mastering has tamed the trying treble and restored some depth and ‘bloom’ to the proceedings. As a performance it’s just as gaunt and uncompromising as I remember it, and one is forcibly reminded that it’s not just the music that’s near breaking point; the New Philharmonia go to the very edge for Klemperer, and that sometimes makes for uncomfortable listening. The two inner movements have come up very well in this remastering, but they don’t sound quite as poised as you’ll hear from Haitink on RCO Live.
That said, the unsentimental Klemperer’s Ninth is the very antithesis of Haitink’s more forgiving and pliable one. For the first time there are audible signs of distress in some tuttis - even the finest engineers wouldn’t be able to fix that - and the familiar thumps and bumps are clearer than ever. With Gilbert and Haitink still reasonably fresh in my mind I feel that for all its strength and sinew this is not the unassailable Ninth I first thought it to be, although the long, slow dissolution of the Adagio is as intuitively shaped and as achingly felt as any. The extra warmth missing from earlier CD versions is welcome, but the timbral sophistication of more modern rivals reveals so much more of Mahler’s intricate and finely nuanced score. Stoicism is the key word once more, and Klemperer shapes the music with all the authority and heft one would expect from him.
If I’m slightly less overwhelmed by this Ninth than I once was it’s because there are rather more versions now than there were nearly four decades ago, when I first heard it. The intervening years have also shown that this great symphony responds well to a variety of approaches, and that Klemperer’s indomitable way isn’t the only one. Perhaps the real triumph lies in the remastering which, in the Adagio especially, restores the inner glow and glorious sonorities I heard on my old LPs. For that I give heartfelt thanks.
As an aside, all these Mahler performances have been transferred to SACD by EMI Japan and are now available - at a premium - in Europe and the US. I was sorely tempted by the ‘Resurrection’ (TOGE-15044) at £40, but I see the Fourth (TOGE-15045) is priced at an eye-watering £73. The Seventh (TOGE-12078) can be had for £63, while the Ninth (TOGE-15062/3) and Das Lied von der Erde (TOGE-12010) are yours for around £30 each. Hold on to your wallet though, for this very inexpensive box of 24/96 remasters - I’ve seen it online for as little as £12 - represents more than enough of a sonic transformation to satisfy me and, I’d wager, most listeners too.
Klemperer began his recording of Das Lied von der Erde with the Philharmonia in February 1964, but as the orchestra changed their name on 17 March he completed it with the New Philharmonia in November of that year. Despite that lengthy hiatus, and two different venues, this performance sounds remarkably consistent. Sonically it’s very immediate - I had to reduce the volume by a couple of notches - but there’s a weight and vitality here that’s most refreshing. There’s just a hint of strain in the tuttis, although the wonderfully firm and virile Wunderlich manifests no such stress in the taxing tessitura of the drinking song. Moreover, his already good diction sounds better than ever.
Ludwig is limpid and lovely in Der Einsame im Herbst and the orchestra play with real soul and tenderness. It’s a telling reminder that Klemperer, who so often seemed to trade in truculence, was capable of delicacy and refinement when required. This is Mahler at his most haunting, and Ludwig is matchless in her control of light, shade and line. Such comments won’t surprise those who already know this performance, but they should give those who don’t some inkling of the profound spell being cast here. The brass and bright, sparkling woodwinds in Von der Schönheit have never sounded so splendid, and Wunderlich’s drunkard is a living, breathing creature whose regrets and reflections emerge with rare pathos.
However it’s the long finale that transports this recording beyond mere greatness; Klemperer’s control of rhythm and tempi are inspired and his calibration of dynamics is a wonder to behold. Like a forest at night the music comes alive in a tingling chorus of strange, exotic sounds, over which Ludwig soars in pensive power. Few - if any - recordings capture the fragility, the evanescence, of Der Abschied better than this, and the added frisson of a vivid and tactile remastering is a huge bonus. Such is the surpassing splendour of this performance - revealed as never before - that I’m not even tempted to discuss other more recent releases, however recommendable they might be.
In his recent review of another fine EMI collection - Boult’s Vaughan Williams - colleague Jonathan Woolf said it ‘seems superfluous to recommend this box’. That certainly applies here, given the stature of these performances. This set is ridiculously cheap, but it still feels like a quality product; also, the sturdy, LP-style box, cardboard inner sleeves and the decent booklet - the latter with up-to-date notes by Richard Osborne - give this reissue a delightfully retro feel. In the past I’ve chastised EMI for their slapdash approach to reissues, but this one demonstrates that with a little care and devotion they could revitalise their priceless - and very profitable - archive for a whole new generation of listeners.
Powerful, provocative, peerless; these classics have never sounded so good.
Masterwork Index: Mahler Symphonies & Rückert-Lieder
Symphony No. 2 in C minor 'Resurrection' (1888/1896) [80:15]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) Hilde Rössl-Majdan (mezzo)
Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 22-24 November 1961 & 15, 24 March 1962
Symphony No. 4 in G major* (1892-1900) [55:01]
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (Rückert-Lieder) (1901-1902) [6:34]
Um Mitternacht (Rückert-Lieder) [5:30]
Das irdische Leben (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) (1892-1893) [3:07]
Ich atmet' einen linden Duft (Rückert-Lieder) [2:47]
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Des Knaben Wunderhorn) [6:08]
* Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano)
Christa Ludwig (mezzo)
rec. Kingsway Hall, 6-8,10 & 25 April 1961 (symphony), 17-19 February 1964 (songs)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1906) (beginning) [76:22]
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (conclusion) [24:20]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908-1909) (beginning) [28:22]
Symphony No. 9 in D major (conclusion) [58:19]
New Philharmonia Orchestra
rec. Kingsway Hall, 18-21 & 24-28 September 1968 (No. 7), 15-24 February 1967 (No. 9)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909) [64:11]
Christa Ludwig (mezzo) Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Philharmonia & New Philharmonia Orchestras
rec. Kingsway Hall, 19-22 February 1964; Studio 1, Abbey Road, London,
7-8 November 1964
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