Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overtures and orchestral excerpts from the operas - see end of review for details
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op.20 [17.03]1
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24 [22.25]2
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 [15.04]1
Salome, Op.54: Dance of the Seven Veils [9.03]1
Metamorphosen (1945) [28.06]2
3Christa Ludwig (mezzo); 4Helga Dernesch (soprano) - Sieglinde, William Cochran - Siegmund, Hans Sotin (bass) - Hunding, Norman Bailey (baritone) - Wotan
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, February-March 1960,1 November 1961,2 March 1962:3 All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, September-October 19704
EMI CLASSICS 2484682 [5 CDs: 79.16 + 78.55 + 71.43 + 76.40 + 64.03]
A couple of months ago I gave a rather mixed reception to a previous volume in EMI’s voluminous Klemperer Edition. It included his performances of romantic symphonies and overtures, some of which seemed to find the conductor decisively out of sympathy with the music. No such doubts arise here; Klemperer’s grand sense of style is clearly highly appropriate to the music of Richard I and Richard III, as they were dubbed during the later years of the nineteenth century (there was no Richard II).
Another reason for the success of these recordings is that most of them were made in the early 1960s, when Klemperer was still physically capable of controlling an orchestra in the most hectic music without having to make compromises which might perhaps be attributed to his increasing infirmities. In this context the performances of Richard Strauss are the more surprising, with none of the tendency towards marmoreal speeds that marred Klemperer’s Tchaikovsky for example. The music of Strauss really demanded the advent of stereo recording for proper representation on record - many of his complex orchestral textures were simply too much obscured in monophonic recordings. These Klemperer performances should be considered as part of that initial burst of issues during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Comparisons of the sound that Walter Legge obtained from these sessions with those that John Culshaw was producing for Karajan in Vienna at the same period are illuminating. Klemperer’s actual readings of the music are remarkably similar to Herbert von Karajan’s dynamic traversals, but the nature of the EMI recording produces very different results. For Karajan the oboe solo in Don Juan is highlighted by Culshaw’s microphones with not altogether happy results, as the rather acid nature of the playing is brought to our attention; with Klemperer a more natural balance allows us to appreciate more clearly the surprisingly complex orchestral sounds which underpin the solo playing. On the other hand the Philharmonia strings produce a much less romantically rounded sound than their Vienna counterparts, and for an ideal balance between the two approaches one is drawn back to the slightly earlier stereo recording of the same score made by Fritz Reiner in Chicago for RCA.
Similar comparisons can be made between the Klemperer/Legge and Karajan/Culsaw approaches in Tod und Verklärung, where the death struggles of the protagonist here lack the urgent violence of Karajan’s very forward trombones. Less satisfactory is the problematic end of the work, which can with the wrong approach sound so much like a Hollywood ‘heavenly conclusion’ to some epic film or other. In seeking to avoid this effect Klemperer goes too far in the other direction; the purposeful tread towards transfiguration is all too easily achieved, and is not helped by some decidedly queasy-sounding brass chording towards the end. He is, however, excellent in the pyrotechnics of Till Eulenspiegel and drives Salome’s dance to a thrilling conclusion; this after some surprisingly effective rubato phrasing from oboe and flute in the opening section. This nevertheless lacks the sheer immediacy of the sound that Culshaw was producing at the same time for Solti’s complete recording of the score. It is in Metamorphosen that Klemperer really comes into his own, with playing from the Philharmonia solo strings that tugs at the heart. There have been richer-sounding traversals of this late masterpiece, but none to match it for sheer emotional impact.
Klemperer’s early 1960s Wagner recordings have long held a treasured place in the catalogue. It is pleasing to note his reluctance to employ the sometimes anonymous ‘concert conclusions’ that are sometimes affixed to these ‘bleeding chunks’. So the Valkyries end their ride in mid-flow, without the additional bars of mechanical string scales that we frequently hear. Siegfried’s Rhine Journey comes to a conclusion as in the full score of Götterdämmerung with soft chords preparing us for the next scene rather than Humperdinck’s blatantly triumphant concert ending. It is good to hear Wagner’s own concert conclusion to the Parsifal Prelude, included in the full score but rarely heard nowadays.
Some of the extracts work musically better than others. The Entry of the Gods into Valhalla presents us with the orchestral score of the passage from the forging of the Rainbow Bridge onward without any of the vocal parts. Donner’s summons sounds very odd indeed without them - usually represented in concert performances by orchestral transcriptions for brass - with the shifting keys which underlie the music sounding unmotivated, almost like some early Philip Glass score. The orchestral transcription called Forest murmurs, combining several disparate passages from the Second Act of Siegfried, does not begin to hold together as a unitary piece. It should be noted that these extracts were among the last recorded in this series of sessions. It may well be that they were chosen to fill up the contents of a third LP; but one can only regret that we were not given, for example, the Prelude to the Third Acts of Tristan or Meistersinger instead of these peculiar confections.
Klemperer chooses to give us the original chamber version of the Siegfried Idyll, using solo strings throughout rather than the fuller orchestral forces that Wagner authorised when he reluctantly published the work. This is a mixed blessing; it enables us to hear the wind parts clearly through the texture, but there are passages of string writing which really cry out for a fuller body of sound than we get here. There is a strong case to be made for a compromise here, using solo strings in the opening section - originally conceived for string quartet - and then expanding the forces in later passages. Given that consideration, Klemperer nevertheless manages to extract considerable emotional weight from the small forces that Wagner originally specified.
Regarding the remaining extracts from these early 1960s sessions there is little than can be criticised. There is plenty of body - and excitement - to the performances, and Klemperer’s massive approach to such pieces as Siegfried’s Funeral March, the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan - given complete without Wagner’s own interesting amendment bridging the climaxes of the two ‘movements’ - and the Overtures to Tannhäuser and Meistersinger are quite simply beyond the scope of criticism. This did not stop the Stereo Record Guide complaining in 1961 that the “plodding Mastersingers are just a little too full of German pudding”, but a degree of pomposity is surely appropriate in the Entry of the Masters. It is interesting to note that in his reading of the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer Klemperer uses Wagner’s later revision of the score. In his complete recording of the opera he reverted to the original Dresden version, not, it must be admitted, to the advantage of the music.
Slightly later Klemperer recorded a series of sessions with Christa Ludwig which included the Wesendonck Lieder (in Möttl’s orchestrations) and surprisingly the Liebestod. Ludwig, a mezzo-soprano who at this stage was toying with the idea of undertaking the major Wagnerian soprano parts - she was approached by Karajan to take on the role of Brünnhilde for his complete Ring, but decided against it - manages the Liebestod well but not without a slight sense of strain at the climax. Klemperer very oddly begins the extract not with the music that precedes it in the complete opera, but with an isolated section taken from the conclusion of the Prelude, which really does not work. Ludwig’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder is as magnificent as one would expect, with her consideration for Mathilde’s sometimes embarrassingly effusive words. Klemperer makes a real highlight of the delicate shadings of Im Triebhaus which makes one regret all the more that he did not give us a complete recording of the Tristan Act Three Prelude for which this song was a sketch.
By the end of the 1960s Klemperer’s health had deteriorated to an extent that he was no longer able to conduct through the full length of a recording session. He asked Reginald Goodall to rehearse the sessions in which extracts from Die Walküre were set down for posterity. In this context it is illuminating to compare Klemperer’s treatment of Wotan’s Farewell, with Norman Bailey as an excellent soloist - this appears to be the only recording of him singing any part of the role in German - with Goodall’s live recording in English made a few years later at English National Opera, again with Bailey as Wotan. It is surprising, given Goodall’s reputation for slow speeds - he contended that these were essential in order to allow listeners to hear every detail of Wagner’s scoring - to find that Klemperer adds some three minutes to the length of this not very long extract. Indeed Klemperer’s speeds here are really too slow, too marmoreal, to carry total conviction. Bailey, accustomed to Goodall’s speeds - he was contemporaneously performing the role at ENO - does not seem at all discommoded by the tempi, and in the context of a studio recording he inevitably sounds fresher than he did in the theatre at the end of a long evening. This recording is a most valuable document, despite one’s reservations. Producer Suvi Raj Grubb allows us to hear the strokes of his spear just before the Magic Fire Music as precisely notated in the score, which adds a touch of dramatic reality.
Similarly the performance of the whole of the First Act of Die Walküre simulates the sounds of a live recording, with Siegmund’s opening words placed at a slight distance. Indeed the voices are rather distantly placed throughout this performance, which does not trouble the radiantly voiced Helga Dernesch and Hans Sotin, but is rather unfair on William Cochran. Cochran is most familiar nowadays for his assumption of ‘character’ roles such as Mephistopheles in Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Busoni’s Doktor Faust and Kubelik’s Mathis der Maler; but he sounds quite unlike his normal self in this performance, with plenty of heroic ring even if the result is never glamorous. Klemperer’s speeds are marginally quicker than Goodall’s here, but he sounds more at ease with the love music in Scenes One and Three than with the more dramatic confrontation with Hunding in Scene Two. His handling of Hunding’s entry lacks the sheer sense of brute force that Goodall so memorably achieved in the theatre. It is indeed difficult to disentangle the contributions made by Klemperer and Goodall to this recording - the two conductors were very much in sympathy with each other’s approach to the music. The theatrical experience is more thrilling in Goodall’s live performance (in English) than in this reading, which despite the distancing of the voices persists in sounding very much more like a concert performance. It is a particular pleasure to encounter Dernesch’s Sieglinde, one of her signature roles during her fairly brief soprano career before she turned to the mezzo Fach, but which she never seems to have recorded elsewhere. She sings radiantly and beautifully throughout.
Despite my reservations this set proved to be a most enjoyable listening experience, both in the recordings which I remembered from their original LP issues and those I had not previously encountered. The re-mastering has plenty of body and faithfully reproduces the sound of the original sessions and Klemperer’s approach to the music. We are given no texts or translations, nor any details of the music beyond a fairly brief essay by Richard Osborne on Klemperer’s reactions to the two composers in question. It might have been interesting if this had highlighted the conductor’s sometimes unexpected editions of the Wagner scores in particular.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A most enjoyable listening experience.
Track listing - Wagner
Rienzi (1842): Overture [11.33]1
Der fliegende Holländer (1843): Overture [10.49]1
Tannhäuser (1845): Overture [14.47]: Prelude to Act Three [8.18]1
Lohengrin (1850): Prelude [9.57]: Prelude to Act Three [3.01]1
Tristan und Isolde (1865): Prelude and Liebestod [15.48]1: Liebestod [6.55]3
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868): Prelude [10.58]: Dance of the Apprentices and Entry of the Masters [6.52]1
Das Rheingold (1869): Entry of the Gods into Valhalla [8.13]2
Die Walküre (1870): Act One (complete) [71.43]4: Ride of the Valkyries [2.55]1: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music [19.34]4
Siegfried (1876): Forest Murmurs [8.28]2
Götterdämmerung (1876): Siegfried’s Rhine Journey [6.08]: Funeral March [7.39]1
Parsifal (1882): Prelude [13.07]2
Wesendonck Lieder (1856) [21.50]3
Siegfried Idyll (1870) [17.51]2
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