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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 (1886, ed. Nowak) [61:01]
Symphony No. 5 (1878, ed. Nowak) [79:29]
Symphony No. 6 (1881, ed. Haas) [55:50]
Symphony No. 7 (1884, ed. Nowak) [65:11]
Symphony No. 8 (1890, ed. Nowak and Klemperer) [84:19]
Symphony No. 9 (1887-96, ed. Nowak) [65:18]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. 18-26 September 1963 (No. 4), 9-15 March 1967 (No. 5), 6-19 November 1967 (No. 6), 1-5 September 1960 (No. 7), 28-30 October, 10-14 November 1970 (No. 8), 6-21 February 1970 (No. 9), Kingsway Hall, London
EMI CLASSICS 4042962 [6 CDs: 61:01 + 79:29 + 65:11 + 64:49 + 74:30 + 65:18]

At the end of his career, between 1954 and 1971, Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) made a series of celebrated recordings for EMI with the Philhamonia and its reconstituted equivalent the New Philharmonia. The repertoire ranged widely, and EMI is honouring these famous performances by reissuing them in a series of boxed sets. Thus far these have included Beethoven, 19th century symphonies and overtures from Schubert to Tchaikovsky and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Now comes this 6-CD collection of Bruckner symphonies, from the Fourth through to the unfinished Ninth.
 
Throughout his distinguished career Klemperer was associated with Bruckner, and during the 1920s the association enhanced his reputation. He made an interesting observation that while he thought Bruckner the greater composer, he always conducted Mahler more frequently ‘because like me he was a Jew and moreover he got me my first job’.
 
These performances from 1963 to 1970 are captured in excellent sound, and though nearly fifty years has passed since the first of them – the Fourth – there is no need to be in the least apologetic about the sound quality. The producers were Walter Legge, Peter Andry, Walter Jelinek and Suvi Raj Grubb.
 
By reputation Klemperer has always been associated with slow, even sluggish tempi, but that is not necessarily fair or even true. For example, each of his modern recordings of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, live with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and in the studio with the Philharmonia, fit comfortably on to a single CD, whereas Sir Simon Rattle’s CBSO recording requires two discs since the tempi are broader. This is just one example among many, and here in Bruckner Klemperer’s tempi are never less than appropriate.
 
Perhaps it is the nature of the phrasing and shaping of the music that influence the listener’s experience of Klemperer’s Bruckner performances the most. He sculpts and moulds the music rather less than Eugen Jochum or Wilhelm Furtwängler, and his shadings of dynamic and phrasing are less pliable than those of Günter Wand. Not that one approach is right and the other wrong; there is always more than one way to interpret a great symphony.
 
In the Fourth Symphony Klemperer’s live Munich performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI CDM 5 66866 2 5; recorded 1966; reissued 1998) has a more spontaneous feel than the present Kingsway Hall version from three years earlier, though the recorded sound in the latter seems more secure. Here the famous Scherzo is craggy rather than virtuoso, while the architecture of the powerful finale has never been more surely controlled.
 
The Fifth too is a particularly strong performance, at nearly eighty minutes taking slightly longer than he did with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year (Testament UCCN-1059) and a full ten minutes longer than his first recorded version, made with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1957 (Archiphon WU-091). The approach with the Philharmonia suits the music admirably. The finale’s reconciliation of chorale and fugue is uncompromisingly argued, the two aspects held in clear contrast at the same time as joint purpose. The string sound in the slow movement is also particularly impressive.
 
This famous recording of the Sixth Symphony has long been held as perhaps the top recommendation. Klemperer has a strong long-term view of the architecture, while the symphonic drama is cogently articulated. To my mind other performances - for instance Günter Wand on RCA CD 68452 2, or Ferdinand Leitner on Hänssler Classics CD 93.051 - open the work with a lighter rhythmic touch and therefore more effectively, whereas Klemperer’s rhythm and phrasing seem somewhat stodgy. However, as things develop there is no arguing with the strength and vision of his reading, nor ultimately with the comprehensiveness of the conclusion to the finale - another aspect of the symphony that is notoriously hard to bring off.
 
The Seventh is given a direct and weighty performance, less visionary perhaps than great interpretations such as those by Eugen Jochum (with the Berlin Philharmonic, DG CD 459 068-2) or Stanislav Skrowaczewski (with the Saarland Radio Symphony, Arte Nova CD 777123), but with its own undeniable strengths and personality. The slow movement for example is more mobile than some and reaches to a powerful climax replete with cymbal clash, while the scherzo is emphatic and the finale makes for a cogent ending to the whole work. The concluding feels satisfyingly comprehensive.
 
It is the Eighth Symphony that raises the most doubts among these performances. It is a typically powerful and craggy performance, lacking the fluidity that is the hallmark of Günter Wand’s masterly approach, for example with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, RCA/BMG CD 68047-2. That said, Klemperer always maintains the music’s direction and symphonic integrity … until the finale, that is. Astonishingly for someone who knew, loved and understood Bruckner’s music so well, Klemperer decided to make his own edition making cuts (bars 211-387 and 582-647) amounting to about seven minutes of music. They prove far from convincing.
 
In 'Otto Klemperer - his life and times' by Peter Heyworth (Volume 2, CUP 1996, p353) the conductor gave his explanation: 'In the last movement of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony I have made cuts. In this instance it seems to me that the composer was so full of musical invention that he went too far. Brucknerians will object, and it is certainly not my intention that these cuts should be considered as a model for others. I can only take responsibility for my own interpretation.'
 
On these grounds alone Klemperer’s Eighth can’t be a first recommendation. However, anyone acquiring this set may well be adding a new version to an existing collection, so the matter then becomes one of adding an interesting variety to the possibilities offered by a great symphony.
 
The Ninth is another great performance; from the first bar the concentration is extraordinary and compelling, even if less atmospheric than many interpretations. The first climax is absolutely gripping, and out of it the tremolando strings and woodwind interjections edge their way forward, to be relieved by the beauties of the string writing in a gesängperiod of boldly slow articulation. As such the rich tone of the cello line makes a deeply compelling impression. This symphony has a grandeur that is unique even in Bruckner’s output, and Klemperer’s interpretation brings a special quality to it.
 
The middle movement scherzo is pounding and dark and very fast, while the central trio is no less intense. On the other hand the finale is broadly paced, yet full of sharply defined contrasts, and sometimes moving towards a slower Adagio pulse than Klemperer chooses elsewhere. There is an extraordinary world of visionary intensity here, and this makes the closing bars, with their resolution amid a mood of calm assurance and acceptance of fate, all the more moving.
 
This collection is nicely packaged in an easily accessible box, with each disc in its own card case. Given that the back of these cases is largely blank save for identifying the symphony contained therein, it is disappointing that the movement headings aren’t included too. To find these one has to search in the accompanying booklet, where all the details are clearly laid out. There are also some excellent essays by Richard Osborne on ‘Otto Klemperer’ and ‘Klemperer’s Bruckner’, though surprisingly there are no notes on the music itself. As so often in collected sets, the music seems to play second fiddle to the artists as far as the documentation is concerned. This is a misjudgement and surely EMI should have included the existing notes they had on file.
 
Klemperer’s contribution to the legacy of Bruckner recordings is important and impressive, and as such this set deserves an enthusiastic welcome. Any collection of the symphonic output of this wonderful composer - the greatest symphonic composer? - will be enhanced by it. Even the collector who already possesses this repertoire in alternative performances will find this set rewarding and stimulating.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Christopher Howell


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