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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 29 in A major, K201 [23:53]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 [24:55]
Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K219 [29:19]
Serenade No. 13 in G major, K525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik) [16:24]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 [35:35]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (Revised version, 1851) [27:08]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Tragic Overture, Op. 81 [12:29]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73 [36:38]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107 (1885 revised version, ed. Nowak) [57:17]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Nocturnes: Fêtes [6:17]
Bronislav Gimpel (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Debussy), Philharmonia Orchestra (Mozart, Brahms)/Otto Klemperer
rec. 1955, BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London; live, 1956, Royal Festival Hall, London
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5145 [4 CDs: 270:51]

These recordings are a mix of concert hall and radio studio performances given by Otto Klemperer not long after the beginning of his legendary Indian summer which saw a dramatic turn-around in his career and reputation. Presumably, the radio performances were either broadcast ‘live’ by the BBC or recorded for later broadcast. As is so often the case with CD releases of vintage live performances, information concerning the origins of the transfers is scanty and, in this case, ambiguous. For example, the front of ICA’s cardboard box bears the legend “A BBC recording”, whereas the accompanying booklet states “Material sourced from the Lyrita Recorded Edition Trust Archive”. The latter statement would suggest that these recordings were taped ‘off air’ by Richard Itter, the founder and owner of the Lyrita label.

The first Klemperer performance I heard (through the medium of a second-hand LP) was his EMI reading of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. One hearing of that recording was enough to turn me into a Klemperer enthusiast. The clarity of articulation and detail, the rock-solid rhythms, the grandeur and inevitability of the conception were mightily convincing. It sounded emphatic, implacable and masculine – qualities which Beethoven himself surely possessed. Neither did the conductor neglect the rough-and-ready humour in the last two movements which so startled contemporary Viennese audiences. No question of this being an eighteenth century symphony but rather a milestone on the way to the Eroica.

So where better to start than with the BBC SO’s performance of the Beethoven Second in sound which is quite good, if slightly edgy in the upper strings during loud passages. The performance has very similar qualities to the EMI studio performance, while dispatching the work in two minutes less. (Most, but not all, of the performances in this set are marginally faster than Klemperer’s equivalent EMI performances which he recorded in the next few years.) At this time, the BBC Orchestra was not regarded as the virtuoso body it had been in the nineteen-thirties, but (as elsewhere in this set) the playing could hardly be faulted and has taken on the conductor’s typical granitic tone quality. One momentary disappointment, however: in the first movement’s Allegro of the EMI performance a couple of horn-calls momentarily dominate the texture with fine dramatic effect. These are virtually inaudible from the BBC. Perhaps this was an engineering fault or perhaps Klemperer just wanted a different balance on the day.

Klemperer always conducted a sensational Schumann Fourth Symphony, arguably surpassing even Wilhelm Furtwängler in this work (review – review - review). The performance here is no exception, but pride of place among Klemperer’s recordings must go to his 1962 live performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra (review) and not just because of the qualities of that Orchestra or because Pristine’s stereo sound is so fine. The Philadelphia performance has what a reviewer called a “terrifying intensity” unmatched elsewhere.

In the accompanying booklet, Richard Osborne reports that the late Edward Greenfield rated Klemperer’s EMI recording of Brahms’ Second Symphony as the greatest on records. It remains a wonderful performance, sometimes under-rated by critics who see the symphony as a purely ‘pastoral’ work. Osborne goes on to declare that the ‘live’ performance in the current set is even finer. Alas, I can’t with certainty endorse that view because I find the sound seriously attenuated in its frequency and dynamic range and the same is also true for the Tragic Overture. The symphony is just over two minutes faster than the EMI performance (which is not of great consequence in a 35 to 40-minute work). More to the point, the ‘woolly’ sound prevents me from assessing whether the slightly faster speeds bring any gain in intensity. The ‘live’ overture, incidentally, is slower than the EMI performance – by just two seconds, if the published timings are correct.

The Eine kleine Nachtmusik which follows the two Brahms works has slightly better sound and is a wonderful, fleet-of-foot performance which reminds us that, contrary to expectations, the conductor was capable of a lighter touch when it came to Mozart and seldom monumentalised the music.

The first CD of the set is an all-Mozart disc and the performances underscore my comment in the preceding paragraph. Klemperer’s renditions of Symphony No. 29 (review - review - review), in or out of the recording studio, were always beguiling. Mozart’s first movement has always appealed to me as an expression of love in its purest and noblest form and that is exactly what the conductor brings out here. There is transparency of texture, tenderness, lightness of touch and nobility without ever losing the line. There is no ‘rattling through’ but no undue lingering either. The ‘Big’ G minor Symphony finds the conductor alive to all the turmoil and pathos in the score, while keeping it within classical proportions. Furtwängler’s EMI performance with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (review - reviewreview), celebrated for its whirlwind intensity and sometimes cited as the greatest recording, finds him more than a minute faster than Klemperer in the opening Molto allegro but roughly comparable in speeds in the remaining movements. Two great performances.

The conductor’s omission of most of the repeats in the Mozart symphonies results in the Violin Concerto (which he never recorded for EMI) being the longest work on the disc. Gimpel and Klemperer combine to give a nuanced but strong performance which avoids inflation and combines classicism with the warm and pleasing sounds of a modern rather than an eighteenth century playing style. The treatment of the ‘Turkish’ music in the last movement is appropriately dramatic and stirring.

Klemperer’s studio recording of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra was cold and aloof, possibly arising from a phase in his manic-depressive condition (reviewreviewreview - review). It had his usual commendable structural cohesion but was otherwise not especially remarkable. The current BBC SO performance comes with the forbidding warning that “the sound quality in places could be considered inferior to other recordings from this period”. The recording turned out to be rather better than this led one to expect. True, the violins are shrill above the stave and the upper brass can be strident, but not to the extent that the production becomes unserviceable. Importantly, the performance is considerably more concentrated and intense than the EMI with a splendid climax in the Adagio. The command of structure remains, of course. The conductor’s Bruckner has never suited the more romantically inclined among us, but those who can appreciate nobility, grandeur and the long line will find much to admire. The BBC Orchestra’s response is whole-hearted and splendid.

Klemperer, we are told, liked to throw the occasional piece of Debussy into his concerts just to show he wasn’t a ‘German-only’ conductor. Fêtes (festivals) from his three-movement Nocturnes is quite some way from Debussy the dreamy ‘impressionist’. There’s colour and drama, along with some more reflective music. Conductor and orchestra characterise it with vigour and subtlety. It’s good to have this, as Debussy’s a composer the conductor never recorded for EMI.

Many of Klemperer’s world-wide followers will be willing to overlook the variable sound on these discs to hear a conductor nearly always at his formidable greatest. Others will understandably hesitate. As always, don’t discard your indispensable EMI high fidelity recordings.

Rob W McKenzie



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