Otto Klempeerer owes his late career in London and on EMI records to von Karajan. Since its founding in 1949, the Philharmonia Orch. was closely allied with Karajan, who built it up as his own career took off after the war. But when Furtwangler died in 1954 and his arch-rvial Karajan took over the Berlin Phil., the impressario of the Philharmonia, Walter Legge, knew that he needed a new stellar conductor or his orchestra would fail. He chose Klemperer, then almost forgotten and already past 65 when he had made his initial appearances wit the Philharmonia in London in 1951.
Legge's gamble paid off. Klemperer became the darling of London critics and audiences, and his performance style-- imposing, serious, with impeccable integrity--became the standard in Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms for countless admirers. He cared little for beauty of sound, smooth phrasing, or stylistic refinement. Words like "granitic" and "primordial" were used regularly.
Is Klemperer the antithesis of Karajan, who valued everything that he disdained? Listening to these Brahms symphony recordings in improved sound, I think the Klemperer vs. Karajan debate isn't all that valid. These four readings aren't granitic or primordial, nor are they particularly slow. In fact, the first movement of the Second Sym. moves lightly, as does the finale of the Fourth. If anything, Karajan's presentation is more massive and imposing in every symphony. The main difference begins with Klemperer's steady pace, which he tends to hold without allowing the phrase to be molded as flexibly as Karajan does.
Karajan made three complete Brahms cycles for DG, the last one in digital sound. He was undoubtedly a great Brahms conductor, but so was Klemperer. Here the Philharmonia sounds sharp, alert and not very big in number, while Karajan's Berlin forces sound sumptuous and huge.
These two giants had few peers in Brahms from the death of Toscanini to the present day, excepting Bernstein at his best and occasional recordings by Tennstedt, Giulini, Carlos Kleiber, and perhaps in today's market, Harnoncourt and Levine. Some would also place Bruno Walter's two Brahms cycles at this exalted level, but for me only the mono one with the NY Phil., now available on a Sony import, qualifies in all four symphonies, and besides the inadequate sonics, the orchestra does not play as beautifully as what we hear in this set. It's great to have Klemperer's classic cycle, which is totally free of eccentricity, back in such good sound. Five stars without a doubt.