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Off the mark even in 1962, remorselessly repackaged and overhyped since, get it for Klemperer's understanding of this work
on 9 August 2014
The early primitive multi tracking (bouncing down tracks from several four track machines into one two track master, utilising a maximum of 12 tracks) sounds distinctly hand made and crude, while the melodramatic stereo effects come straight from Capitol's Full Dimensional Sound (FDS) bag of tricks where the strings seem to be disembodied from the rest of the orchestra, and no clear three dimensional space is recreated. The sound is very similar to early binaural recordings using a single twin capsule microphone suspended over the centre of the orchestra but with extra dubbing as indicated. It is phoney - not true stereo.
Given this was one of the last recordings the great Walter Legge - discriminating and sensitive himself - had a hand in prior to his abrupt resignation from a record label managed by successive generations of public school boy, musically dead philistines on the Board of Directors... his philosophy of seeking the utmost realism in his recordings using a natural sounding stereo seems to have been completely abandoned at some stage in this project. Indeed a "make do and mend" attitude prevailed in order to get the recording completed.
One of the causes was the protracted turmoils and events in the background which led to a disjointed recording sessions. But beneath these symptoms lay the all too familiar story of a branch of British manufacturing failing miserably in the 1950s and 1960s to modernise and invest or lift its game to the level of its international competitors.
The advent of stereo disc cutting in 1956 patented by Bell and Westrex in the USA, completely cut the ground beneath EMI's tentative patents of the basic concept, developed by their inhouse engineer Blumlein in the 1930s. Similarly, Blumlein's theoretical papers and demonstrations of stereo at that time could not be advanced due to failures in the recording technology in both the UK and the USA. In effect, two separate recordings had to be made in order to convey the illusion of binaural sound with obvious problems of synchronising the two machines. EMI and the BBC were still recording on metal wire and solid steel strips, while Neumann and Siemens in Germany were developing high fidelity recording on magnetic tape with extended frequency response. When these ex-Nazi machines fell into the hands of the allies in 1944, EMI copied the German technology and rebadged them as BTRs - British Tape Recorders! In the USA, Ampex developed the German decks into 2 track and for professional use 3 track stereo tape recorders.
Similarly, EMI continued its inhouse development of its own electronics and mixing decks - mostly to avoid paying licences and royalties on foreign equipment, but also to bolster its own hardware business - in complete isolation from best practice in the rest of the world which were utilising the latest German microphones, amplifiers and basing their studio recordings on the onward march of technological advances in Hollywood and the movies where the real advances in stereo and multi channel sound were being made. The result was that a recording such as this Das Lied for the time it was produced - when companies such as Westminster, Mercury, Everest, to name just a few, were turning out demonstration quality discs and had been since 1958 - was off the pace.
Today, record collectors who can see beyond its sheer sentimental value, part of which is in being led by the great father figure of Klemperer (the nearest thing to Sir Edward Elgar who actually christened Abbey Road with its first recording the public could get in the 1950s) this recording is based on sound values that are backward and quaint. The high level of distortion on certain instruments in the critical middle or voice frequencies to which the ear is most sensitive is excruciating. I noticed the ART re-mastering has skillfully reduced this problem by digital means. But EMI has been remorselessly repackaging this product for years ad nauseum.
Anybody who takes issue with my comments and assessment of the EMI company that produced this record, offering a flabby exaggerated sound instead of clarity and a clear aural space, need to reflect on where EMI is NOW - basically a minor operation with a catalogue which is a wasting asset. And a huge legal department intent on stripping the last ounce of royalty payments and copyright protection from that wasting asset in order to refund the hedge fund buyout. The present company has no creative impact upon the current music industry but seeks only to apply ever more draconian penalties against downloaders and internet "piracy" and to make the sharing of music between individuals (part of growing up and society for generations) by digital serialisation and anti-copying codes illegal and prohibited. EMI and its bankers are in the vanguard of legal attempts to ring fence their "property" by criminalising sharing and to shore up the balance sheet by extending their copyrights by a further 50 years. When all purchased music does become digital via the internet - as is imminent - dinosaurs such as EMI will be able to control use of their catalogue down to the point where purchases will be time limited. In effect your purchase will be a rental with strict conditions you cannot share it with anybody else or even make a single copy. This is not entirely the fault of EMI, the whole conglomerate music industry is behind it, along with point of sale vendors such as Amazon Digital and iTunes, but certainly EMI by instinct and preference are shrill in their support. These qualities were detectable in the company in the 50s and 60s.
Thus EMI mindset in 1962 and its long cruise to oblivion on the back of the Beatles - plus this substandard engineering courtesy of Douglas Larter - he of the 1940s mono years - with inhouse equipment designed to avoid paying royalties to other companies - is stamped all over this recording. They features to be derided and evaluated for what they are - cheapskate, insular and thoroughly regressive - not celebrated and raved over such as in the numerous five star reviews of this recording. I am astounded how easily led some listeners are. Of course we all cherish our early vinyl collection and leap for joy when it is reincarnated in another format - but really - this recording is no where near as good as the consensus makes out. More discernment is required.
Any objective review can only give Klemperer's Das Lied for sound quality 2 or at most 3 out of 10. What gives it a (3) I suggest is its sheer quaintness.
What of the conducting itself? Klemperer's almost unique understanding of the form and structure of this work enables it to materialise, like no other version, as symphonic music with voices. There is an inevitability in the way he shapes passages and whole sections. His tempi are perfect. The Philharmonia, or whatever, play like angels for him...sure there are plenty of orchestras on different records which do as much - even better, listen to the oboist in the Scottish National Orchestra for Alexander Gibson compared with this - but overall everything sounds right for Klemperer. Experience, wisdom, an internal clock and tremendous discipline and temperament must give the conducting on this record 9 out of 10.
Which is why - in relation to Fritz Wunderlich's contribution - Klemperer's dictum to Fischer Dieskau in the Brahms Requiem "You give too much." there is a deep irony. Never in my view has a tenor given so much but achieved so little in this work. You can take the boy out of the operetta but you can't take the operetta out of the boy. Those familiar with his work in this vsriety and his rendition of "Granada" will understand when at times I expected a line from " O sole mio" to be interpolated into Mahler's text. Such was the similarity in delivery. I am not arguing about his great voice. That is irrelevant. The vocal endowment is a starting point, but what we have here is highly mannered Italianate singing where every syllable and consonant is given undue emphasis that on repeated listenings becomes obstructive of the melodic line and meaning. Wunderlich had a beautiful flexible voice, he could sing: but he was not a great communicator. His last, tragically, lieder recitals did see some progress in the area of interpretation and depth...but the singing on this recording is a long way off. Nevertheless, there are still moments when the sun breaks through: "Das Firmament blaut ewig, und die Erde..." is an all too isolated example of where Wunderlich gets everything right - and gives us a glimpse of what might have been if he had been given the chance to re-record this work at a later stage. We will never know. Tenor, 5 out of 10.
Christa Ludwig has a vocal range and a technique that can accommodate Mahler's music. Her performances as here are remarkable for evenness of tone, ability to open up from the quietest pianissimo to the loudest forte and vice versa, and being able to hold a note. But she is not the most expressive of singers. There are long periods when she seems to be singing on auto pilot the voice having little or no connection with the brain. There is none of the sharply intelligent inflection or intuition that Anna Reynolds brings to her performance under Krips, or the searching deeply involved singing of her Berlin compatriot Fischer Dieskau. One could not call Ludwig's performance bland. It is vocally too powerful for that. But there is a significant lack. Also in the quieter sections, especially in Im Herbst (which has a completely different voice and sound stage quality from Der Abschied due to the prolonged disjointed recording dates) Ludwig has a breathiness to her singing which is distracting and annoying. Mezzo: 5/10
So overall, better, due to Klemperer, than the other EMI traversals, namely Kletzki (a throwaway contract fulfilment job, DFD hopelessly too young, Dickie completely submerged, and Kletzki severely under recorded) and Gibson (only serviceable conducting, but very good singing by Mitchinson - better than Wunderlich - though Hodgson less vocally secure than Ludwig) and relentlessly over hyped and repackaged for copyright by the mother load.
And why did Klemperer sign up to EMI. On the legal side, the Directors were already setting out their table by offering substantially higher royalties over longer periods of time than any other record companies. For musicians like Klemperer where their savings had been wiped out and income had fallen to zero after the war, this prospect was irresistable. Elevated very rapidly to cult status Klemperer gave us magnificent if old fashioned sounding recordings of Wagner, Beethoven and Brahms and others, produced by the same team. It is a shame EMI did not invest similarly in the technological side of their business at the time. But then....that's the story of British Leyland too, the British domestic audio and electronics industry....
Therefore I find this recording very much indicative, a snapshot, of a certain time in British postwar manufacturing history. It has some fine aspects and beautiful moments, but overall it is a sad reflection on one particular part of this country's postwar managed decline.