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A bargain set showcasing a great conductor
, 8 July 2011
This review is from: Klaus Tennstedt: The Great EMI Recordings (Audio CD)
At this price, this bargain set of 14 CDs could be recommended as a superb introduction for the novice to some of the cornerstones of the Romantic classical canon, embracing as it does seminal Beethoven symphonies through Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler to Strauss. Obviously, these are all in the Austro-Germanic school at the core of Tennstedt's repertoire, although Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Kodaly also get a look in on these well-filled discs. The more seasoned collector will want them as a memento of one whom some would call the last great conductor - with all due respect to Abbado, Gergiev and Temirkanov.
Although occasionally patchy and inconsistent, Tennstedt's greatness is clearly revealed by these recordings; it helps that he is directing some of the finest orchestras of his or any day in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic and, of course, his beloved London Philharmonic Orchestra. It has often been said that Tennstedt was best live. Two symphonies here are live recordings; otherwise EMI has made a judicious selection from the studio recordings. For someone who had to be coaxed into the recording studio, Tennstedt was mighty busy for EMI in the mid 80's. I drew attention in my recent review of the similarly packaged and equally impressive Complete Mahler Symphonies EMI box set to what I might call his tectonic quality; whatever he is conducting is moulded and shaped in function of his overview of the music's structural integrity. Very often, one begins by thinking that Tennstedt has undercooked the tempo and tension a piece requires, only to be ultimately convinced, if not seduced, by the aptness of his pacing; Tennstedt delivers climactic release in his own time.
His beat is not in fact by any means extreme in the Celibadache fashion, although amongst the most daringly slow items here is the Brahms Requiem, which takes risks with etiolated tempi but stays this side of the stodginess that mars Rattle's account with the BPO. I think it's a grand interpretation, far preferable to Gardiner's perkiness and in the tradition of Klemperer, Previn and - my favourite versions - Karajan. As is so often the case with Tennstedt, the metronome will tell you that the speeds are abnormally slow yet he injects momentum and tension when required. A key point for me is "Aber des Herrn Wort" which takes off as it should and the contribution of the two soloists is superb: both Jorma Hynninen and Jessye Norman have big, V8 voices whose majesty and might suit Tennstedt's sepulchral conception. Brahms' First Symphony is played on a comparably large scale. It is not so much slower than my favourite interpretation, which is one of Karajan's later recordings, the live performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1988 on the Testament label.
Ultimately, Tennstedt's conception of how music from the Central European tradition should be played is all of a piece: he favours a massive solidity, unfailingly beautiful orchestral tone and a constant sense of spiritual profundity. In this, he reminds me very much of Karajan. Just as that conductor has no shortage of detractors, Tennstedt may be criticised for the very features which are virtues to some and flaws to others. I am puzzled by reviewers elsewhere who first confirm Tennstedt's stature in the pantheon of Twentieth Century conductors then go on either flatly to excoriate or at least damn with faint praise the bulk of the recordings here. Just as Karajan's insistence upon rich tone from his orchestra was condemned as "superficial", "bland" and "smooth", Tennstedt's direction of the LPO and the Berlin Philharmonic may be dismissed as prizing "pure sound" above interpretative novelty; certainly, I was newly struck by the virtuosity of the playing here and its sheer beauty as sound.
Time and again when listening to these discs I found myself warming to Tennstedt's sincerity of utterance. Not everything here is in marmoreal vein: his "Also sprach Zarathustra" is thrilling and takes its place among my preferred versions alongside Karajan and Maazel, while the "Night on a Bald Mountain" is similarly electric. I have long known and loved the thrust and drive of his 1978 analogue recording of Schumann's mini-masterpiece the "Konzertstück" for four horns and orchestra.
You may alight on any of the big symphonies in this collection and find yourself swept along by Tennstedt's power and conviction, although I would particularly commend his energised versions of the two Schumann symphonies and the marvellously fluid and flexible performance of Dvorak's "New World". Bruckner's grand gestures also ideally suit this most Romantic of conductors. However, I can understand doubts about the live Mahler symphony. This extends some five or six minutes beyond the norm - although some of that is vociferous applause at the end. Tennstedt uses the extra time to underline a coarser, more menacing mood than he evoked in his more delicate 1978 recording, yet the climax of the fourth movement is heroic, giving full scope to the Chicago brass, and the audience reaction is appropriately enthusiastic. This account by no means bored me and I suspect its measured majesty will grow on me with time. The Beethoven symphonies, however, could be termed conventional in the same way that Gunter Wand's Beethoven can seem faceless to some and faithful to others. I find them to be direct and unfussy. The "Eroica" is a live recording from a 1991 performance in the Royal Festival Hall and presses all the right buttons. Both the "Pastoral" and the Eighth are studio recordings: the former is light, sprung and joyful, the latter weighty in traditional mode. Similarly, I find no fault with the overtures which seem to me to models of concentrated propulsion.
The "Tannhäuser" overture on the second Wagner disc of orchestral excerpts is especially thrilling and powerful; indeed that disc of overtures and preludes is markedly more exciting than the disc of orchestral excerpts from the "Ring". The playing in the latter is sometimes a tad stodgy, just as Tennstedt's accompaniments to Jessye Norman's Wagner recital album of the same era were uninspired and as such constitutes one of this set's few comparative failures, rather as the Mahler Nine on the comparable bargain Mahler box set failed to lift off. The Berlin Philharmonic is for once hardly on form: the strings in "Wotan's Farewell" are decidedly edgy, orchestral tone is often rather coarse and blatty, there are blips in the brass playing and ensemble occasionally goes awry. To compound the disappointment, whoever typeset or proofread the booklet text thinks Wagner wrote something called "Forest Murmers".
The recording quality on this set is not perhaps the finest; apart from two Schumann items in analogue sound most here are early digital and hence rather opaque, yet still too bright when the sound peaks, with too great a contrast between loud and soft. Nonetheless, the sound is very acceptable, if not on the same level even as the recent spate of bargain box sets in analogue sound from Sony/RCA which are exceptionally full and vivid.
We have the standard EMI bargain box packaging: cardboard sleeves and a booklet containing timing and location details plus a biographical article about the conductor.
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