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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Music of Richard Wagner, 27 May 2013
This review is from: Wagner: Operatic Highlights; R. Strauss: Tone Poems (Audio CD)
The best-selling purveyor of Wagner's "bleeding chunks" (George Bernard Shaw's phrase) in the stereo era was Herbert von Karajan.
In the last thirty years of his life, he recorded and re-recorded them as many as three times each with the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, for DG and EMI.
He did the same with the tone poems of Richard Strauss.

His performances make an interesting comparison with those of Otto Klemperer
[Klemperer was one of the few colleagues Karajan admired. Toscanini was another].

In the first place, contrary to popular perception, Karajan was usually SLOWER than Klemperer.
More importantly, their sound world was completely different.
Karajan was the ultimate Twentieth Century conductor.
He favored a big, lush, homogeneous orchestral sound.
Otto Klemperer (born 1885) also favored a big sound, but it was a Nineteenth Century sound with maximum clarity and detail.

Klemperer's strings were seated in an arc: First Violins, Basses, Cellos, Violas, Second Violins.
Not all violins scrunched together on the left, and lower strings on the right, which you will hear with Bernstein, Karajan and Solti. *
Their 20th Century seating arrangement has become almost universal, but Klemperer's is the orchestra that Richard Wagner was familiar with.

I'm not denigrating Bernstein, Karajan or Solti; Its just that Klemperer came from a completely different world; A Nineteenth Century world he shared with Richard Wagner.

[hint: for ease of navigation, read the review though to the end, then come back and click on the links.]

Sir Adrian Boult recorded much of this same music for EMI: From Bach to Wagner
He also used divided violins.
Fine performances, but they lack the clarity of Klemperer.
Klemperer's 1960-63 recordings were made in Kingsway Hall.
Boult's 1972-74 recordings were made in the Abbey Road Studio.
The earlier recordings are much to be preferred.
So much for progress.
Klemperer's Philharmonia was also a much better orchestra than Boult's London Philharmonic.

Otto Klemperer was not a graceful conductor.
He conducted with with his fists and a scowl on his face.
He stood an intimidating 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and had a reputation (deserved) for mental instability and irrational behavior (nowadays he would be called bi-polar).
His intimidating appearance was the result of surgery to remove a brain tumor, which left him partially paralyzed for the last 30 years of his life.
The irrational behavior was with him all his life.
Intentional or not, this had an effect on orchestra players.

Toward the end of his life, the effects of old age sometimes caused Klemperer to slow down.
The Walkure Act 1 was recorded at his final recording session.
It is very slow indeed: 71 minutes, 43 seconds.
I sometimes think Klemperer's mental illness caused him to slow down in an obsessive need to hear everything.
Listen to Act 1 over headphones (string basses chugging away in the left channel).
The absolute clarity is amazing.
Surprisingly lyrical.
The singers are an unbalanced lot.
Siegmund and Sieglinde are completely overshadowed by Hunding.
Hans Sotin turns in a terrifying performance. What a bass!

My only complaint is the absence of texts and translations for the vocal works.
Predictable with these bargain boxes.
Still sad.

Textual Points:
Fliegende Hollander Overture - The booklet notes imply that Klemperer uses the 1843 original version.
In fact, he uses the revised version of 1860.
He did, however, record the 1843 version of the entire opera for EMI: Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander (Klemperer) - or - Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer
A rarity and a fine performance, worth seeking out.

Siegfried-Idyll is not played by the full Philharmonia Orchestra, but by 13 musicians recreating the 1870 first performance.

Siegfried's Rhine Journey is exactly that.
Most conductors join it to the Dawn Music (skipping the Siegfried-Brunnhilde duet).
Klemperer starts cold with the allegro of the Rhine Journey.
It was taken aback when I first heard it, but its actually quite invigorating.
The effect is a lot like the opening of Robert Schumann's Rhenish Symphony.

Richard Strauss:
Death and Transfiguration and Metamorphosen are two meditations on death and the eternal, one from the start of the composer's career, the other from the end.
Klemperer gives hair-raising performances.
The other three tone-poems are very good, though not as challenging.

Fine Sound: EMI's second series of re-masterings (24-bit) from 1998-2006 were used when available (3/4 of the box).

P.S. Toward the end of his life, Klemperer sometimes took up the baton again, but he just just stuck it in his fist. Not a baton technician.

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* Leopold Stokowski is credited with devising the modern seating plan with massed violins on the left.
Stokowski liked the richer string sound that resulted when the f-holes of both violin sections were facing the audience.
This is not as lewd as it sounds.
The f-holes are two f-shaped holes on the top of the violin.
They serve to focus and project the sound coming from the interior of the instrument.
Violinists seated to the left of the conductor hold their instruments at a 45 degree angle toward the audience.
Those to the right hold their instruments at a 45 degree angle away from the audience (unless they're left-handed, then no problem).
Sacrificing clarity for fullness of tone: the "Philadelphia Sound."

This new system also made it easier for musicians to stay together, and Twentieth century conductors came increasingly to adopt it
(bot not Toscanini or Furtwangler, both of whom passed away before stereo could document their divided violins).
Contemporaries of Klemperer who remained loyal to divided violins in the stereo age included Monteux, Boult, Bohm, Kubelik and Bruno Walter.
But their recordings never enjoyed the combination of detail and weight of tone that Otto Klemperer's did.
Klemperer benefited from the synergy of the Philharmonia Orchestra, producer Walter Legge, the EMI engineering staff, and London's Kingsway Hall.
[Fritz Reiner's earliest Chicago Symphony stereo recordings had divided violins, but by 1957 he had given up and adopted massed violins on the left].
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Initial post: 20 Feb 2015 02:17:59 GMT
Excellent review, John: thanks.

The first two CDs of this set are those found in the EMI 2 CD set, which I have.

This set of 5 CDs costs less!

I also have the Death and Transfiguration and Metamorphosen from an EMI pairing with Mahler 2: stunning readings, to put it mildly.

I will get this set. I would buy it just for Die Walkure: the rest (especially the Ludwig, which I've meant to get for ages) is just an amazing bonus.

Sadly, there's no music like this being played anymore...

No matter: here's a toast to the magnificent Otto Klemperer and his Philharmonia!

All the best.

HB
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