One of the best series of recordings of Brahms's orchestral masterworks, but for me the standout performance is the Requiem. It has a quality of spiritual radiance comparable to Furtwangler's Beethoven ninth from Bayreuth in 1951. Very uplifting and moving.
OK; one's ears must adjust both to the somewhat scratchy, less than stellar sound - albeit well mastered to remove most of the hiss - and to the massive deliberateness of Klemperer's beat, which must sound distinctly marmoreal to those brought up on HIP-HAP skippiness but there is no doubting that this super-bargain box contains some of the greatest vintage Brahms ever recorded.
It is by no means uniformly marvellous: the first mono "Variations" is not especially well played or particularly secure in intonation and may safely be passed over and I for one, despite my admiration for Klemperer's magisterial grasp of the over-arching structure of the "Requiem" derive limited pleasure from Fischer-Dieskau's typically dry-voiced word-pointing or Schwarzkopf's quavery crooning, so far removed from the angelic purity and security of the best sopranos in this music, yet there is also some simply magical playing, particularly of the Second and Third Symphonies, when the inexorable grandeur of Klemp's conception sweeps all before. Nor is he by any means always ponderous, as even a cursory listen to the propulsive finale of the Second will confirm. The First and Fourth are also highly recommendable, even if I don't think Klemperer brings quite enough drive either to the opening of the former or the finale of the latter in comparison to touchstone performances by Furtwängler from wartime and the early fifties. Still the horns blare from the hillsides towards the end of the Allegro finale to the Fourth like an angelic cohort descending on the foe.
A special refined pleasure is derived from being able to hear, either on speakers or especially on headphones, how Klemperer deployed the strings in the old manner, with the second violins on the extreme right where the double basses are in a modern orchestra; this emphasises Brahms' contrapuntal effects and enlivens the aural palette.
Most old hands will have many if not all of these classic recordings but at this price this box set is worth acquiring either to get these works in the newly remastered sound or to flesh out any gaps in the collection - such as the twelve and a half minute gem the "Alto Rhapsody" with Christa Ludwig in most flexible and voluptuous voice.
The Brahms volume is a welcome addition to the new Klemperer Edition. It's also unnecessary. Klemperer's Brahms has been continuously available for more than fifty years. There have been three previous CD remasterings, the most recent in EMI's Great Recordings of the Century (GROC) series . Those 1997-1999 remasterings are re-used here. To EMI's credit, the new set is ridiculously inexpensive and the cardboard box looks good. Plus you can drop it without fear of breaking (I'm old).
When I was a teenager, the conductors l listened to on my new stereo were Bernstein, Karajan and Ormandy. I was new to classical music, but I figured out that a symphony orchestra consisted of two major string groups: Violins on the left; Lower Strings on the right.
A few years later, I bought my first Klemperer LP because it had a pretty cover. I was surprised to find out that a symphony orchestra actually had five string groups: Klemperer's strings were seated in an arc: First Violins, Basses, Cellos, Violas, Second Violins.
The blended 20th Century string sound has become almost universal, but Klemperer's antiphonal string sound is the orchestra that Brahms was familiar with. You could hear a lot of unexpected detail - especially with headphones. Not just highs on the left and lows on the right. Lots of contrapuntal dialogue among the five groups. A revelation.
I was surprised that no one else had thought of it. Some time later, I discovered that this was, in fact, the accepted seating arrangement for 200 years. Brahms took it as a given while composing his symphonies.
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.* 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].
Listen to these CDs while seated directly between two high quality speakers. Better yet, use headphones. Not only did Klemperer have the best-sounding recordings, I soon came to realize that he was a very great conductor. To my mind, the greatest of them all, certainly in the modern stereo era.
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.
Klemperer also had a reputation for slow tempos, but don't fear. His Brahms tempos are in the accepted normal range (except for the Academic Festival Overture and the scherzo of the 4th Symphony - slowish, but cleanly articulated and dramatic). The only drawback is no text or translations for the vocal works (they were included in the GROC edition).
* 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).
** Alas, long since sacrificed for urban renewal.
P.S. The Variations on a Theme of Haydn were recorded in 1954. Too early for stereo. Good mono. This was still Karajan's Philharmonia Orchestra (Dennis Brain led the horn section).
P.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.
The conducting is a revelation. I wish I could hear Otto Kemperer in concert. Unfortunately, he has passed away before my time. I don't feel qualified to describe the conducting here, therefore I will concentrate on the recording.
The origianl recording must have been ahead of its time as the excitement of the music went straight to my heart, however, the re-mastering hasn't been done for a 21st century music systme. When it comes to the high octaves you can hear a kind of a very slightly eerie sound, which was normal for the origianl recording considering its age. I only wish that the record company had tackled this problem.
Klemperer seemed to have a special affinity for the music of Brahms. The symphonies are given magisterial performances that feel as convincing as any, and the Requiem is stately and impressive without being ponderous.
If you have other recordings of these works in your collection, these would make worthy companions, or if you need an introduction to this timeless music, this convenient package would serve well.
I have known these recordings for 30 years.Despite conductors such as Walter,Karajan, Sanderling these remain unrivald in terms of strength and personality.Even if others show the softer side of Brahms better( 4 for instance) these are for me essential.Much improved sound too!