TOP 100 REVIEWERon 11 March 2016
What a stupendous set this is, not only for Klemperer's masterly control but for the sheer virtuosity of the (New) Philharmonia Orchestra, who time and again sound like the greatest orchestra in the world, not forgetting their Berlin counterparts. What an array of talent Legge assembled; the horns and strings in particular are flawless, sonorous and absolutely thrilling; it is so ironic that his attempt to disband them resulted in them regrouping as the New Philharmonia and re-affirming their special relationship with their aging conductor, who did some of his best work with them.
I hardly know where to start: for a risible outlay you can acquire, in very acceptable early stereo, analogue sound, beautifully remastered, one of the best anthologies of Wagner's orchestral music and a splendid account of Act I of the "Die Walküre", a priceless version of "Wotans Abschied" from Norman Bailey in majestic voice, plus recordings of five of Richard Strauss's showpiece tone poems to rival any in the catalogue. I was gripped by everything here, even though I acknowledge that frequently Klemperer's tempo can initially seem marmoreal, yet when you stick with it he delivers Wagnerian apotheosis in spades, abetted by playing of the highest calibre from his orchestra.
I should point out that the Act I from ""Die Walküre" is available here on CD3 for a fraction of the cost of the equivalent disc on the Testament label. It is not necessarily the finest you can hear, but it is very, very good, with the relatively unknown American Heldentenor William Cochran often sounding like a young James King when only in his mid-twenties. He might not eclipse Vickers or Melchior in "Siegmund heiss'ich" or always have the most ingratiating tone, but he has heft and stamina and when he is complemented by those wonderful horns he is completely convincing - and thrilling. What a pity, then, that Klemperer let him cop out of giving proper length to the top A on "Wälsungen Blut". Helga Dernesch likewise sounds similar to Leonie Rysanek with the dark, burnished mezzo tinge to her soprano (she of of course sang in both tessituras in her career) and Hans Sotin gives us a magnificently vocalised Hunding who sounds almost too noble.
The orchestral excerpts are stunning but if you like your Wagner vocal then Norman Bailey fulfils your every desire as a magnificent Wotan; at 37 years old he is in prime vocal estate and sings "Leb wohl" like a real god. Waves of voluptuous sound - those horns again! - support him and you'll be punching the air at that last "fürchtet". The subsequent Magic Fire Music dances in too leisurely a manner, however.
Then we hear one of Christa Ludwig's best recordings, in presumably the same, unchanged remastering from 2006 which was already very good, of the "Wesendonck Lieder", when she was very much in her dramatic soprano phase - hence the recording of the "Liebestod" at a time when she was toying with the idea of yielding to Karajan's urging to sing Isolde. It is very successful per se but she was no doubt wise to decline to sing the whole role, especially given the vocal crisis she experienced and surmounted in the early 70's.
The orchestral items spanning all eleven of Wagner's operas from "Rienzi" to "Parsifal" and including the "Siegfried Idyll" to boot, demonstrate Klemperer's affinity with the composer's idiom; "Rienzi" may have its longueurs as a work but he overture is a masterpiece. Everything here is played majestically, without compromise and with an iron grip over the sweep of the music; furthermore, unlike some conductors who seem to sacrifice homogeneity to spontaneity, Klemperer ensures that moments like the final chords are totally crisp and unanimous. The "Tannhäuser" overture at first lacks momentum but the central Venusberg section is intense and compelling. The greatest playing comes in Siegfried's Funeral Music, but one could equally point to the grandeur of the excerpts from "Die Meistersinger" or the glowing, ethereal rapture of the Preludes from both "Lohengrin" and "Parsifal". A final pointer to the splendour of Klemp's Wagner: the upward spiralling chromatic octave given to the strings at 8'37" in "Die fliegende Holländer"; magic!
And on to the Strauss, which really took me by surprise; these are accounts to match and rival those by Karajan, Kempe, Reiner et al. The "Metamorphosen" is very fine, lyrical and flowing, demonstrating ye again the virtuosity of the musicians, even if it does not match Karajan and Sinopoli in intensity. The "Don Juan" is terrific - one of the best I know - with extraordinary weight and attack, rivalling my favourite version by Szell. The middle section is slow: rapturous, languorous and a showcase for the woodwind, especially the oboe. We are hearing a great orchestra in full flight; listen to the perfectly poised F signalling the Don's demise. The "Tod und Verklärung" is another gem; some might first hear it as a tad a cumbersome but it builds inexorably to a wonderful climax of Wagnerian splendour. The dance from "Salome" is a wild ride, wholly satisfying and the concluding "Till Eulenspiegel" is warm, genial and and generous, with lots of pointed narrative detail in this, the most specifically graphic and pictorial of Strauss's tone poems.