on 12 June 2013
Klemperer's EMI studio recordings of Mahler's music are mostly fine, but they are not always the best Klemperer performances of this music that exist. The recording quality from EMI is generally excellent. If you explore the legacy of "live" Klemperer Mahler performances, available on other labels, you will not surprisingly often be forced to sacrifice something in terms of sound quality while gaining in terms of the added intensity and excitement of "live" performance.
There are at least five or six other Klemperer performances of No 2. The "live" Concertgebouw one from 1951 with Kathleen Ferrier singing the contralto part has a feverish, ecstatic and sometimes savage intensity to it that makes it one of the most amazing recorded performances (of any music) that I know. Not for weak stomachs! - but the quality of the recording is considerably inferior. Even so, it will blow you away. This Philharmonia studio version is great, but not in that league. There exists also a Vienna Philharmonic performance caught live in June 1963, with Vishnevskaya and Rössl-Majdan, in which the orchestral playing, while not that tidy, has the unmistakeable idiomatic "rightness" and authentic timbre that this orchestra can bring to Mahler's music: that it was "his" orchestra between 1897 and 1907 somehow magically still seems to come out. This performance, like the Amsterdam one, has very special qualities that make it essential listening for Mahler-lovers. However, the quality of the recording is a drawback: it is clean, but noticeably constricted and lacking in the depth that this symphony demands. Very much better recorded is the Bavarian Radio Symphony performance from January 1965 with Heather Harper and Janet Baker, which has been available on EMI and is magnificent, if you can make allowances for some very slow tempi in places, and some moments of unconvincing balance in the recording of the orchestra. All three of these live performances arguably are even more compelling than the Philharmonia studio recording, itself very fine.
At least four "live" performances of No 4 have been preserved. I know (and much admire) the 1955 Concertgebouw version with Maria Stader. It has greater sparkle than the EMI effort with Schwarzkopf, and the mono recording is clear if a touch light at the bass end, and with slightly strident upper string sound. However, if you dare to play it at high volume the sound opens out considerably and there is an amazing amount of telling instrumental detail, with the Concertgebouw players at the top of their game. The long (19 mins)and protean slow movement becomes something penetrating under Klemperer's direction, by turns blissful, disturbing, anguished and serene. The finale is a delight, providing a moving rounding-off of the symphony, paradise with just a touch of moistness around the eyes, because this paradise is not attainable without mortality. All in all a magnificent performance, whereas the EMI one seems to me at the "very good indeed" level only. (I have yet to get to know two other Klemperer performances of this symphony from the 1950s, one with the Köln RSO and one with the Bavarian RSO.)
No 7 is a problem, in that it may be the only symphony of those issued here of which a "live" performance does not also exist. I think that Klemperer took it up again in the late 60s, after not having performed it for very many years, (unlike Nos 2 and 4 which he performed on quite a number of occasions during the 50s and 60s), and when he recorded No 7, in 1968, he had reached the time in his career when his tempi really had slowed down a lot. There is much here that is very beautiful (particularly in the scherzo and the Nachtmusik 2), but the first movement lumbers awkwardly along at Klemperer's tempo, with a critical lack of "Schwung" (momentum), and, despite many evocative moments and much wonderfully audible detail, I find the Nachtmusik 1 also drags in places. In spite of magical moments and outstanding recording-quality, for this symphony as a whole other performers will be preferred: Abbado, Bernstein, Inbal, Kubelik, Barenboim ... However, this Klemperer recording needs to be listened to for its many insights.
The EMI recording of Symphony No 9 is austere, powerful and compelling. I have yet to investigate the "live" Vienna performance from 1968 that was available on Testament, and which some people describe as far superior to this EMI studio version.
The Lied von der Erde performance here is very fine indeed and wonderfully recorded. Ludwig in "Der Abschied" is one of the greatest among greats. (Klemperer's early 1950s Vox studio performance of this work, with the VSO, now that it exists in well-remastered form on CD, is worth investigating for comparison. It sounds remarkably good for 1951, with only a degree of constriction to the sound. Dermota is an excellent tenor soloist, and Elsa Cavelti is always committed and competent, while clearly (not her fault!) not equal to the competition on record (Decca) in the person of Kathleen Ferrier at the beginning of the 1950s. Some of the VSO wind playing is most beautiful, although the upper strings can sound thin. The tempo for Der Abschied seems just a whisker too flowing, this movement taking only 22:27.)
The songs on this EMI set sung by Ludwig are on the same elevated level as her contribution to Das Lied von der Erde.
You will have noticed that these remarks are based on incomplete evidence. I continue to get to know Klemperer's "live" Mahler performances, but a number remain that I have yet to hear.
In the meantime the message is: this is a fine collection, with (mostly) great recording quality. In terms of actual performances, if you pick and choose you can sometimes find preferable versions, also conducted by Klemperer, elsewhere. This is certainly true of Symphonies Nos 2 and 4 (and may be true of No 9). Even so, nobody will regret investing in this very inexpensive box, so long as they don't expect it quite to give the final word on this amazing music. That Klemperer was one of the direct links to Mahler and his time is often remarked on, but hearing the vividness, eloquence and (sometimes) rawness of his Mahler performances makes that link seem present and real even now.