Otto Klemperer (conductor)
The Warner Classics Remastered Edition
Warner Classics 5419725704
[95 CDs]

Well, we have all waited quite some time for this box. As its cover states, it contains Klemperer’s complete recordings of symphonic works on EMI Columbia, HMV, Electrola and Parlophone. There are 95 CDs and almost everything has been previously reviewed on this site when the material appeared in EMI’s multi-volume box sets a decade ago – that’s before the Warner takeover. At the end of this text, I’ve listed the most relevant reviews of the boxes and other items, including things that first appeared on Testament. It might be worth noting, too, from the outset, that the EMI boxes contained older remasterings. In the case of the Brahms symphonic cycle, for example, released in 2013, the dates of remastering are 1992, 1997 and 1999 (though most remasterings come from 1999). Everything in this Warner box has been newly remastered by Christophe Hénault of Art & Son Studio, Annecy in 192kHz/24-bit from the original tapes except the 78s which have been remastered from the best surviving copies. In that respect it bears similarity with the 109 CD Barbirolli box, which was also transferred by Art & Son and with which it shares a uniform look.

The advantage of the composer-led boxes was in their avoidance of the fetish of Original Jackets. This box’s dutiful near-chronological trawl through Klemperer’s recordings with (largely) the Philharmonia or New Philharmonia, means that numerous discs clock in at 35 or so minutes and that there are examples of a double LP necessitating – as part of the rubric – two CDs, as for example Bruckner 8 and the studio Beethoven Ninth (the Testament Ninth, live, occupies just one disc). We all know that however attractive the LP miniatures are, however retro the packaging, however intriguing the artwork, labels do this to make more money.

Given the foregoing, this is (overwhelmingly) a symphonic collection. The operatic and sacred legacy box is next to come but his collaboration with Christa Ludwig in Brahms, Wagner and Mahler is here. Klemperer was famously active at the Kroll in Berlin, the city where he first made recordings, and thereafter he was recorded, either in the studio or live, in Los Angeles, Budapest, Paris, Vienna and London amongst other important centres. If you want to augment Klemperer’s EMI legacy you’ll need to investigate those 1924-32 recordings which were available in a box on Archiphon, as well as Hungaroton, Vox, ICA, Pristine Audio (Klemperer in Philadelphia), Audite for the fine Berlin radio recordings, and others.

You might have Naxos’ transfer of his 1927 Brahms First Symphony, Academic Festival Overture and some Wagner with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. This is on CD 1 of the new box and whilst I appreciate the assiduous transfers – they eliminate the pops and scratches that are present in an old Symposium disc and they have a bit of extra body – they suffer from an absence of room acoustic and are too boxy for my tastes but there are only two CDs of 78s. Once past the 1929 Parlophones, we zip forward to the 1954 monos.

I suppose I should address the remasterings here and now. They have a greater sense of focus and in the piano recordings with Annie Fischer, for example, there is certainly a rather greater definition to the cellos and basses and notably a greater tonal amplitude. In Das Lied von der Erde Wunderlich’s voice rings out in a way that I haven’t quite heard before and the orchestral clarity too is notable. There is a greater breadth to the sound throughout and whilst it’s not as if the previous EMI remasterings were poor these new ones are definably better in terms of clarity and orchestral definition and sonic density.

Almost everything proceeds chronologically so one can trace Walter Legge’s commercial imperatives for the German conductor and can equally see quite how late were the Mahler and Bruckner EMI recordings; it wasn’t until 1960 that Legge approved of Klemperer recording Bruckner 7 and it was only the following year that he recorded Mahler – the Fourth, hardly the most earth-shattering of the symphonies, which – for Legge – came with the advantage of his wife Schwarzkopf singing. The fact that she arrived an hour late, making the orchestra wait like schoolboys, and Klemperer too, probably didn’t discomfort either her or Legge.

Legge needed standard repertoire and that’s what Klemperer delivered. In time, the standard rep monos were largely remade in stereo. However, CD 4 contains a previously unreleased 3-minute snippet of Hindemith’s Horn Concerto No 1 which Dennis Brain had premiered with the composer a few years before. Brain complained to Legge that ‘the old man has no rhythm’ and the recording was abandoned. Instead, Klemperer substituted Noblissima visione – an excellent compromise and a stirring recording. He’d recorded it for RIAS Berlin earlier in the year, and the timings are almost identical. (You can hear it on Audite.) Meanwhile, Brain, one feels, much preferred working for Karajan than for Klemperer. Otherwise, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven dominate the mono legacy which inevitably, despite the remasterings, are flatter and have less depth and perspective than the sonically superior stereos. The monos are not necessarily superior interpretatively: in fact, it’s instructive to hear how similar the remakes are to the earlier monos, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as Klemperer had had four decades to refine his interpretations and, other than his very last years, he wasn’t a notably slow conductor.

Klemperer’s Bach Orchestral Suites were recorded twice, the first time in 1954 and again in 1969 (you will have to accept, maybe welcome, that there is a considerable amount of reportorial duplication in this box). In general, the later set is more majestic, slower, less pointed. The Busch Chamber Players may have recorded the set back in 1936 but Klemperer’s aesthetic was understandably a world away from their convictions as to chamber-scaled incision. 

Mozart’s Symphony 29, recorded in 1954, is much the same as the 1965 stereo remake though it’s true that the Jupiter’s first two movements have slowed by 1962 and in general it’s the weightier works that cause Klemperer to modify and slow his tempi. The monos succeed admirably in allowing one to hear the consistency with which Klemperer allowed prominence to the winds, to the bass line and to antiphonal placements but the stereos allow one to hear this with notably more clarity though very occasionally this comes with a loss of vitality.

People sometimes overlook Klemperer’s Haydn but he recorded eight symphonies. They’re finely detailed and serious-minded, as one would perhaps expect, so those searching for Beechamesque joie de vivre will need to keep searching (my review of Klemperer’s Haydn recordings is at the foot of this text).

Klemperer and Beethoven: clearly a major priority. He recorded the Eroica twice, first in 1955 in mono and then in 1959. Bisecting these was his 1958 Berlin visit to record the symphony with the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester where, either because he was playing it safe with an orchestra with which he was relatively unfamiliar or because the fancy took him, it’s noticeable that this is a decidedly breezier reading, the funeral march notably so. Similarly, he taped two versions of the Fifth. Contrasting his 1957 Philharmonia Pastoral with the 1954 Audite RIAS version one finds the German performance tighter all round. He taped three recordings of the Seventh (1955, 1960, 1968) and it grew increasingly slow and less rhythmically incisive. The studio Ninth is augmented by Testament’s live version from the Royal Festival Hall made on 15 November 1957 which came in the middle of the studio Ninth recording schedules. The live performance isn’t so much faster as tighter than the studio version (the scherzo live is splendid) and generates real architectural and musical tension. Enough ink has been spilled about Klemperer’s Beethoven but one thing is worth saying. He was responsive, as any conductor is, to different orchestras and recording circumstances and as a result one can’t say that these EMI recordings necessarily reflect his last word on a given work. They certainly reflect his approach in the studio at the time but as the Berlin radio recordings on Audite show, made contemporaneously, this was not Klemperer’s only response even to canonic repertoire.

Three Schubert symphonies survive – Nos 5, 8 and 9 – and they’re splendid; alert, alive, full of clarity and directness, but there is also one addition, the previously unreleased first movement of Symphony No.4 in its first (and only) take. It’s known that he found the whole symphony challenging so he was probably relieved that the recording fell through.

He left behind a Schumann cycle which is admirable except for the Rhenish which was recorded in 1969 by which time his beat was flabby, the interpretation lacking much sense of élan. As for Brahms, the 78rpm First Symphony reveals a Klemperer whose mastery of the music’s syntax is fully in place. He was, of course, already in his early 40s by then, but similar qualities can be felt in the stereo cycle of 1956-57, thirty or so years later. The First is commanding and only relatively slower in the outer movements than the 78, the Second never indulged, the Third – the trickiest to balance and to interpret – possibly the best, whilst the Fourth is somewhat idiosyncratic. The watchword for his Brahms throughout is ‘severity’ but it’s never callous and always architecturally honest with rock steady rhythms.

The Wagner extracts are stirring, strong, sinewy and sometimes overwhelming. They also remind one of his contemporaneous successes in the opera house, trying and ultimately failing to entice Callas to sing Ortrud in 1963, a year in which he seems to have been firing on mighty cylinders. This was the same year he recorded Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, a reading of such virility and accomplishment that it’s hard to define how splendid it is. By comparison the other symphonies he recorded, the Fourth and the Pathétique, lack a similar power and panache; the scherzo of the latter is limply conducted and lets things down.

There were other one-off forays. Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is – well – fantastic. Franck’s Symphony, a work to which he seems never to have been reconciled – in other words he didn’t much like it – is similarly fine, notwithstanding that long-standing antipathy. On the other hand, whilst many people seem to admire his Dvořák New World, it’s under-accented and slow and the finale is hardly con fuoco in anyone’s currency.

Bruckner and Mahler; please see the reviews below for more expansive – and better – analysis than I can give.

Klemperer was a selective Straussian but what little he recorded was both consistent and fine. Don Juan features twice in his studio discography, the first from his Berlin days on 78 and there are two versions of the Dance of the seven veils, more orchestrally controlled than erotically alluring, strangely for a man of Klemperer’s known, if sometimes lurid, erotic undertakings. Til Eulenspiegel was also recorded twice, Tod und Verklärung once and there’s a truly memorable recording of Metamorphosen.

If you dig back in time you will find a 1931 recording of Weill’s Threepenny Opera Suite, a Klemperer commission, though it’s not in this box. This EMI recording of it can’t match the tang and grease of that Kroll-era recording but it’s heard in vastly improved sound and is fine on its own terms. Klemperer’s own compositions received healthy coverage from his label. There are two string quartets played by the Philharmonia String Quartet and Symphonies 2, 3 4 and various smaller works including a previously unreleased run-through of the 1962 version of his Fugue and Variations for String Orchestra. His compositional technique is quixotic and he is prone to dramatic thinning of the orchestral texture (try Symphony 4). The Second Symphony is rather anonymous – though there are brief Mahlerian elements – but it’s in the smaller quartets that Klemperer’s compositional finesse can most be felt. Quartet No.7 is an especially felicitous and even occasionally touching example of his art.  

Klemperer the accompanist is best known for his collaborations with Menuhin, Oistrakh, Barenboim, Annie Fischer and Alan Civil. The Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle with Daniel Barenboim is almost deliberately stodgy; whether the sluggish conducting influenced the equally stolid piano playing or whether this was a joint enterprise, the results are disappointing. Civil’s Mozart Horn Concertos are delightfully accomplished but so are his recording with Marriner and with Kempe. The Beethoven Violin Concerto with Menuhin is less recommendable than one might have hoped but the Brahms with Oistrakh, recorded in Paris with the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, has always been celebrated for its combination of monumentality and lyricism. Once again Klemperer offers a severe orchestral tapestry and Oistrakh brings masculine intensity and lyric strength to the work’s lasting advantage. I like the Fischer-Klemperer team in their collaborations in Liszt and Schumann.

The last disc is a ‘Historical Souvenir’ documentary by Jon Tolansky. It contains many an interesting and entertaining snippet from a host of people. It’s especially interesting to hear Lionel Bentley, a survivor from the 1929 LSO, talk of Klemperer’s over-rehearsing and tyrannous attitude when he first conduced that orchestra. Eugene Goossens, who was living and working in America at the same time as Klemperer, is quoted in the course of a letter to a BBC colleague calling him a ‘notorious mental case’ and filling in unsavoury details regarding Klemperer’s alleged behaviour toward women in their hotel rooms. Klemperer’s manic depression, or bipolarism, is an unavoidable feature of his biography. Rehearsal snippets are here too, always valuable indices of a conductor’s approach to his orchestra and to repertoire. We also hear from a speech Klemperer gave at the Dorchester Hotel. It’s astonishing, given his physical vicissitudes that he survived as long as he did and achieved as much as he did, given that he could have died on the operating table in 1939. He survived the removal of a golf ball-sized tumour, partially paralysed, and with impaired speech.

The booklet has plenty of photographic images, though not all are the clearest or sharpest (though they are evocative), and there’s a succinct introduction to the conductor. There’s no track listing as such, just CD numbers next to the alphabetical list of works.

In our end is our beginning. Klemperer’s Warner legacy deserves the best treatment. The remasterings, as I’ve noted, are the best they’ve yet received and if certain elements of this box can be criticised for skimpiness that’s outweighed by admiration for the totality of its reach, given the inherent copyright limitations involved. If you don’t have the previous EMI boxes, you should take the plunge. If you do, or have enough of the core repertoire, even the sonic advantages of this box may not be enough to tempt you. I think that’s where we came in.

Jonathan Woolf 

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MusicWeb reviews
Mozart EMI 8 CD box
Haydn EMI Classics    
Beethoven Choral live ex-Testament
Beethoven Symphonies on EMI  5 6 7 Naxos 3
Beethoven, Mozart and Handel Grosse Fugue, Serenades and Concerto grosso on an EMI single CD
Brahms EMI Classics 3 CD box
Brahms Violin Concerto with Oistrakh on EMI Classics 3 CD box
Romantic Symphonies and Overtures, EMI 10 CD box
Wagner and Strauss EMI Classics 5 CD box
Schumann and Liszt with Annie Fischer on Warner 8 CD box
Bruckner EMI Classics 6 CD box
Mahler EMI Classics 6 CD box
Mahler Individual Symphonies in Tony Duggan’s reviews or surveys 2 4 9 Das Lied von der Erde
Christa Ludwig’s recordings with Klemperer EMI GROC
Twentieth Century Music EMI Classics 4 CD box containing an extensive biographical documentary
Beethoven symphonies on Music and Arts Klemperer and the Philharmonia in Vienna
Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey through His Times/Klemperer: The Last Concert Arthaus DVDs