Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’ (1888/1896)
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1892-1900)
Symphony No. 7 in E minor (1904-1906)
Symphony No. 9 in D major (1908-1909)
Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)
Selected songs from Rückert-Lieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Hilde Rössl-Majdan (mezzo-soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Fritz Wunderlich (tenor)
Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer
rec. 1961-1967, Kingsway Hall, London & No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, UK
No texts
Warner Classics 5419780459 [7 CDs: 411]

In 2023 Warner Classics issued a substantial boxed set, collecting all the recordings made for EMI by Otto Klemperer. My colleague Jonathan Woolf wrote a typically perspicacious overview of the mammoth collection. The present set is, I believe, extracted from that set of 95 CDs; it contains all Klemperer’s Mahler recordings for EMI.  These Mahler performances have appeared together in an earlier box; in 2013 Warner issued the recordings in a set of just 6 CDs. In that incarnation the recordings were appraised by Dan Morgan (review). I bought that set, even though I already had a couple of the recordings in my collection. The 2013 set was described as being “newly remastered in 24-bit/96kHz from the original master tapes by Abbey Road Studios, London”. Now they appear again, in a 2023 remastering, also in 24-bit/96kHz, by Art and Son Studio who have used the original tapes. All the recordings were made in London’s Kingsway Hall with the exception of the movements in Das Lied von der Erde which involved Christa Ludwig; these were set down in July 1966 in the Abbey Road Studio No. 1.

Most of Klemperer’s Mahler recordings had been issued as single releases before MusicWeb came into existence. As a result, we don’t have many detailed individual reviews of these recordings. We’ve covered the recordings over the years but almost invariably as part of reviews of much larger boxed sets. However, readers who want more comment on the music and/or performances than I will be able to make in the context of a review of a seven-disc set will find all of these Klemperer performances, with the exception of the Fourth symphony, covered in detail in the various synoptic surveys by Tony Duggan.

Rehearing these recordings for this review has reinforced my admiration for them, both as performances and as recordings. Klemperer was very much his own man when it comes to these works (and, indeed in all the music he conducted) but even when I disagree with what he does – as I do strongly when it comes to the Seventh symphony – he always has worthwhile things to impart about the music. He’s superbly served by both the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia orchestras and his vocal soloists range from good to outstanding (in Das Lied von der Erde). The recordings themselves belie their age; the sound is over 60 years old in some cases but the engineers’ work is always impressive and the new remasterings show their skills off to great advantage. I think it’s also worth making a few general remarks about the ‘Klemperer sound’ which I believe the engineers faithfully capture. Klemperer liked to give proper prominence to the woodwind and these recordings show how important Mahler’s writing for the wind choir is. You’ll also find that the harp parts are very audible; there’s a case to be made that the harps are a bit too forwardly balanced but I don’t mind that. When it comes to the strings, two factors are crucially important. Klemperer split his violins left and right; time and again this pays huge dividends, not least in the Fourth and Ninth symphonies. He also positioned the double basses to his left, towards the rear of the orchestra, behind the first violins. Throughout all these recordings, the basses give a wonderfully firm, almost gruff, foundation to the orchestral sound. All these dispositions are highly effective in Mahler’s music.

One of the earliest recordings here is the ‘Resurrection’ symphony; this was set down in two sets of sessions, in November 1961 and March 1962. For many years I owned EMI’s single-disc version in what I presume was the original remastering for CD. However, I no longer have that; when I acquired the 2013 boxed set, I judged that the new remastering offered a noticeable enhancement in terms of recorded sound; so, the original disc went to a charity shop and I can’t offer a full comparison now.  However, an A/B comparison of the 2013 and 2023 remasterings suggests to me that the more recent version is a further step up. The 2023 sound is somewhat more vivid and defined. Also, on my equipment at least, the treble is not quite as bright as I hear on the 2013 remastering; a degree of ‘edge’ has been taken off the sound of the violins and oboes. 

Klemperer’s conducting of the first movement is taut and urgent. He does obey Mahler’s injunctions to slacken the pace at times, but even then there’s no sentimental lingering; at all times a sense of purpose is maintained. I think he catches the mood of the second movement nicely. Part of Mahler’s main marking is Sehr gemächlich (very leisurely or unhurriedly) and this conductor is faithful to that. The Philharmonia plays with idiomatic lightness. In this movement, I detect less difference between the 2013 and 2023 sound; both are very good. The third movement opens with a dramatic timpani solo; I think this has a touch more presence in the latest remastering. Klemperer conducts this movement very well. In the driving climax section (from 8:51) he keeps the music on a tight rein until the very last moment. I think that in the 2023 remastering this passage has even more punch than previously and then we hear lots of detail as the movement winds down to its close. Hilde Rössl-Majdan sings ‘Urlicht’ well, though she certainly doesn’t erase memories of singers such as Janet Baker, Sarah Connolly or Helen Watts. Maybe her straightforward approach is in keeping with Klemperer’s view of the music, though.

Apart from a disappointingly weedy tam-tam crash right at the start, the opening of the vast finale has great impact. The off-stage horns – and their distant echo – come across particularly well in the 2023 incarnation. Klemperer is clear-eyed in his unfolding of the movement’s drama; others may have delivered it with more theatrical panache but as I listen, I always find Klemperer convincing. The grosse Appell (tr 8, 4:11) is very effectively captured by the EMI engineers. You’ll hear it very well in either the 2013 or 2023 iterations; however, I feel there’s a fraction more presence in the later version, not least in the way the ultra-soft bass drum registers. The Philharmonia Chorus was trained for this assignment by the legendary Wilhelm Pitz and it shows. Their first entry is ideally hushed yet firm. The choral finale as a whole is impressively performed and recorded and at the very end, thank goodness, the tam-tams don’t disappoint.

Klemperer’s recording of ‘Resurrection’ remains a force to be reckoned with more than sixty years after it was recorded. The interpretation is trenchant and imposing. The playing and singing are entirely worthy of the conductor’s conception. As for the recorded sound, its excellence is a tribute to the work of the EMI recording team. True, it’s not a modern digital recording but this analogue sound wears its six decades very lightly indeed. No one hearing this recording is likely to be disappointed sonically. There remains the question of the respective remasterings.  Anyone who has visited an optician for an eye test is likely to have been shown black circles against either a red or green background and invited to say – if they can – which of two images is sharper or clearer. In many ways I feel the same about these two versions of the recordings; sometimes the 2023 version sounds sharper/clearer but at other times it’s difficult to tell a difference. On balance, I think the 2023 remastering offers a little more presence and impact but anyone who has the 2013 version should feel well pleased with that.   

The Fourth was the first Mahler symphony that Klemperer recorded for EMI: the sessions took place in Kingsway Hall in April 1961. Your reaction to his account of this symphony may well depend on your view of the work itself. If you’re looking for an interpreter who brings out the charm in the music then Klemperer’s take on the score may not impress you. If, however, you believe that there’s a degree of darkness beneath the surface of the music then you may be more favourably disposed. I am very much on the side of those who incline towards the darker side of this work, so I found quite a lot to admire in Klemperer’s interpretation, even if I wouldn’t rank it among the leading recommendations; as we shall see, it does have one aspect for which I don’t care at all. I’d not owned this recording until I bought the 2013 boxed set a couple of years ago so, though I think I’d heard it, Klemperer’s performance was one I hadn’t properly absorbed until then. Once I had experienced it, I looked up Tony Duggan’s survey of some of the recordings and it seemed to me that two comments hit several nails squarely on the head. One was this: “there are gains in the much clearer detailing of textures and parts, notably the woodwinds, always a fingerprint of Klemperer. Not for him the excessive indulgence of Mengelberg, or the softer grain of Walter, however. For Klemperer everything is clearly presented in bold, Breughel-like primary colours.” Later on, Tony says “Klemperer’s primary-colour sound palette again pays off”. In truth, those observations apply to all the performances in this set.

The core tempo set for the first movement is very leisurely; some may feel it’s too broad. However, listening to the 2013 remastering, everything is very clear, including a very firm, but not excessive, string bass line. There’s excellent cut-through for the woodwind and we hear the decided benefits of divided violins. Accents are sharply articulated and the playing is often spiky. In the 2023 remastering, it seems to me that you get all this but there’s an extra degree of brightness and definition. That comparative judgement holds good for the movements which follow. I like the second movement. True, the pace is on the steady side but one of Mahler’s key markings is Ohne Hast (without haste). The deliberately mis-tuned solo violin is nicely astringent. But not everything is piquant; Klemperer does find warmth in the music at times, though arguably not to the extent that some other conductors have done. One little detail that caught my ear was the very brief interjection of muted horns at 2:44. Guided, I’m sure, by the conductor, the Philharmonia horn players produce a sound that conveys an image of gargoyles sticking their tongues out in derision. Klemperer’s account of the lovely slow movement is surprisingly swift. It’s of a piece with the lack of sentimentality which marks out his interpretation of the symphony. In some ways I like the way that the music flows but I wish he’d adopted a slightly broader, more affectionate speed. I mentioned that the performance had one feature I don’t care for at all. No prizes for guessing that it’s the contribution of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the last movement. There are positive features, principally her articulation of the German text. However, I’m afraid Schwarzkopf is fundamentally miscast; she’s too grown up and ‘knowing’; the music requires – nay, demands – a lighter, more innocent touch. It’s a pity because Klemperer handles the movement well; he gets some very sensitive playing from the Philharmonia, not least in the closing stanza of the poem. The other feature I like is the pungent orchestral interjections between the verses of the song and, indeed, during some of the verses. Klemperer’s performance of this symphony may not be a front runner, but it’s well worth hearing.

What, though, are we to make of his recording of the Seventh? It was the last of these Mahler recordings; he made it with the New Philharmonia in September 1968, once more in Kingsway Hall. The recording has acquired near-legendary status, largely for all the wrong reasons. Klemperer turned the symphony into a musical behemoth, taking 100:42 to play a work which most conductors get through in around 85 minutes. I confess that all the adverse comments I’d read over the years had made me avoid the recording until I invested in Warner’s 2013 boxed set a couple of years ago: now there was no escape! Tony Duggan didn’t include Klemperer in his survey of recordings of the Seventh. However, Lee Denham did reference it in his more recent survey of recordings of the work. Lee described it as “a recording that every Mahlerian has to hear at least once in their lives, even if perhaps they may never want to listen to it again”. I chuckled when I read that the other day because it mirrored my own experience: having listened to it when I bought the 2013 box, I thought it was highly unlikely I’d listen a second time; but for this present assignment I’ve done just that!

Actually, for all that Klemperer’s view of the work is unique – some might say perverse – his performance exerts a strange fascination, even if it doesn’t compel one to return to it. After all, we mustn’t forget that Klemperer was a seasoned Mahler interpreter and we must pay him the compliment of assuming that the performance enshrined in this set was the product of careful thought and study. Richard Osborne’s comments in the booklet essay are revealing. He writes that Klemperer “had grave doubts about the Seventh Symphony despite having danced attendance on Mahler in Prague in 1906 as the composer made meticulous preparations for the work’s premiere”. Osborne goes on to say that Klemperer conducted the symphony in Cologne in 1922 but then never conducted it again until he made this “unexpected recording” in 1968. What caused Klemperer to revisit the score after more than 40 years and, in particular, to perpetuate his thoughts on it through a recording?  Clearly, the work was not close to him in the way that the other works in this set were.

The first thing to say is that in both the 2013 and 2023 remasterings you’ll hear excellent recorded sound. I think there’s a degree of greater brightness and definition in the 2023 sound but, candidly, the differences are not great. The opening of the first movement is extremely slow; it’s a miracle that the music even held together at this tempo. Though Klemperer does observe later instructions to speed up, everything springs from this initial miscalculation; consequently, even the music which should be livelier is, in fact, ponderous. Klemperer’s approach is so laboured that he succeeds in sucking the life out of the music. The last climax (26:06) would be thought spacious if this were a Bruckner Adagio; in this context, the speed is just perverse. Klemperer makes the movement massive and monolithic. One wonders what the orchestra thought of all this. Klemperer takes 27:52 over this movement which is four or five minutes longer than most recordings I’ve heard. In the first Nachtmusik movement I admire the detail that comes through, especially from the woodwind, but again there’s not much life in the music-making. Matters improve in the Scherzo. The tempo is steady but not excessively so, and this is music which seems to suit Klemperer better. I like the pungency of the woodwinds and horns and, overall, the shadowy, somewhat gothic nature of the music comes over effectively. The second Nachtmusik (Andante amoroso) is, again, steady but the pace is not unreasonable. I don’t really think, though, that Klemperer invests the music with sufficient warmth. The finale is another victim of the conductor’s ponderous approach. The very opening doesn’t inspire much confidence; what should be, after the timpani solo, an exuberant fanfare is simply loud and leaden. There is at times a certain grandeur to Klemperer’s approach but as a whole his interpretation is a failure and the closing pages are so slow and overblown that you wonder if the symphony will ever end. Lee Denham’s verdict is spot on. For the purposes of this review, I’ve now experienced Klemperer’s recording of the Seventh for a second time! I doubt I will ever listen to it again.

If Klemperer’s recording of the Seventh represents a failure on a pretty epic scale, his 1967 account of the Ninth is a very different matter. This is one of the finest accounts of this great symphony that I’ve heard though, true to form, Klemperer is very much his own man and his reading of the score may not be to all tastes. That said, I’d suggest it’s a recording that demands to be heard. If I were required to sum up Klemperer’s interpretation of the Ninth in one word, I think I might choose ‘unflinching’. What I mean by this that is that there seems to me to be a consistent purposefulness and that the conductor refuses to be deviated from his serious view of the work. On the sleeve containing one of the two discs Warner reproduce the head and shoulders photograph of Klemperer in profile used, I think, for the original LP release; it could not be more apt.

He is patient, even stoic, in the great first movement of the symphony. This music demands the firmest possible intellectual grip and Klemperer displays that from start to finish. I find his unfolding of the music to be absolutely compelling. He presents the music spaciously but never does one feel that the pace is too slow – this is not a re-run of the Seventh; on the contrary, there’s a consistent sense of rightness. Crucially, Klemperer immediately establishes and then maintains tension. The EMI sound is marvellous – little allowance need be made for the fact that the recording dates from February 1967 – and so is the playing of the New Philharmonia. Arguably, the core tempo for the Ländler second movement is a little too deliberate: the music is steady and sturdy. However, I think Klemperer “gets away with it”: the sardonic aspect of the music is well conveyed. Two characteristic Klemperer traits are firmly and beneficially in evidence hereabouts: strong, incisive woodwinds and a rock-solid bass foundation to the string section.  You could make a case that the speed for the Rondo-Burleske is a little below Allegro assai but I’m not complaining. This is a trenchant reading and if the pacing is a trifle on the steady side, there’s ample compensation in the sharp pointing of the music. The slower episode (from just after 7:00) is noble, with no trace of sentimentality.

Klemperer crowns his performance with a patrician interpretation of the Adagio finale. There’s plenty of feeling in the music-making but the conductor’s heart is definitely not on his sleeve – I return to my earlier comment about purposefulness and a refusal to be deviated. That’s not to say that the performance is cold; Mahler’s aching, beautiful music is assuredly not short changed and the NPO plays it with eloquence. This movement, incidentally, is another instance where Klemperer’s insistence on a left-right division of the violins is so important. The extended climax (from 13:57) is very powerful and in the pages that immediately follow the horns ring out superbly. The symphony’s close (from 20:42) is memorable indeed. The superb NPO string section plays with tremendous control and thereby delivers all the hushed tenderness and fragility in the music. Fifty-six years after it was recorded, this utterly distinctive version of the Ninth remains one of the finest ever committed to disc.

If Klemperer’s version of the Ninth is one of the great recordings of that symphony, then his account of Das Lied von der Erde is one of the great Mahler recordings tout court. If memory serves me correctly, this recording was the first one of the work that I bought (on LP); that was back in the 1970s. I thought it was superb then and my admiration for it hasn’t dimmed over time, even though I’ve heard and acquired many more recordings, including several very distinguished ones, since then. Indeed, it remains one of the two recordings against which I measure all others: my other go-to version is Bernard Haitink’s 1975 recording (review). In fact, I think the Klemperer version edges it over the Haitink on account of the respective tenor soloists. Fritz Wunderlich is so much better than James King while Christa Ludwig is the only female singer who I would rank alongside Dame Janet Baker in this work.  

In his 2020 survey of recordings of Das Lied, Ralph Moore made this version his primary recommendation. I believe that he listened to the recording in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series – in other words in the 1998 mastering. In that context it’s relevant to note that Ralph said “[t]he sound is still magnificent after fifty-five years.”  I have had that same version in my collection for ages and sonically it’s still very satisfying. I made one or two comparisons between it and the 2013 and 2023 remasterings and, in all honesty, I think all three are equally fine. 

The recording was not made all in one go. Wunderlich recorded his songs in Kingsway Hall in February and November 1964 but it was not until July 1966 that Ludwig recorded her contributions in Studio 1 at Abbey Road. By that time the Philharmonia (which played for the Wunderlich sessions) had become the New Philharmonia. In all honesty, I don’t think anyone who wasn’t aware of that background would sense any lack of continuity from listening to the performance. Wunderlich is marvellous; he’s one of the finest tenors I’ve encountered in recordings of this work. ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’ shows the full range of what he can do in these songs; there’s an incisive ring to his voice when he’s singing full-out but he also has the requisite sweetness of tone for the times when gentle, poetic singing is required. Not once does he sound under strain, even in the final stanza of the poem, where Mahler illustrates the vision of the ape with momentarily manic music. The orchestral contribution is terrific; Klemperer’s insistency on clarity reaps rich rewards. Wunderlich brings an ideally light touch to ‘Von der Jugend’ and also gives a fine rendition of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’.

Christa Ludwig’s singing is equally distinguished. I admire greatly her first two songs – the orchestral tapestry which supports her in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ is beautifully refined – but, fittingly, she peaks in ‘Der Abschied’. From the doom-laden tolling at the very start you can sense you’re in for something special. Klemperer conducts with great understanding and obtains magnificent playing from the orchestra. On the (rare) occasions that it’s needed, the NPO has all the necessary power, but most of the time in this song, playing of chamber-like delicacy is required and that’s just what these musicians supply. Ludwig sings with an eloquence and involvement that has only been matched on disc, in my experience, by Janet Baker. The whole performance is superb from the very start but everything seems to go on to an even higher level around the point where Ludwig sings ‘Ich sehne mich, o Freund, an deiner Seite’. The long orchestral interlude midway through the song is absolutely gripping and the recording brings out in an ideal fashion such details as the ominous soft tam-tam strokes and the rock-solid double basses. As the end of the song approaches, Ludwig properly makes ‘Die liebe Erde allüberall’ into a glorious outpouring. In the closing pages you can hear the important contributions of the celeste and mandolin clearly. Klemperer, in alliance with Ludwig, achieves an ending which is as moving and deeply satisfying as his ending of the Ninth. This is a superb performance of Das Lied von der Erde and if there is any justice in this world it will never be out of the catalogue.

The box also includes a not-insubstantial ‘bonus’ in the shape of five songs which Ludwig recorded with Klemperer and the Philharmonia in April 1964. This is a nicely varied selection and all the performances are excellent.

I think I should say a word or two about Warner’s presentation of this set. The recordings come on seven CDs, whereas the 2013 set was squeezed onto six discs. The new arrangement allows for a more logical presentation of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies. In this new presentation, each disc is contained in a cardboard sleeve on which Warner have reproduced the original LP covers. I like that; it’s rather more enterprising that reproducing the same black and white photo of Klemperer which was used for every disc sleeve in the previous set. I’m delighted that Richard Osborne’s valuable essay about Klemperer and Mahler has been carried over from the 2013 box. In the 2013 box the detailed track listing was included in the booklet; now, the information is given on the back of the sleeve containing the relevant CD. It’s regrettable, even allowing for the very competitive price, that no texts or translations are included; they were omitted also from the 2013 box.

I hope I’ve given a good flavour of the contents of this box. Klemperer was a controversial conductor, but at his best – which he very often was in his EMI recordings – he was a great conductor. These Mahler performances are variable. The Seventh is too eccentric to recommend and the Fourth may not suit all tastes, The performance of the other two symphonies are touched by greatness while the version of Das Lied von der Erde is truly a classic. I’d argue that all Mahler devotees should have these recordings in their collection, even if they don’t agree with everything that Klemperer does with the music. As for the sound, the 2023 remastering represents an advance on the 2013 incarnations, I think. However, the differences are not so substantial that anyone who has the 2013 set should feel the need to trade up. What both remasterings demonstrate, though, is the excellent quality of EMI’s original recordings. The key point is that currently (May 2024) the set containing the 2023 remasterings is available in the UK for about £21. At that price, it’s an unmissable bargain.

John Quinn

Buying this recording via a link below generates revenue for MWI, which helps the site remain free.

Presto Music