INKPOT#65 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”. Baker/Harper/Bavarian RSO/Klemperer (EMI)
Symphony No.2 in C minor “Resurrection” Heather Harper soprano
Janet Baker mezzo-soprano
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir
conducted by Otto Klemperer
EMI Classics Klemperer Legacy 5 66867-2
Includes libretto in English ONLY. ‘Live’ recording from 29 Jan 1965.
by Derek Lim
From the vaults of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra comes a ‘live’ recording of Mahler’s Second Symphony with Otto Klemperer. The stories of Klemperer’s relations with the great composer himself are many, and one is related, very touchingly, in the CD sleeve notes. I take the liberty to quote exactly here:
When Klemperer returned empty-handed, Mahler took a visiting card from his pocket and wrote on it:
Gustav Mahler recommends Herr Klemperer as an outstanding Musician, who despite his youth is already very experienced and is predestined for a conductor’s career. He vouches for the successful outcome of any probationary appointment and will gladly provide further information personally.
Klemperer kept a copy of the card in his wallet until the day of his death. ‘It opened every door to me’, he said, ‘Mahler was, in effect, my “Creator Spiritus”
Klemperer’s first conducting assignment was the off-stage band in Mahler’s Second Symphony, the very one presented here. Among his other recordings of this Symphony, one has the distinction of being one of the very longest recordings of the work, and another has the distinction of being the very shortest. Evidently he either did not believe in putting down a definitive version of the work, or he changed his mind between performances, which is the more likely of the two. Klemperer’s tempi were known to have become slower, to the point of being lugubrious. That both this recording and his later studio recording with Schwarzkopf, Rssel-Majdan and The Philharmonia (EMI CDM7 69662-2) bear timings that differ by a matter of a few seconds (comparing movements) is interesting, to say the least.
And so we go the recording itself. The crunching bass and cellos seem to throw out the first notes – not spat out, like Scherchen’s recording (Enterprise 4180), though. Klemperer gives the ensuing march a very magisterial treatment – very firm, heavy brushstrokes, and he takes it in a straightforward manner, with little of distorting large rubato. Klemperer doesn’t indulge, and one finds here little of the sweetness and nostalgia that comes with the rubato associated with other Mahler conductors such as Scherchen, Bernstein or Barbirolli. Klemperer does not pinpoint transitions the way Bernstein does. Instead there is an irresistable sense of propulsion. The tragedy from a distance – and then near again. Klemperer repeatedly moves us into the tragedy and distances us again from it. The crashing fortissimos in the bitter parts are thrilling and are sure leave you with goose-pimples. The sheer quality of the brass left me astounded in places.
Klemperer (right) has a very compelling view of the work – his pathos is in the Greek Classical sense, I guess. He is never hysterical, always controlled. His grasp of the sprawling structure of the work is like one breath. It sounds like he’s premiering the work – in the sense that each turn is a surprise. The return of the original theme thus starkly contrasts with the optimism that came just before. Fermata and pauses are never held for too long. The funeral march is both heroic and yet tragic in the extreme. The dissonant “organ” chords at the end of the movement will send chills down your spine as it did mine; they are precise in the extreme. Klemperer’s view of the movement is perhaps that of a fantasy in a nightmare of a funeral – not as dramatic, perhaps, as Scherchen, but still very well-shaped.
The second movement Lndler is taken at a rather measured pace, not in the manner of a waltz, hardly Viennese, not dragging, though… correctly Andante moderato, in fact. The jittery chromatic tune is taken urgently, though not in a dramatic manner. The cellos sound very warm here and they take some lovely portamento here, very discreet. Somehow Klemperer’s interpretation, like that of his other accounts of the symphony and also his recording of Das Lied von der Erde, presents a somewhat distanced view of this movement. When he does try to involve the listener, by allowing the music to ‘breathe’ – such as in the lovely section with the pizzicato strings – he is very convincing. But even this objective conductor leads the movement to a very lovely, with a very affectionate ending on the pizzicato strings.
The crashing timpani strokes of the beginning of the third movement will shock even the most seasoned listener. “A little more humour needed here”, I thought at first, but then I realised that this must be Klemperer’s poker-faced brand of humour. This movement is very enjoyably played, with special mention to the central trumpet solo, with much measured vibrato, played in such a melting manner it brought tears into my eyes. The brass seem to relish the opportunities Mahler gives them to display their mules. When the final jubilant fanfare returns only to be broken by despair, Klemperer does it with such conviction that this is guaranteed to your hair stand on end, as they did mine. This movement is superbly played, and is one of the very best that 1 have every heard.
Little silence is given between the third and fourth movements, and this can be very annoying. Janet Baker (left) is placed very forward. When listening to this I wrote down two points which seem distinctly unsatisfactory: first, “Der liebe Gott”, which is taken in a rather cavalier manner. More subtlety, I thought, was required here. Otherwise her deep-throated mezzo voice should prove rather satisfying. She seems on the whole rather detached though.
“Cosmic. The last day.” Klemperer’s opening of the last movement is absolutely terrifying, and will bring you shivers even after repeated listening. There is very little silence between sections of the movement a l Scherchen – one comes in right after another, without much of a pause. Looking at what I wrote, I find myself using the words “shivers”, “terrifying”, “compelling” and “thrilling” over and over again. Need I say more? As we reach the great march, Klemperer really slows down – and suddenly WE are IN the music – we are the souls to meet the ultimate Master, like the Flying Dutchman and his crew, with Klemperer beating the drum. The call of the bird of death is wonderfully played, with ravishing tone in the flute.
I would have preferred a longer pause before the choir came in, but when they do they are just fine. Heather Harper does a fine job in the soprano part. The chorus (prepared by Schubert, albeit Wolfgang, not Franz) was obviously “on”. They come across, in fact, as being a little too eager sometimes, for example in “Was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen”. The soloists are not the best combination available – Janet Baker is just not the best, at least not in this recording. Mimi Coertse in Scherchen’s recording is about the most lyrical one available, and to hear her in “O glaube” is to weep bitter tears.
One annoying thing about the soloists is their uncalled-for portamento. For the careful listener, open your ears when you reach “Bereite dich” (someone fainted, you can hear!). One very unorthodox thing in this recording is that in “0 Schmerz!” the whole alto chorus sings. Strange. Klemperer is very impetuous in this entire last passage, and I had the impression of being swept away by the music. The final orchestra climax is a model of how to build a forte-fortissimmo, and it is earth-shaking and shattering – one of the most convincing, if not the most convincing that I have heard on record.
Mahler would have been pleased with Klemperer, one suspects.
EMI has evidently done a fine job in searching for the tapes, based on this really clear stereo sound. I do wish, though, that the German words be printed together with the English in the sleeve – much is lost in translation, unfortunately.
A few notes about the remastering; the dynamic range is not fantastic (there’s hardly a true pp throughout) and the strings don’t mesh the way they should. The violins are divided, which in such clear stereo is very advantageous. These negative factors, and the occasional cough should not detract you from spending that bit of money on this CD though – it is completely worth the cost, and I could not recommend it more.
Certainly anyone who does not have any of Klemperer’s Mahler and would like to check out his Second Symphony recordings is pointed over to this one – viscerally exciting, and ultimately satisfying, if not the only one (that would be the Millenium Classics recording by Herman Scherchen, also on Enterprise 4180) that you should have. Don’t deprive yourself.
In Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from HMV (The Heeren), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) or Sing Discs (Raffles City).
Derek Lim‘s recovering from the experience now.
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