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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat (1878/1880 version, rev. 1886, Nowak edition) [55:58]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan op. 20 (1888) [16:09]
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Otto Klemperer
rec. live, 5 April 1954 (Bruckner), 27 February 1956 (Strauss), Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne
MEDICI  ARTS MM001-2 [72:11]


Klemperer made two studio recordings of Bruckner 4. The first, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Vox (1951), was famous for its fast tempi and generally bulldozing approach. The second, with the Philharmonia for EMI (1963) is famous for rather better reasons and has remained at the top of the symphony’s discography, together with the VPO Böhm (Decca). To these should probably be added the live Munich performance under Kempe (1972). I was deeply impressed by the 1975 Karajan, though not all agree, and Bruno Walter’s Columbia Symphony performance still has its adherents.

A number of live Klemperer performances have been added to the equation. Tahra have put out a 1947 version with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw while EMI themselves have added a Munich performance from 1966. Now comes this midway version from 1954, a time when the reading was still pretty fiery. His timings of 14:48, 13:16, 10:29, 17:25 compare strikingly with Kempe’s 18:55, 14:33, 10:13, 20:15 or Karajan’s 18:21, 14:33, 10:49, 20:27. Klemperer’s 1951 recording is said to be the fastest on record at under 52 minutes, while I see from Patrick Waller’s review of the most recent reissue of the 1963 studio performance that it is about five minutes longer than the present one – and still too fast for Patrick!

I can’t say the tempi seemed to me at all breathless and I was struck by the inevitability with which the first movement unfolded. But if this much as you would expect from Klemperer, I found he failed to hold me to the end. The orchestral playing is not terribly good, for one thing. The string choir can be quite lush, even schmaltzy, but there is a lean, stringy timbre to much of the wind playing, at least as recorded. The brass climaxes have a paint-stripping quality which is viscerally exciting at first but gradually becomes tiresome. Amazingly for Klemperer there is no real attempt to grade the climaxes, each one sounds equal with everybody letting fly for all they’re worth, and the music then trundling along dutifully in between. This is particularly noticeable in the finale.

In 1954 Klemperer was on the threshold of that extraordinary turn in his fortunes which turned him in the public eye from a controversial, somewhat erratic figure into a great conductor. Those who saw him in Cologne 1954 described a “physically broken man supported on a stick” who “makes his way to the conductor’s desk and then, held by nearby musicians, lets himself fall into a chair”. Perhaps he had not the strength to impose his interpretation fully on the orchestra beyond the first movement. There may be some interest for Klemperer completists to hear Klemperer when not a-Klempering, but this can hardly substitute the EMI studio recording as a general choice.

Klemperer’s new-found fame restored his energies and the 1956 Don Juan – sonically huskier and duller than the Bruckner, for some reason – is high on octane. I don’t find the humanity of the greatest Strauss performances, though. The other surviving versions of the piece under Klemperer are studio versions, with the Berlin Staatskapelle in 1929 and the Philharmonia in 1960.

Altogether, I think this is a disc for confirmed admirers of the conductor.

Christopher Howell 



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