Gustav Mahler Symphonies 2, 4, 7, 9; Lieder (conductor: Otto Klemperer; Philharmonia Orchestra) Review

Released 2011.  

BBC Review

An indispensable set for anyone looking to get closer to Mahler.

Daniel Ross 2011

Otto Klemperer was considered by many to be one of the greatest interpreters of Mahler, an understandable conclusion given that the two of them were quite friendly with one another. Mahler reportedly told him that, "if something doesn’t sound right, change it," which offers very little practical clues as to what influence the composer had on Klemperer’s recordings – which is where this mammoth retrospective set comes in. Spanning six discs from the 1960s, there are few documents that quite so consummately capture what is so often uncaptureable about Mahler.

From impulsive, mood-swing changes of key and character to the grandest of orchestral statements, Klemperer milks every nuance for all its worth. The second symphony is a monster prone to being too overblown, but one tamed effectively here thanks to the maestro’s caring, steering hand – the famous ‘death shriek’ is not quite as wild as, say, Simon Rattle’s with the Berlin Philharmonic, but it is slower and more staggering. Rather than stifling it, this gives it a more monumental heft, a perfect example of Klemperer just going with what sounds right, as Mahler wished.

Conversely, the finale of the fourth symphony nags incessantly at the heart strings in unstoppably poignant fashion. The tempo marking of ‘sehr behaglich’ (‘very comfortably’) may be what the score suggests, but this anguish is anything but – a revealing and bleakly bewitching attempt made all the better by Elizabeth Schwartzkopf’s delicate soprano. By the time we reach Das Lied Von Der Erde one wonders if there’s anything that Klemperer can’t bring an even hand to. Quite unsurprisingly, this also remains a gem of restraint and natural explosion. It would be a cliché to say that the gargantuan final movement’s half-hour length seems to pass by in many fewer minutes, but if anything that’s not doing it justice. Tentative and contemplative when necessary, but downright violent without warning too, its constant shifts and Klemperer’s ability to draw them out make it a classic recording.

Of course, it’s difficult to concisely appraise the full effect of six discs of Mahlerian tragedy, exuberance, worldliness and other-worldliness, but suffice is to say that Klemperer’s interpretations are frequently superb. They’re also authentic, or at least as authentic as they can be when it comes to such an enigmatic artist. For that alone, this is an indispensable set for anyone looking to get closer to Mahler.

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