Saturday, May 18, 2013

Klemperer: Bruckner 4 – 9

Otto Klemperer: Bruckner Symphonies 4 – 9

Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia Orchestra

EMI (6 CDs: 50999 4 04296 2)

Otto Klemperer is much better known for his Mahler recordings than as a Bruckner conductor. That reflects the vicissitudes of recording rather than his work in the concert hall. Klemperer regularly conducted Bruckner to great acclaim throughout his career, but Walter Legge was apparently not convinced that Bruckner would sell on LP and so kept Klemperer on a fairly tight leash. The six symphonies in this excellent box set were all recorded between 1960 and 1970 and reveal Legge’s caution to have been a mistake. The set includes a truly outstanding recording of the 4th, together with thought-provoking and insightful performances of the other five symphonies.

Klemperer has a very deliberate approach to Bruckner. The steadiness of his tempi bring home how much variation there is in other conductors. I found myself anticipating accelerations and decelerations that never materialized. At his best he finds a pace that allows the inner logic of the symphony to unfold. Good examples come in the finale of the 5th and the slow movement of the 7th. Klemperer’s steady tempi pay enormous dividends in Bruckner’s codas, with the triumphant returns of themes from across the movements.

All of the great pre- and post-war conductors made recordings that were flawed by corrupt editions. Furtwängler and Knappersbusch are cases in point. The problems should have disappeared with the emergence of the Bruckner Critical Edition, which drew a veil over the emendations of well-meaning but misguided Brucknerians. But Klemperer made things worse for himself by making some outrageous cuts in the 8th synmphony for his 1970 recording – adding up to 141 bars from the finale. The first three movements of this recording are wonderfully deliberate and monumental, which makes the mutilation of the finale ever more devastating.

Klemperer is a wonderful Bruckner conductor, and there is no danger of confusing him with anyone else. Klemperer’s characteristically sinewy and granite-like approach works as well with Bruckner as it does with Brahms or Beethoven. This very reasonably priced set ($20 or so for 6 discs) is an excellent compilation. All of the performances (with the exception of the 8th) are reference performances and are recommended both to those new to Bruckner and to dedicated Brucknerians.