OTTO KLEMPERER CONDUCTS MAHLER

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor "Resurrection." (Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano; Hildegard Rossl-Majdan, alto; Choir of the Wiener Singverein; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) (Rec. June 21, 1963, Vienna, Theater an der Wien).
Symphony No. 4 in G (Elisabeth Lindermeier, soprano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestr) (Rec. Nov. 19, 1956, Munich).
Symphony No. 9 in D Major (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) (Rec. June 9, 1968, Vienna, Grosser Musikversinssaal).
Kindertotenlieder (George London, baritone; Cologne Radio Orchestra) (Rec. Oct. 17, 1955, Köln, NWDR).
Kindertotenlieder (Karl Schmitt-Walter, baritone; Radio Frankfurt Orchestra/Winfrid Zillig, cond. )(Rec. Sept. 4, 1949). Frankfurt/M., HR).
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1123 (4 CDs) (ADD) TT: 77:35 / 55:06 / 60:19 / 73:53
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MAHLER: Kindertotenlieder
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; Vienna Philharmonic Orch/Bruno Walter, cond. (Rec. Oct. 4, 1949).
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Desi Halban, soprano; Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Bruno Walter, cond. (Rec. May 10, 1945)
NAXOS 8.110876 (B) (ADD) TT: 73:13

(THIS CD IS NOT SOLD IN THE UNITED STATES)

A weekend of Mahler—3 symphonies (the Fourth in two different versions) and 3 versions of Kindertotenlieder, all of them heard at least twice and in several cases several times—can leave one emotionally exhausted. Despite Bruno Walter’s gemütlichkeit in the Fourth Symphony, Mahler was a troubled soul in all of his works except certain settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The cream of this crop is Kathleen Ferrier’s heart-breaking vocalization of Kindertotenlieder—five songs on the death of children, accompanied in 1949 by Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic after three transatlantic companies with exclusive contracts finally agreed on English Columbia (EMI) to do the job in Kingsway Hall, London. From LP copies, Marc Obert-Thorn has made a singularly succesful transfer. Four years later, Ferrier was the terminal victim of cancer at the age of only 41—not yet in her prime.

Fittingly, her Kindertotenlieder comes first, featured on the album cover and in the notes, although as usual there are no texts from Naxos. But neither are there texts for Music & Arts’ two performances of the cycle, one after the other, on the fourth disc of their Klemperer set—but more of that gallimaufry anon. Diction, vocal range, tonal gold and interpretive insight irradiate Ferrier’s performances, and Walter provides a jewel-case setting with the Vienna Philharmonic, even more beautiful here than in their 1952 Das Lied von der Erde from the Grosser Musikvereinsaal at Vienna with European Decca’s untamably acidulous treble. The “bonus” is Walter’s Fourth Symphony, recorded by American Columbia after James Caesar Petrillo had lifted a long recording ban. Artur Rodzinski, at the behest of his trustees, had weeded the New York Philharmonic and by then had it playing at least as well as the survivors of Toscanini’s regime (1926-36). But Walter ignores dark undercurrents in the Fourth Symphony, reminding me of the refrain in Browning’s poem, "Pippa Passes." He takes all but the first movement at a faster clip than most colleagues since, especially the finale in which his Wunderhorn soloist was Desi Halban, the genetically underprivileged daughter of Selma Kurz, one of the great coloraturas of bygone times. Desi didn’t sing badly or unmusically: just middlingly. M O-T’s recording, using LPs made from 16-inch master discs cut at 33-rpm (two years before LP was introduced commercially), is admirable in ways the original 78-rpms and the first LPs never were. A 78 set was my off-putting introduction to the Fourth. It took a live performance several years later by Thor Johnson and the Cincinnati Symphony, with Eleanor Steber as soloist in the finale, to give a reading without Walter’s Six Feet Under cosmetology.

In M-&-A’s box it is Klemperer’s Fourth, along with George London’s impassioned, beautifully accompanied Kindertotenlieder, that gives us Mahler whole: anxiety and despair as well as balancing bursts of light and delight. The Bavarian Radio Symphony of 1956 was no virtuoso ensemble; blatty brass and woodsy winds were probably the legacy of all that Wagner and Bruckner that Munich doted on. But the menacing rumble of double-basses in the first movement give the first clue that this is not going to be a “God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with world” performance. The second movement with its retuned first violin is sinister enough without underscoring, but in the “Ruhevoll” third movement Klemperer probes until, at the mighty climax that resolves in the major, he exhorts players vocally and they rise to the occasion. There is no long wait before the finale, in which Elisabeth Lindermeier is as lovely a singer of “The heavenly life” as any I’ve ever heard while Klemperer’s strings caress her and fade at the end into silence. The rest of the box I don’t intend to keep but that Fourth is a treasure in the Mahlerography.

Comparatively, the live Ninth of 1968 with the Vienna Phil in the Musikvereinsaal is a Sisyphean performance of unendurable length in the second movement, although a right-proper mooning of mankind follows in the Rondo:Burkeske, except that Klemperer’s tempo is Allegro moderato rather than assai. Although the finale is almost 2 minutes slower than Abbado’s cri de coeur with the Berlin Phil on DGG (24:13 vs. 25:56), it sounds slower—what Mahler used to mark Plötzlich. Otherwise the first movement is two minutes slower than Abbado’s and the second movement more than three minutes. If you must have Klemperer’s Ninth, look for the 1967 commercial recording, although Karajan’s second of two (what must they have cost DGG coming so closely together!) was the pack-leader until Abbado’s of September 1999 with the same orchestra, so much more finely balanced.

Which leaves Karl Schmitt-Walter’s light baritone in the second Kindertotenlieder—after London’s, which follows the Ninth Symphony finale on disc. He was a major lieder artist before the war, best represented after as Furtwängler’s 1947 Papageno at Salzburg. Mahler strains his top voice ever so slightly but the singing is artful, yet undeservingly pallid-sounding after London’s impassioned bass-baritone account, with Klemperer to help. Schmitt-Walter’s has musicianly but ever so polite Winfrid Zillig leading the Radio Frankfurt Orchestra of 1949, player for player the best of three radio orchestras in this volume. If Symphony No. 9 was Klemperer near the end of his career, the Second Symphony came five years earlier during one of his manic periods (see Peter Heymorth’s harrowing two-volume biography) to judge by tempos and overall timing: 77:35! It was performed on June 21 for a Viennese audience with midwinter coughs and catarrh in the acoustically dead Theater an der Wien, on what sounds like a home recording of a broadcast. Shockingly, the Vienna Phil gave the dirtiest performance on any of these discs; the local Singverein was on the brink of shambles; mezzo Hilde Rössl-Maiden came in off-pitch in the fourth movement (she could only improve and did, but was a comparimaria career-long), and in the fifth you never know what Galina Vishnevskaya would be going to do, but could be sure it was loud. Since we have several Klemperer performance versions of the Second as well as EMI’s recording, the best probably from an Amsterdam concert, this one never should have been issued.

Nor should a skimpy program book with a 1986 essay on Klemperer by one Jerry Miller, who certainly seems to have read Heyworth’s volumes but who wrote “[Klemperer] had already began...” (shudder ye grammarians), unless the booklet was sloppily proof-read. Not one word about the soloists; not one word about Mahler’s music (other than Klemperer’s having made a piano reduction of the Second Symphony, which he played for Mahler a year after conducting the offstage band for him in that work: but when? where? Read Heyworth). Nor are there texts, although every work except the Ninth Symphony uses voices. The buyer is lucky to find band numbers. I’ve rescued the Fourth, complete on one CD although London’s Lieder cycle would have fit, but don’t know anyone I dislike enough to give the other three. Fie, M-&-A!

R.D. (August 2003)