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John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, April 2008

These fascinating recordings were made when Klemperer was in his early 40s and had just been appointed as conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. It is perhaps better to ignore possible comparisons with his later recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra and simply to imagine that they are the work of some hitherto unknown conductor of the 1920s. You will probably be struck immediately by the relative absence of portamento in the strings, but also by the then normal flexibility of tempo within movements. You may also notice the individuality of the woodwind and brass lines as well as the clear sense of purposeful forward motion.

To some degree all of these impressions may be the result of a creative imagination, since despite what I am sure is a masterly job of restoration from Mark Obert-Thorn the results remain sometimes difficult to hear with any clarity and uncomfortable to listen to right through. Nonetheless enough evidence does remain to show the very positive nature of all of the performances. Despite the inherent difficulties of recording a series of 4 minute sides without the possibility of corrections, and in the case of the Symphony of a gap of more than six months between the first and last sessions, these feel like real performances. There is no sense of the routine or even of the kind of careful avoidance of error with which too many modern recordings are cursed. The Symphony in particular has a strong sense of forward momentum. Although Klemperer’s performances in his latter years were sometimes best known for their slow speeds, his ability to persuade orchestras to phrase purposefully made absolute speeds unimportant. He certainly already possessed this ability by the time he made these recordings, although at that stage his tempi were much more akin to the norm of the time, and at times even above them.

Once I had become accustomed to the rather low sound quality, I greatly enjoyed the whole of this very generously filled disc. The Academic Festival Overture is in many ways the highlight, with a performance whose careful tempo relationships, phrasing and balance make clear that it is a coherent symphonic piece rather than simply a pot-pourri of student songs. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde has a wonderful surge, certainly not the bloodless performance that some listeners found in his later performances. Only the Siegfried Idyll disappointed me - an affectionate performance but one strangely lacking in atmosphere.

Overall though I have no hesitation in commending this disc to anyone prepared to make allowance for a sound quality typical of orchestral recordings of this age.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, March 2008

Discussion of the distinctive characteristics of Otto Klemperer’s conducting tends to focus on the final phase of his long career, when many of his interpretations appeared to mirror his impassive – if not positively stern - facial expression and his physical immobility.

In fact, his best-known and most widely circulated recordings – made with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s – almost invariably attract such adjectives as “forceful”, “unwavering”, “solid” and “craggy” (the word “granite” appears with almost monotonous regularity).

But that seriously distorts Klemperer’s overall achievement in the recording studios. Many of his early 1950s Vox discs, for instance, exhibit a far less monolithic “style”. And the interpretations preserved on this new Naxos Historical issue offer surprising and conclusive proof of the individuality and subtlety of his interpretations of core repertoire at an even earlier stage of his career.

Klemperer’s image in the late 1920s was that of a progressive modernist. Appointed Chief Conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin in the very year that most of these recordings were set down and remaining in that post until 1931, Klemperer famously outraged the Nazi Party’s cultural panjandrums by focusing on works by such culturally – and often racially – suspect composers as Hindemith (Neues vom Tage, 1929), Schoenberg (Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, 1930) and Kurt Weill.

And yet these Brahms and Wagner recordings, expertly restored to fine effect by Mark Obert-Thorn, show him to have been, at the same time, an entirely sympathetic and often quite surprisingly flexible interpreter of such late 19th century Romantic repertoire.

From the very opening of the Brahms symphony, we are in for a surprise, for the timpanist’s strokes - far from driving all before them in the usual relentless and dominating fashion - are, while remaining the music’s key propulsive driver, far more integrated into the full orchestral mix than we generally expect.

Of course, it might be argued that a single such instance might well be due to the inadequacies of late 1920s recording technology (even though modern restoration techniques have shown conclusively that many surviving masters have far more detail embedded in them than used to be assumed.) But further listening reveals that the C minor symphony’s opening is of an exact pattern with Klemperer’s conception of the whole work, with showy dramatics consistently eschewed in favour of lightness of touch, frequent fleetness of foot – especially in the finale - and orchestral transparency that allows the score’s finer detail to shine through. And what lovingly-presented detail there is! Just listen, for instance, to the sweetly seductive solo violin in the slow movement (from about 6:56 onwards), geműtlich almost in the manner of a Viennese café player and making a noticeably more striking contribution that usual.

This is, in fact, an interpretation which might be said to draw out the similarities to Brahms’s second symphony, rather than following the usual practice of emphasising the contrasts: Klemperer revealed not as granite, but as chalk. As such, I enjoyed it immensely.

The performance of the Academic Festival Overture exhibits many of the same qualities. This is a piece that can easily sound somewhat episodic, but Klemperer moulds its various elements together into a coherent and musically convincing whole in which, for once, Gaudeamus Igitur does not sound like it has simply been tacked onto the end for dramatic effect.

The Tristan Prelude is something of a disappointment – but only compared to the exceptional music-making found on this disc’s other tracks. Though just as well played, here Klemperer’s interpretation lacks individuality. The recording by the same orchestra under the much-underrated Max von Schillings, also made in 1927 (and available on Preiser Mono 90267), is, to my ears, a far more involving experience.

That leaves us with an exquisitely shaped, well-balanced and beautifully paced performance of the Siegfried Idyll that not only demonstrates, once again, Klemperer’s fine musicianship but also showcases the Berlin orchestra’s qualities to perfection.

Today we tend to remember the Weimar Republic’s more avant garde contributions to the arts. This disc performs an important function of reminding us that, even in an era marked by prolonged economic crisis and political instability, the German musical tradition was still being maintained at the highest levels. Indeed, having listened to this disc, many might argue that such superb and responsive musicianship puts to shame a good number of well known orchestras making recordings today.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

During Otto Klemperer’s Indian Summer I had the good fortune of reviewing most of his recordings for Columbia but remained blissfully ignorant of those made in his younger years. He had been born in Breslau in 1885 and studied in Frankfurt and Berlin, his career one of measured progress achieving its European zenith when appointed as the principal conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. But with the rise of the Nazi party he left Europe to settle in the States. So far as recordings were concerned those were his wilderness years, and it was in the 1950’s that the world again became aware of him, first with his Vox discs and then working in the London studios with the Philharmonia Orchestra. It was a period that initially gave us some great Beethoven performances, but became characterised by those expansive tempos by which most people remember him. Yet in his younger days, when these recordings were made, he was regarded as a firebrand. All of the items come from the period 1927 and 1928 and are with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. Rather bizarrely the Brahms First Symphony occupied five sessions spread over seven months, which probably explains why tempos lurch around, each movement emerging as a set of episodes. If at times they suggest the spaciousness to come in later life, they more often rush headlong, the excellent orchestra well able to technically cope with his eccentricities, the level of playing being very high. By contrast the Academic Festival Overture and two Wager tracks - Siegfried Idyll and the first act prelude to Tristan und Isolde were each recorded in one session and show a much greater sense of unity. I particularly like the Academic which bubbles with joy as he pushes forward with urgency. His Wagner shows considerable affection for the music,Tristan almost living in a spiritual world. The sound quality is amazingly good for the date of origin, restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, once again waving his magic wand over proceedings. So we learn about the young Klemperer, but the performances would have to be add-on versions to your collection rather than a prime requisite.

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