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CD Review

Johannes Brahms

  • Symphony #1 in C minor, Op. 68
  • Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 73
  • Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90
  • Symphony #4 in E minor, Op. 98
  • Variations on a Theme by Haydn 'St. Antoni Chorale' Op. 56a
  • Academic Festival Overture Op. 80
  • Tragic Overture Op. 81
  • Alto Rhapsody Op. 53
Christa Ludwig
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of the Century 562742-2 3CDs 214m ADD
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These recordings have been available almost constantly in some form or another but it is cause for rejoicing that they are finally together in a box set for the first time. Klemperer's gritty, no-nonsense way with Brahms has always held special appeal for his many devoted admirers and these remastered recordings are a testament to his fine conducting.

In the First Symphony, I had Dutton's expertly remastered Van Beinum recording as a comparison where the pace is somewhat similar although the Finale is slightly broader in Klemperer's hands. I enjoyed the subtle tempo shifts that are a hallmark of Klemperer especially when the 'big' theme comes in all its perennial glory. Listening to Solti, Kempe, Toscanini and Kertész in this movement proved instructive but I do feel that Klemperer remains at the top of the pile.

The Second Symphony is similarly ebullient in Klemperer's hands. I chose Bruno Walter's New York recording on Dynamic as a comparison and the Philharmonia sound was quite astonishing to say the least, rather similar to Decca's beautiful recording for Istvan Kertész (1964/VPO). The second movement is particularly haunting and wonderfully drawn out as is a spirited and whirlwind Finale that left me gasping for breath!

I also enjoyed the Third's quiet grandeur especially in the expansive and sweeping First Movement whilst the lithe Scherzo has something of a dream quality to it. In the Fourth Symphony, there is more craggy grandeur and a wistful sense of vast beauty that is probably the finest characteristic in this wonderful work. Klemperer conducts with evident vigour and feeling for the raw passion of the music. Other conductors such as Solti and Kempe have brought a clarity and power to the work but at the same, their performances were strangely earthbound. Not so, Klemperer who rises to great heights of spiritual inspiration.

The set is also quite remarkable for packing in four other works with the two overtures given strong and clearly committed performances. Christa Ludwig is well nigh untouchable in the autumnal beauty of the Alto Rhapsody whilst the Haydn Variations burst through with energy. I can only advise listeners to sample the beauties of this set and you can definitely see that Klemperer is definitely one of the greatest conductors of all time especially in the Austro German Romantic repertoire.

Copyright © 2004, Gerald Fenech