Klemperer: The Warner Classics Remastered Edition, 95 cds (Warner Classics 5419725704, c£175.00, released June 2nd)
Ernest Ansermet: The Stereo Years (Decca 4851583, 88 cds, c£199.00)
SOME GREAT RECORDINGS THAT THOSE OF US ‘OF A CERTAIN AGE’ GREW UP WITH
If you were raised towards maturity in the late nineteen fifties/early sixties and you loved ‘classical’ music, the miracle of stereo sound was intoxicating. Aside from spectacularly cinematic lp series such as Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo there were skilfully if rather less system-flattering productions by Decca (specifically from Geneva) and Columbia (at the Kingsway Hall in London) focusing on the artistry of two significant and hugely experienced conductors, Ernest Ansermet and Otto Klemperer. Both are currently being celebrated with sizeable boxed sets (details quoted above), in the main using state-of-the-art digital transfers, EMI employing the skills of Art and Son Studio, Annecy, for what appear to be complete sonic overhauls since their last CD incarnations. In the case of Ansermet, I’d imagine that Decca have called on (excellent) transfers already issued by Australian Decca.
CONDUCTORS AS ‘CHARACTERS’
Concerning these vintage titans, how might we speak of disparities and similarities? Early on in his career Klemperer had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He remained a practising Roman Catholic until 1967, when he left the faith and returned ‘home’ so to speak. Religious issues aside, his intellectual and philosophical remit was substantial. Wieland Wagner once summed Klemperer up with the words ‘Classical Greece, Jewish tradition, medieval Christendom, German Romanticism, the realism of our own time, make Klemperer the conductor a unique artistic phenomenon.’ He was also stoical in the face of mental and physical hardships and as a way of escaping these and other impediments was an habitual repertoire adventurer.
In his pre-War years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, despite box-office constraints, Klemperer successfully introduced his public to rarely heard works by Mahler, Bruckner and Stravinsky. He also programmed music from the tripartite oratorio Gurrelieder by his neighbour Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that he did not perform his works more often. Schoenberg good-naturedly brushed off this rejection and, as Klemperer always aspired to compose as well as to conduct, gave him composition lessons.
The fiercely anti-atonalist mathematics professor and founder of the Suisse Romande Orchestra Ernest Ansermet (who also composed) wouldn’t have been too enamoured with the idea that Klemperer was being tutored by Schoenberg, even though the various Klemperer works included in Warner’s box have a securely tonal base (try the lovely Brucknerian opening moments of the adagio from his Fourth Symphony on Warners’ bonus disc). As far as Ansermet was concerned employing twelve-tone techniques was a ‘Jewish’ idea (as espoused in his book, Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (1961)), a notion that calls in part on the phenomenologist philosopher Husserl (who, incidentally, was born a Jew) for support. ‘…. [The] Jew ‘suffers from thoughts doubly misformed [sic],’ writes Ansermet, ‘ ….thus making him ‘suitable for the handling of money’, and sums up with the damnable statement that the ‘historic creation of Western music’ would have developed just as well ‘without the Jew’. Mahler-lovers please note.
Racist ideas worthy of Wagner? Yes and no, ‘no’ ultimately you might say, considering Ansermet conducted and recorded such Jewish composers as Mendelssohn, Dukas, Bloch and Offenbach, had at least two Jewish concertmasters (Lorand Fenyvès and Michel Schwalbé) and collaborated with numerous Jewish soloists (Stern, Menuhin [playing Berg’s Violin Concerto, please note], Ellen Ballon, Arthur Rubinstein, Julius Katchen, George London, Zara Nelsova and so forth). Still, given the current climate I think it’s important to face these idiocies and their inherent contradictions whenever they arise, just to prove how little they mean. What worries me most is that Ansermet expressed them so late in life and at a time when the world was still reeling from revelations brought about by the liberated Concentration Camps. Shameful really.
CONTRASTING AND COMPARING
Still, for our purposes the music is the thing. How did these two very different characters stack up in musical terms, and were they similar in any ways? To the latter question the answer is a very positive yes. Neither conductor tended to hurry or had any truck with cosmeticizing music, polishing surfaces a-la-Herbert von Karajan and occasionally Carlo Maria Giulini. They were honest brokers, Ansermet in terms of balancing his less-than-pristine Suisse Romande forces, Klemperer in the way he organised the orchestral choirs of his vastly superior Philharmonia (later New Philharmonia) Orchestra, especially the spatially divided violin desks, which indulge in banter from left to right and back again. This stereo information benefits a work like Mahler’s Ninth – which Klemperer conducts with sovereign command – like night time spotlights on a football pitch. Producer Suvi Raj Grubb oversees an unusually rich sound frame, especially strong at the bass end of the spectrum.
The more interventionist Walter Legge could occasionally tiptoe one – maybe even two – steps too far, as he often did with Herbert von Karajan whose Philharmonia/Legge recordings so often resemble a perfectly kept saloon car with a faceless driver (the tail wagging the dog? A lamentably ‘molto legato’ Sibelius 2 for example). But with Klemperer the producer is always at the conductor’s service; for instance, Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony where in the closing saltarello the spirited playing is also exquisitely detailed, those violins darting to and fro like sylphs at dead of night. Legge has his place – and his skills – yes, but Klemperer is most definitely in charge.
Key Stravinsky works turn up in both sets. Pétrouchka emerges as his pathetic though occasionally manic self under Ansermet whereas on Warners it’s Klemperer who sounds – and please forgive me for writing this, but it’s true – who sounds ‘pathetic’ with playing that is lugubrious and slack. The two Pulcinella Suites offer significant differences in mood and colour, Ansermet’s the more overtly balletic of the two, Klemperer’s more classical rendition deliciously pointed and rhythmically firm. In the Symphony in Three Movements Ansermet sounds as if he could have benefitted from an extra rehearsal or two. Klemperer is better, especially towards the end of the first movement.
Both sets include Bach Suites, Nos. 2 and 3 with Ansermet (who also recorded five cantatas) but with Klemperer all four Suites were recorded twice, the 1954 mono set remarkable for its liveliness, precision and rhythmic attack. I’m reminded of an earlier Warners set of the same works, recorded pre-war by the Adolf Busch Chamber Players. The stereo set is also very good, but not as good. And there are the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms. Both conductors turn in impressive Chorals, Klemperer most especially ‘live’ at the Royal Festival Hall, a two-mic back-up in case he was unable to complete the studio recording, which he did though the live recording is the more impressive performance by far. Both sets include alternative versions of individual symphonies, Ansermet in Nos. 1 & 8, Klemperer in Nos. 3, 5 and 7.
Klemperer also offers us an exciting pre-war Berlin set of Brahms 1 (one of a handful of featured recordings from the period) but his Philharmonia recordings still hold sway; aside from the sound, they’re so much better played. Bruckner is represented by Symphonies Nos. 4-9, the Fifth and Sixth holding their ground to this day. And if you want to experience a wry Klemperer half-smile, try his cockeyed Merry Waltz (Johann Strauss meets Charlie Chaplin) or the drily cynical world of Weil’s Threepenny Opera Suite.
Ansermet’s Debussy and Ravel recordings are mostly magical, his Schumann Second one of the best to be had (Klemperer recorded his version just a little too late in the day) his Delibes, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov ballets, very much the work of an experienced theatre conductor. They have charm, style and irresistible panache. Both conductors offer us finely detailed accounts of various Wagner orchestral excerpts (Klemperer is more generous in his selections than Ansermet and those dialoguing violin desks are especially effective in Tristan und Isolde’s ‘Prelude und Liebestod’). And that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s on offer.
IF YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE
Just so that you know the excellent vintage recordings commentator Jon Tolansky offers well-prepared sound documentaries and notes for both sets. If you want to peruse a complete list of each box’s contents consult Presto Classical’s website at https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products One or two faults on the Ansermet set that surfaced early on are I’m told being put right. Just so that you know the faults are as follows: instead of including versions of Debussy’s La mer from 1957 and 1964, as promised, we’re offered the 1957 version twice. For some purchasers Disc 37 will therefore need replacing. Also, there is a certain amount of unacceptable distortion towards the close of Brahms’s German Requiem which means a replacement copy of disc 20 too. The address to email for replacement copies is email@example.com (for UK customers only – all international customers should go back to their point of contact and request a copy through them). My only gripe so far regarding the Klemperer set is that the version of Handel’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 4 is the original, not, as stated, ‘arr. Schoenberg’ which in case you’re interested is Op. 6 No. 7 (a ‘live’ Klemperer recording of this [for me] grotesque ‘Schoenberg Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra after Handel’, is available as a download on Archiphon ARC-WU180-81).
As a final sign-off I’d say that although both collections feature memorably rich ingredients, and both are certainly well worth owning, viewed as a whole Klemperer’s achievement is set at a higher artistic level. In most cases, back in the day, although Ansermet provided us with musically rewarding first ports of call, better versions were yet to come later (except maybe in the cases of some Stravinsky and the major Romantic ballets). There’s nothing in his discography that quite compares with Klemperer’s Mahler 9, ‘live’ Beethoven 9 or those magisterial early recordings of the great Mozart symphonies. Buy both if you can, but if you can’t, I’d opt for Klemperer first.