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Album Review | Classical

A collection of Otto Klemperer’s Mahler works

German conductor/composer Otto Klemperer leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, circa 1965.

Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/file

German conductor/composer Otto Klemperer leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, circa 1965.


MAHLER: Symphonies Nos. 2, 4, 7 & 9; Das Lied von der Erde

Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras/Otto Klemperer

(Warner Classics)

“Gustav Mahler recommends Herr Klemperer as an outstanding musician, who despite his youth is already very experienced and is predestined for a conductor’s career. He vouches for the successful outcome of any probationary appointment and will gladly provide further information personally.”

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This testimonial from Mahler was written on a card that Otto Klemperer kept with him all his life. It opened numerous doors for the young conductor; it also gave his Mahler performances an air of authority that lasted through his career and persists today. Yet for a Mahler acolyte, he conducted oddly little of the master’s music. This collection assembles all the Mahler Klemperer recorded for EMI, his main recording label: four of the nine completed symphonies, the great song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde,” and a handful of songs. (A scattering of other recordings and live performances of these works are also available.)

Given the paucity of his Mahler recordings, one laments that Klemperer chose to lavish his attention on the Seventh Symphony, a futuristic, complex piece to which the conductor seemed temperamentally unsuited. His dragging and inflexible tempos make this performance a misfire of legendary proportions. Klemperer’s reading of the Second, on the other hand, has been acclaimed since its release in 1962. On listening to it again, I was surprised at the Philharmonia’s sometimes sloppy ensemble yet impressed, as always, by its swift forward momentum, even in its slower moments.

Most impressive in this set are the performance of “Das Lied,” with the incomparable vocal duo of Fritz Wunderlich and Christa Ludwig, and the Ninth Symphony. These are Mahler’s two most emotionally vulnerable works, both haunted by the specter of mortality. Yet Klemperer’s tough-minded, unsentimental approach makes you hear each in a new, and entirely valid, way. Rounding out the package is a selection of songs with Ludwig, including an incandescent version of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I have become lost to the world”), perhaps Mahler’s greatest creation.

David Weininger can be reached at
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