Mozart: Symphony no 40; Brahms: Symphony no 2 / Klemperer
(1 Epinions review)
Nov 23, 2009 (Updated Nov 23, 2009)
Review by Stephen Murray
Rated a Very Helpful Review
The Bottom Line: Adding the Alto Rhapsody, Klemperer's recording is only two minutes longer than Giulini's. Dispatch is not everything, but in this case it is to the good.
Yesterday, I compared my memories from a performance the night before of the Berlin Philharmonic of Johannes Brahms 1877 Second Symphony with the recording that is most likely to have the position of inscribing “the way it’s ‘spozed to sound” in my brain. I think that in general and even against one’s intentions, new performances or recordings are compared to those with which the listener is long familiar. Usually this unconscious comparison with the familiar gets in the way of judging a new performance (I think this applies as much to covers of popular music as to listening to new takes on classical music…)
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I’ve had the CD of the Brahms Second Symphony with Carlo-Maria Giulini (1914-2005) conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic since it was new in 1981. The blazing finale (Allegro con spirito) of the Berliners live made me dissatisfied with what I was used to. On the other hand, I was dissatisfied with the sluggishness of the first movement (and, very un-Berlin, some lack of clarity in it). Others consider the Giulini essaying too slow, so if I were used to some other recording, I might have heard the Berliners as slower than sluggish.
I have not had the older (but superbly remastered) recording of the formidable Otto Klemperer (1885-1973 leading the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1958 nearly as long as the Giulini. Giulini took 22:31 on the first movement (and Rattle/Berlin seemed even slower, though I wasn’t clocking it). Klemperer took 15:03: Giulini’s recording takes almost 150% of the time Klemperer needed. And the Klemperer Allegro con troppo does not sound/feel rushed.
Plus the final Allegro con spiritu in which the Berliners raised the roof is comparable to the Philharmonia brass of 1958. Some might think they were overmiked, though I think it more likely that the recording engineers reduced the brass sound in the LAP recording.
IMO (one seemingly shared by Simon Rattle as Otto Klemperer), the Brahms Second should end with blazing brass (certainly live audiences are hyper-stimulated by Big Brass Endings!). Perhaps Giulini considered them vulgar?
The final movement starts quietly before a blast of brass that prefigures the end, and that clears any saccharin buildup from the Allegretto grazioso, the preceding movement. Though Klemperer’s recording only trims 14 seconds off Giulini (or, in proper chronology, Giulini adds 14 second to Klemperer’s timing), the sugar quotient seems lower to me there, the movement more dramatic (all the movements have considerable dynamic range).
The Adagio is gorgeous in both recordings (Giulini taking 10:41, Klemperer 9:17) and sugar-free in my estimation. I love the sustained last chords of each of the first two movements in the Klemperer recording. By my scoring, Klemperer’s recording is superior for each of the four movements. Plus, unlike either Giulini recording (LA or Vienna), there’s more Brahms music with Klemperer’s recording of the Second Symphony: either with the 3rd or with the Alto Rhapsody sung by the great Christa Ludwig (ca 1962).
Within the movements, there is not much change in tempo, but there is considerable dynamic range, most dramatically from the quiet start of the last movement to a blast from the brass, but also the parting of the clouds by sunlit sound early in the second movement (both more dramatic in the Klemperer recording than either in the Giulini recording or Rattle performance).
The orchestral opening to the Alto Rhapsody is chilling. I’d forgotten that the setting of Goethe was a wedding gift to Clara Schumann. Ewan West’s program note that a poem about the torment of wanderer is “singularly inappropriate for a nuptial; piece,” but the bride is supposed to be the love of Brahms’s life… Though far from festive, it is beautiful music sung gorgeously by Ludwig, with rich lows and clear highs.
Although there are scores of recordings of any Brahms symphony (including one from a year ago from the Berliners and Rattle), most of which I haven’t heard, I’d bet on Klemperer, especially with Ludwig joined by the male chorus.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray
At exactly 666 words, this is a contribution to lean-n-mean 8.
Tracks and Timings
Brahms: Symphony #2 In D, Op. 73
1. Allegro Non Troppo 15:03
2. Adagio Non Troppo 9:18
3. Allegretto Grazioso 5:28
4. Allegro Con Spirito 9:13
Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 12:26
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Recording information: Kongresshalle Saarbrcken (02/12/2011-02/13/2011).
Recording information: Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, London.