Music
12:55 pm
Wed July 16, 2014

Every Composer Needs A Great Storyteller

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 10:39 am

The legendary German conductor Otto Klemperer was one of the most profound musicians of the 20th Century. In the 1960s, nearing the end of his career, he overcame many physical handicaps to create an astonishing body of recorded classical music. EMI has just reissued a broad spectrum of his recordings, including a box set of one of the composers he's most associated with: Gustav Mahler. Fresh Air classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review of Mahler: Symphonies 2, 4, 7 & 9 / Das Lied von der Erde.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz describes the legendary German conductor Otto Klemperer as one of the most profound musicians of the 20th century. In the 1960s, nearing the end of his career, he overcame many physical handicaps to create an astonishing body of recorded classical music. EMI has just reissued a broad spectrum of his recordings, including a box set one of the composers he's most associated with, Gustav Mahler. Here's Lloyd's review of the Mahler Box.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHLER SONG, "THE SONG OF THE EARTH")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Otto Klemperer was one of the few conductors who both actually knew Gustav Mahler and survived into the age of stereo to record him. All of Klemperer's Mahler recordings for the EMI label with England's Philharmonia and new Philharmonia orchestras have just been reissued as a box set and they're a joy to re-hear. Klemperer was notorious for his slow tempos but the slower pacing allows you to hear a continuous unfolding of details that get brushed over in faster, more conventional versions. Here he is conducting the marvelous German tenor Fritz Wunderlich in the most magical section of "The Song Of The Earth" a German translation of Li Po's poem on youth which describes an elegant porcelain pavilion where young friends are drinking chatting and writing poems. It's a vision of an earthly but fleeting paradise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHLER SONG, "THE SONG OF THE EARTH")

FRITZ WUNDERLICH: (Singing in German).

SCHWARTZ: One of my favorite Klemperer's recordings may be the one of Mahler's least popular Symphony, "The Mysterious Seventh" and even the liner notes aren't entirely positive about this performance. But Klemperer, who actually attended the rehearsal and premier of this sympathy in 1908, has a special authority and I continue to find this recording a revelation. Mahler once described the tenor horns in the huge opening movement as the roar of nature. This first movement is later paralleled by the equally long fifth movement with its rondo theme returning again and again with increasing celebration. But in between these large movements, forming a kind of palindrome, are the heart and soul of this Symphony. Two eerie and seductive movements called "Night Music" surrounding what Mahler called a shadowy scherzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHLER SONG, "NIGHT MUSIC")

SCHWARTZ: In these three uncanny movements, it's as if moments from the real past merge into an unsettling dream that rises to the surface and once again becomes immediate. A distant night march morphs into a waltz or a tango. The fourth movement "Andante Amoroso" is a serenade with mandolin, guitar and harp - a love song both insinuating and sinister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHLER SONG, "ANDANTE AMOROSO")

SCHWARTZ: "The Seventh Symphony" has one of Mahler's largest orchestras and yet his textures are mainly transparent - gossamer. This dream-world mingles bird calls and cowbells, waltzing dancers and soldiers. Mahler may be music's greatest novelist and the stories he tells are both endlessly compelling and utterly unknowable. Perhaps no conductor ever captured this vast but interior world and its characters as thoroughly as Otto Klemperer.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is a senior music editor of the online journal "New York Arts" and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the box set collecting recordings of Otto Klemperer conducting Mahler. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.