Only a couple of conductors who had actually worked with Gustav Mahler made it into the stereo era. Otto Klemperer was one; Bruno Walter another. When Klemperer performed his first public concert in 1912, it included the Mahler Fourth Symphony. Do these associations make Klemperer's Mahler interpretations definitive? No. Klemperer, as always, was too idiosyncratic for one to call any of his performances the last word on the subject. But this 1961 recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra can surely be considered authoritative, and there is no reason for not auditioning it. It has certainly grown on me over the years.
Klemperer was a conductor known for the massive ruggedness of his realizations, yet it is for his gentler, more subtle readings that I have come to appreciate him: His Beethoven Pastorale, his Mendelssohn Fourth, his Haydn "Clock" Symphony. The Mahler Fourth falls into this balmier category.
He takes the first movement at such a winsomely unhurried gait that one can hardly fail to fall under its spell. Klemperer's pace is slower here than most other conductors, to be sure, and totally unforced, establishing an exemplary tone for the opening's childlike description of the peacefulness of Heaven. Taking the Scherzo so leisurely may be another matter, but it does no harm and actually makes the second movement seem less bizarre than usual. It is in the third movement, however, the Adagio, that greater controversy arises. Contrary to expectation, Klemperer takes it at a faster tempo than anticipated, faster than probably anyone on record. It may not convey the eternal repose of those heading toward the gates of Heaven, but it voices fully the opening of those gates and leads perfectly into the expressive innocence of the finale's poem. Well, expressive innocence for the orchestral parts of the finale, perhaps; however, Ms. Schwarzkopf's rendition of the vocal part does seem a bit too mature and sophisticated for the role. It's a minor drawback, like the unusual Adagio, and should not hamper one's enjoyment of the symphony overall.
The second criticism I read about, however, the "cavernous" business, possibly derives from the reviewer having heard the piece only on an old Angel LP. In those days, there were often considerable sonic differences between American Angel and English EMI releases. Today, we have several CD incarnations of the performance, and the sound is quite good.
As a part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series, the edition I own has a warmer, smoother response than before, yet it retains its clarity. Indeed, of the seven or eight Mahler Fourths I had on hand for comparison at the time of this review, it was the Klemperer disc that sounded clearest to me (although at higher volume it could also be a little noisier and the treble more prominent than the others). At least some of the recording's lucidity no doubt stems from EMI's recording techniques, original engineers Douglas Larter and Neville Boyling's audio competence, and producer Walter Legge's finicky production values. But I suspect it is also due to Klemperer's ability to retain clean lines throughout the biggest orchestral passages. What's more, the recording projects a proper stereo spread, depth, and ambiance to communicate the experience of a live event (although EMI recorded it without an audience in Kingsway Hall, London, 1961).
The Mahler Fourth is worthy of multiple interpretations, to be sure, and one should investigate as many of them as possible. Welser-Most (EMI Eminence or Warner Classics) appears even broader than Klemperer; Karajan (DG) sounds grander; Maazel (Sony) more sugary and Romantic; Previn (EMI) more playful; Solti (London) and Abbado (DG) more intense; Gatti (RCA) more rambunctious; Colin Davis (RCA) more refined; Szell (Sony) and Haitink (in the second of his three Philips releases) perhaps most unaffected of all and safest choices of mine in this work.
Yet it remains Klemperer to whom I find myself returning most often for pure listening pleasure. I can't explain it really; I can only enjoy it.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: