Mahler
Symphony No.4
Wagner
Parsifal – Prelude to Act I
Mendelssohn
Ruy Blas Overture, Op.95
Joan Alexander (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra [Ruy Blas]
Rudolf Kempe

Mahler recorded 14 May 1957 and Wagner 24 May 1965 – both at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London – Mendelssohn recorded 12 February 1967 in Royal Festival Hall, London
CD No: ICA CLASSICS ICAC 5117
Duration: 75 minutes
Reviewed: December 2013
Calling the many fans of Rudolf Kempe ... you’ll want this release, which handsomely extends the conductor’s discography with the Mahler and Mendelssohn. Don’t be put off by the sound being mono throughout and that the Mahler is rather thin in reproduction, if bright and detailed (Paul Baily has done a sympathetic re-mastering job).
The May 1957 date was originally scheduled for Bruno Walter. In his stead, Kempe sculpts a fine performance of the Mahler, presumably with a studio audience (there are some coughs), straightforward, lucid and without affectation, a notably indivisible reading, the mechanisms and lyricisms of Mahler’s most gemütlich Symphony (although it has its nightmarish and macabre aspects) chugging along amiably in the first movement, building inexorably to the percussion-laden climax, the odd blooper in the playing neither here nor there. Ensemble isn’t always exact either, harassed somewhat at the beginning of the second movement, for example, but there is a musical authority that relegates reservations. The heart of this Symphony is the (placed third) Ruhevoll, poco adagio, beautifully brought off here – with shape, dignity and heart, and no lack of passion when required – the music’s diversions skilfully integrated into the whole while being fully vivid. In the vocal finale, the Glasgow-born soprano, Joan Alexander (1912-2010, she died aged 98) gives an ideally light-toned and agile account of the goings-on in Heaven, the music eventually fading to nothingness.
And from there to the Prelude to Parsifal is a sublime complement. Later in date than the Mahler and fuller in timbre, once again the Dresden-born Kempe (1910-76) leads a notable exposition – spacious, luminous and sacred, deeply affecting. The disc is completed with Mendelssohn, the wonderful Overture that he wrote for the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund’s production of Victor Hugo’s melodrama Ruy Blas (“doomed passions, mistaken identities, scheming villains and vows of revenge”), a play that the composer apparently detested. Nevertheless, he wrote a humdinger of a piece to get the evening started. Ansermet’s great Decca recording of it remains the yardstick, but Kempe inspires a quicksilver outing, the LSO magnificent as the conductor drives the music along with a real sense of thrilling theatre. What else might there be from that Royal Festival Hall concert?

 

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