MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 in G Major; WAGNER: Parsifal: Prelude, Act I; MENDELSSOHN: Ruy Blas Overture, Op. 95 – Joan Alexander, sop./ BBC Sym. Orch./ London Sym. Orch. (Ruy Blas)/ Rudolf Kempe – ICA Classics ICAC 5117, 74:38 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ****:
Rudolf Kempe (1910-1976) substituted for an ailing Bruno Walter 14 May 1957 to lead the BBC Symphony in a rarity in his discography, the 1900 Mahler G Major Symphony, the last of his so-called “Wunderhorn symphonies.” Both pantheistic and polyphonic, the G Major remains among Mahler’s most popular and accessible symphonic works. Kempe opts for fairly brisk tempos that do not cater to the sentimental aspects of the score but do highlight the occasional, acerbic irony that asserts itself, particularly in the second movement. Despite the distant miking of the performance, the relative clarity of Mahler’s scoring – light, insofar as he eschew heavy brass and employs fewer strings than usual – Kempe projects the natural exuberance and optimism of the “dancing drops” Mahler claimed up the “rainbow” that disintegrates before us, “in the manner of a kaleidoscope.”
The oddly archaic sound of the second movement – with its ghostly or mortal figure of the solo violin, scordatura – may account for some commentators, like Adorno, who claim the “sleigh bells” at the opening of movement one may well be a “fool’s bells” at some palace setting by way of Poe. Kempe moves the music through its waltz-like lilts and weirdly harmonized phrases with a palpable sense of menace. Winds and French horn – then soaring strings and harp – combine in a laendler of haunting affect, given that the music as a whole moves from tonal complexity to a mood of simplicity and guilelessness. The third or Ruhevoll movement, combines the desire for transcendence with an intricate variation form, evolving from a dirge-like tempo to, in the Kempe realization, a strong andante. Kempe maintains those little slides and portamenti that Mahler requires for his own idiosyncratic Viennese style. In its restrained moments, the music achieves the texture of bucolic chamber music. In its exalted moments, Kempe grants the music its agonized attempt to storm the heavens, establishing the conductor as a most sympathetic Mahler exponent.
For the last movement’s vocal expression of the Wunderhorn’s “the Heavenly life,” Kempe invites the relatively unknown soprano Joan Alexander to invoke the spirit of childlike wonder and innocence. That her voice lacks the “purity” to envision St. Ursala’s laughter will be obvious to those who know the various Teresa Stich-Randall renditions –with Otterloo or Klemperer – of this uncanny feast in heaven. But while some may categorize the Kempe contribution as “literalist,” his attention to the color details surrounding the voice part enriches the sonic patina at every measure.
Kempe’s credentials in the music of Wagner more than fulfilled their potential in various Ring engagements, particularly the production of 1960, which Penelope Turing praises for its “supremely artistic overall conception of the work, his exquisite feeling for string tone, his consideration for the singers, and withal the majesty and fire which he could unleash in the orchestra.” The Parsifal Prelude (29 May 1965) with the BBC may indicate some debts to the Hans Knappertsbusch approach, broad and invested with lyrical eroticism. The mystery of the Grail unfolds, the blood and the wine and their mutual conversions, and our heroic gaze, refreshed, returns to a renewed Earth. The BBC strings and winds invoke the “Dresden Amen” with noble security, the brass counterpoints reverberant.
Kempe leads an LSO performance (12 February 1967) of the fiery Mendelssohn Ruy Blas – the music new to the Kempe recorded legacy – the music meant to accompany a drama by Victor Hugo. Unfortunately, a palpable (but not insurmountable) tape hiss intrudes on this particular sound document, which for some may relegate this disc to Kempe enthusiasts merely. But listening beyond the surface we hear a dazzling ensemble in full mettle, especially with the LSO brass functioning at their peak abilities. Besides, the music itself indicates that Mendelssohn could provide a dramatic impact worthy more of Beethoven than of some effete version of Mozart.