MAHLER:  Symphony No. 1.  Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection"
BBC Symphony Orchestra (No. 1); Sheila Armstrong, sop/Anna Reynolds, mezzo-soprano/New Philharmonia Chorus/ Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Rudolf Kempe, cond.
BBC LEGENDS  BBCL 4022 (M) (ADD) TT:  72:25 & 64:27 

It's surprising that conductor Rudolf Kempe is represented rather minimally in today's CD catalogs.  His famous recordings of Brahms with the Berlin Philharmonic (German Requiem with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin, and all of the symphonies), are among the finest although currently unavailable.  A specialist in Richard Strauss, he recorded all of the symphonic works in Dresden and these are available in three multiple-CD EMI budget-priced boxes (64342, 64346, 64350), and his fine recordings of Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin remain in the catalog as well.  In 1996 EMI issued a twin-CD set in their Artist Profile series, a group of recordings from 1956 - 1961, music of Smetana, Haydn, Weber, Lehar, Humperdinck, Richard Strauss and Josef Strauss, unfortunately among the missing (68736).  Should you see this in a cut-out bin, grab it.  Kempe also made some RCA recordings; his Strauss Alpine Symphony and Korngold Symphony in F# have never been issued on CD.  But his splendid Respighi tone poems (Fountains of Rome/Pines of Rome) are available on Chesky (CD 18).

Now we have Kempe's live performance of Mahler's first two symphonies, Symphony No. 1 a mono studio recording from May 22, 1965 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; Symphony No. 2 a Proms performance from Royal Albert Hall September 10, 1972, with soloists, the New Philharmonia Chorus and the visiting Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.  Both disappoint  musically and sonically. Is there any excuse for the 1965 Symphony 1 to be mono? And audio quality of Symphony No. 2, even though stereo, is unimpressive, not of the quality of Jascha Horenstein's magnificent Mahler Symphony 8 recorded by the BBC six years earlier.

Performances are sturdy but not illuminating.  Symphony No. 2 has a minimum of tension; the big wild moments are tame.  These performances add little to the lustre of Kempe's memory.  For Mahler, it is better to remember him for his 1957 Kindertotenlieder with Fischer-Dieskau and the Berlin Philharmonic,  which  doubtless soon will return to the catalog.   A far superior display of Kempe's musicianship is a previous BBC Legends issue coupling Schubert's Symphony  No. 5 and Brahms' Symphony No. 4, both with the BBC Symphony from Proms concerts of 1974 and 1976 respectively.  These represent Kempe at his best - and the stereo sound is superb (BBCL 4003).  The current  Mahler set of 2 CDs sells for the price of 1 1/2 full-priced CDs,  and still is pricey.  I hope the release  of this Mahler Symphony No. 2 will not preclude the series issuing Leopold Stokowski's remarkable 1963 Proms performance with the London Symphony; his RCA recording made about a decade later  isn't nearly as exciting.   I've heard that at the Proms  performance's smashing conclusion after many returns to the podium Stokowski said to the audience, "Do you vant to go home, or do you vant to hear more Mahler?" and then repeated the choral finale. Now there's a man with imagination -- and stamina!!

R.E.B.  (Jan. 2001)