Or, How Piss-Poor Engineering Can Nearly Kill A Recording.

Whilst browsing the new releases section of Gramophone a few months back, I spied a new reissue from Vox: a five-pack of Brahms' piano music played by Walter Klien. Hallelujah! I am a big fan of Mr Klien. His Mozart sonata cycle is my favorite, his Mozart concerto recordings are superb (if in rather poor sound), and his Schubert sonata cycle is glorious. So I determined that I should get his Brahms. When I found it at Arkiv for $16, the deal was sealed.

When reading the second-rate liner notes I noticed something unusual. A 'Producer's Note' warns the buyer of the compromised sound quality; it warns that there are drop-outs and distortion during loud passages. Were that only the case. Distortion is basically ubiquitous, at least in the solo repertoire. The second, third, and fourth discs contain the best music – the late miniatures and the Op 10 Ballades – and they sound especially awful. In the best cases, distortion and break-up can be heard in anything at the mezzo forte level and above. In some cases – the Op 117 works, for instance – distortion is present at all levels. The first and fifth discs fare better, though one gets a lot more hiss, especially with the fifth disc where Mr Klien is partnered with Mrs Klien and Alfred Brendel is some two-piano works. What a bummer. The sad aural state of affairs is made worse by the fact that there is some wonderful music making to be had. If the performances were mediocre or awful, I wouldn't care, but when one can detect something good through the din, well, it's annoying.

Listen past the muck and one hears some pianism worth the effort. I'll just start with disc one. The set opens with the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op 24. This work has never been a favorite of mine, but Mr Klien does his best to rectify that. He opens the piece with startling directness, his fingerwork articulate and devoid of any mannerisms. He sort of cruises along playing the opening theme splendidly, and the first three variations all possess a certain welcoming charm as played. With the fourth variation, Walt unleashes a torrent of perfectly played forte and louder notes, allowing one to appreciate the tonal variation in this variation. From there until the last straight variation, he plays with an adroit combination of clarity, finely graded dynamics, and a cool and limited but finely honed color palette. Of special note is how he approaches the varying dynamics: he sort of terraces his playing, moving up from f to ff with perfect control, staying there just long enough, and then moving on. He does just as well playing diminuendo. This applies to all of the works in the five-pack. Back to the work: the concluding fugue is very well played, and it makes for an entertaining and musical conclusion to the piece. Generally, I'm not too big on it, but I enjoyed it more here.

More interesting is the Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op 9. This was my first time hearing this piece. What a gem! The young Brahms ably takes the theme by his beloved mentor and alters it in remarkable ways while always managing to create a distinctively Brahmsian soundworld that nonetheless evokes thoughts of Schumann. This is not a fast, showy work; rather, Brahms (and Klien) revels in a number of slow, beautiful variations, some of them tenderly so. Really, this piece surpassed my expectations and has earned another turn in the CD player. The concluding single-piano version of the Op 39 waltzes don’t do much for me, so it’s on to discs two and three.

This is where the disappointment really sets in. Brahms’ late works are the ones I really enjoy. While they don’t require SOTA sound to work, one must be able to appreciate the harmonic boldness of the pieces, and distortion does not help. I turned the volume well below what I normally listen at to help alleviate the damage. This little trick was acceptably successful. While the break-up and nastiness of the distortion was never eliminated, I could listen to Mr Klien play each of the small pieces with at least a degree of pleasure. The Op 79/2 Rhapsody is a favorite from the later works, and Klien plays with both precisely controlled dynamics and a refreshingly direct sound. No mush or schmaltz here; no excess is to be heard. His approach reminds me of Rudolf Firkusny’s Brahms: no muss, no fuss, just the music. The two little Op 76 pieces come off well, too, but, as mentioned already, the Op 117 pieces suffer from especially poor sound. It was difficult to enjoy anything in this set. The distortion is married to a shrill, brittle piano sound that does no one any favors. The third disc, with the Opp 116, 118, and 119 is uniformly unpleasant sounding, too, but not as bad as the 117. Klien’s playing is remarkable for how unremarkable it is. One hears unalloyed beauty where appropriate. One hears plaintive chords aplenty. One ponders an old composer looking back while simultaneously moving forward. The works are all masterpieces of understatement, and Klien delivers. Don’t get me wrong: the pieces never bore, they never sound uninteresting; far from it. No, this is almost how they should sound. Except for how the recording sounds.

The fourth disc is given over to the Op 5 Sonata and the Op 10 Ballades. I’ll just say it: I don’t like the Sonata. Never have. Julius Katchen can’t make me like it. Nor Kempff. Not even Annie Fischer makes it enjoyable. So it should come as no surprise that Walter Klien cannot, either. It’s too youthful, impetuous, and sloppy a piece for me to enjoy. There’s nothing that catches my attention, and it seems unbearably long. After dutifully listening, I was glad to be on to the next piece. I’ve enjoyed the Ballades since I first heard Michelangeli’s justly famous and lauded recording. Sure, he’s a bit distant, but he still makes them enjoyable. Wilhelm Kempff does one better: he makes them sound like truly brilliant pieces. Klien goes even further. He makes them sound like masterpieces. The first piece comes across as somber and morose, searching and touching. The next two pieces each come off better than I’d heard before. But the final Ballade is a wonder. It is slow and measured and never loud or abrasive. It is calm, tranquil, and affecting, Klien’s “plain” sound so perfectly matching the mood of the piece, that I sat mesmerized. Again, there’s nothing especially remarkable about the playing; nothing jumps out and defines it as special or unique or different. It just is. There are a few other piano recordings that have a similar effect on me. Vladimir Sofronitsky’s take on Chopin’s Barcarolle comes to immediately to mind. Anyway, poor sound is again the rule, but it was easy enough to make it through.

The final disc is given over to the 21 Hungarian Dances with Alfred Brendel and the two piano version of the Op 39 waltzes with Beatriz Klien. Neither work really catches my fancy, so I didn’t really pay close attention. Sound is better, but hardly stellar.

So, here’s a set that has some fine performances and some extraordinary performances, but they are buried in sonic muck. I’m going to try them again in my mid-fi third system, and hopefully the warmer, more forgiving presentation will help a bit. I’m under no illusion, though: nothing can really help the recordings as is. I’m almost tempted to actually buy some editing software so I can tame the recordings. (Unless someone can point me to some good free stuff.) No, not everything is the best around, and with Wilhelm Kempff’s 1950s recordings so wonderfully remastered by DG, I’ll probably turn to that set more often, but I’ll probably brave the awful sound of this set to experience some of the pieces again. Actually, I must. As far as recommendations go: only if you really like Brahms piano music and (or) really like Walter Klien and you are willing to brave some truly awful sound should you consider this set. Even at the price, I cannot really call it a bargain. Sad, indeed.