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Wagner: Orchestral Works 1 & 2; Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer, conductor (EMI)

George Bernard Shaw described the overtures, preludes and other orchestral excerpts from Wagner's operas as "bleeding chunks of meat," and most of the great conductors recorded them, from Wilhelm Furtwangler to Leonard Bernstein, Fritz Reiner to James Levine. The competition is stiff, but EMI's two-volume reissue of Otto Klemperer leading London's Philharmonia Orchestra, in recordings made in the early 1960s, deserves to go to the top of the list.

Klemperer, who died at 88 in 1973, is best known for his monumental recordings of symphonic masterpieces, often taken at a glacial pace. His versions of Brahms' German Requiem, Bruckner's Seventh Symphony and other staples of the concert hall are classics.

At various times in his career, Klemperer held opera posts in Prague, Cologne, Berlin and Budapest, and he led early performances of stage works by Stravinsky, Hindemith and Weill. He conducted all of Wagner's operas in the theater, except for Rienzi.

Under most circumstances, sitting down and listening to 2{ hours of Siegfried's Funeral, Ride of the Valkyries and other Wagnerian orchestra selections would be a prescription for madness, but Klemperer's performance of them sounds remarkably fresh. Even the occasional scruffy playing _ a strained trumpet call here and there _ adds to the sense of spontaneity he got out of the Philharmonia. It's a far cry from the routine, business-as-usual perfection of modern-day orchestra recordings.

Highlights include the awesome Tannhauser overture; the Act I prelude from Lohengrin, built around a massive crescendo; the lustrous brass play from Die Meistersinger; and the lovingly sculpted prelude of Tristan und Isolde.

There was a heroic quality to Klemperer that comes across in these two CDs, part of EMI's series, The Klemperer Legacy. Plagued by mental and physical illnesses, he inspired perhaps the best book ever written about a conductor, Peter Heyworth's two-volume biography. Grade: A

_ JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic