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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.5 in C minor op.67 [31:43]
Symphony no.6 in F major op.68 (“Pastoral”) [43:28]
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Erich Kleiber
rec. 4 April 1955, Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne
MEDICI ARTS MM002-2 [75:15]



For many years Erich Kleiber’s 1953 mono recording of the Beethoven Fifth with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra enjoyed cult status. In the United Kingdom, at least, this was partly fuelled by the insistence of the EMG Monthly Letter – something of a cult in itself – that it was the only fully recommendable recording. This was apparently enough to keep it at full price until 1968, well into the stereo age. When I finally caught up with it and reviewed it, I found it taut, fiery and with a wonderful sense of line. I was not sure it had the humanity of certain performances – Furtwängler in primis – which played more freely with the letter of the score. Of particular interest is Kleiber’s interpretation of the finale. Though he did not insist on literal observance of Beethoven’s metronome markings he believed keenly in the interrelation between them. The finale is actually marked with a slower  beat to the half-bar than the whole bar of the scherzo and this is what Kleiber does. Klemperer famously adopted a constant pulse right through the last two movements but it is not uncommon to hear the finale actually go faster than the scherzo. Conductors who open the finale broadly often let the music run ahead later, while Kleiber sticks to his guns. Even after all these years, if you want a convincing demonstration that Beethoven perhaps meant what he wrote, Kleiber remains your man.
 
Does this live performance given in Cologne two years later add anything? On the whole, I’d say not. Kleiber was an idealist who apparently pursued his ideals in the same way with or without an audience. He was not studio-bound in the studio, nor did he unbend spontaneously in a live concert. I get the impression, in any case, that this was a live broadcast but without an audience. More than anything, I was impressed by the utter consistency between the performances. Given the superiority of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the greater clarity of the Decca recording – the present one is not bad, but a bit boomy and reverberant – there hardly seems any pressing reason to prefer the present issue, or even to supplement the Decca with it. Furthermore, there is occasionally the feeling that the orchestra are not very happy with the slow finale tempo. At a few points it speeds up slightly, causing Kleiber to claw it back. This was avoided in Amsterdam.
 
And yet, in spite of the impression of total consistency, the two performances come in with surprisingly different timings:


 
Amsterdam
1953
Cologne
1955
1
07:19
07:30
2
09:17
09:31
3
05:19
05:08
4
09:27
09:34


So there is something to be learnt after all. As it happens, while I was listening to these performances I was also making comparisons between Ingrid Haebler’s Denon cycle of Mozart sonatas and the plagiarized versions attributed to Joyce Hatto. I noticed that quite often the pirated CD, with its added reverberation, seemed a little faster. Yet, when the end of the movement was reached, in most cases the speed proved not to have been altered. This raised the question whether Haebler herself might not have played a little slower if she had really been performing in such a reverberant acoustic – simply to obtain the same effect.
 
Here I think we have a case of a conductor doing precisely that. Kleiber is pursuing exactly the same ideals but also taking into account such variables as the acoustics and the orchestra. In order to seem the same, the performance actually has to be a little different. This is no doubt why Kleiber’s performances did not become stale. Although they might appear reproductions of each other, they were actually created anew each time.
 
Kleiber recorded the “Pastoral” twice – LPO 1948, Concertgebouw 1953. I don’t know either of these but I discussed his interpretation when reviewing the Kleiber volume in the “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series, which included a live performance from Prague with the Czech Philharmonic, given on 20 May 1955.
 
Though Kleiber’s tempo in the first movement may sound brisk compared with Furtwängler or Klemperer, what actually impresses is the relaxed steadiness with which it unfolds. There is no repeat. The slow movement also unfolds warmly and inevitably. Kleiber’s insistence on a uniform tempo means that at a couple of points it seemed to me that he had slowed down. In fact, he hadn’t and I realize that virtually every other conductor speeds up at these points, with the result that I expect it to sound that way. Similarly, I thought he was getting gradually slower during the trio of the third movement. Again I realized he wasn’t – I’m just used to hearing conductors get faster and faster.
 
The peasants dance vivaciously, the storm is overwhelming, but the real Kleiber revelation is again the finale. Beethoven’s metronome marking is scarcely faster than that of the “Scene by the brook”, and in fact Kleiber treats this as a slow movement. It comes as all the more a surprise since he allows no rallentando during the flute’s lead-in. Some other conductors have attempted this, but they usually move on once they have made their point. Kleiber has none of that. It’s a wonderfully serene reading. I did have a few doubts here and there, though. Is there enough activity in the music to fill such a slow tempo? Even Klemperer is quicker by almost two minutes. Still, the score does seem to ask for this, so I think lovers of Beethoven should hear it and make up their own minds.
 
Kleiber is very definitely concentrating on musical values here, and the actual orchestral discipline is less good than in the Fifth. Quite frankly, there is scarcely a bar which does not have some sort of imprecision or fluff. Nor are the principal oboe and clarinet exactly alluring in timbre.
 
The Czech Philharmonic is clearly a finer band – and the recordings are about equal. Yet there is a suspicion there that the first movement is played there with a certain elegant efficiency. I found that the slow movement began to achieve the magic of the Cologne version about half-way through. The finale is a shade faster this time. Perhaps Kleiber felt he had taken it too slowly in Cologne. I’m not sure I agree. On the whole, in spite of the lesser orchestra, I think I would return more often to the Cologne version. Here are the timings:
 

 
Cologne
April 1955
Prague
May 1955
1
9:38
9:33
2
14:08
14:36
3
5:22
5:22
4
3:19
3:28
5
11:01
10:46
 
Kleiber was a Beethoven conductor of major importance. He was one of the few such who left no complete cycle – 1, 4 and 8 are missing. Admirers of this conductor will regret that the Cologne archives didn’t actually produce anything new to his discography, but they will find plenty to interest them here, especially in the “Pastoral”. Those interested in Beethoven interpretation generally should take especial note of his treatment of the finales.
 
Christopher Howell
 

 


 


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