Symphony no.5 in C minor op.67 [31:43]
Symphony no.6 in F major op.68 (“Pastoral”) [43:28]
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
And yet, in spite of the impression of total consistency, the two
performances come in with surprisingly different timings:
So there is something to be learnt after all. As it happens,
while I was listening to these performances I was also making
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
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:
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.
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