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Otto Klemperer
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) ‘Egmont’ Overture, Op. 84 [8:46]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68* [41:58]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Kindertotenlieder ** [22:31]
George London (baritone) **
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Otto Klemperer
rec. 28 May 1955; * and ** 17 October 1955, Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne. ADD
MEDICI MASTERS MM0052 [73:33]

These live performances were recorded in the studios of WDR, Cologne. It’s unclear if an audience was present – I suspect not – but though audience noise is absent the tension, and occasional roughness, associated with live performance certainly is present. These all show Klemperer in characteristically trenchant mood.

The opening to the Beethoven overture sounds gaunt and implacable. One gets an almost tangible sense of the Netherlands under the yoke of the occupying Spaniards. When the main allegro arrives Klemperer adopts a pace that is quite steady and the music makes its effect, seemingly, through patience and perseverance. I have to say I found it just a little unbending. The coda is fiercely energetic. Excitement is conveyed but I missed the sense of release and exultation that other conductors have conveyed. Still, in his own way Klemperer conveys the drama of the piece as a whole.

The other two items come from the same programme, given just a few months later in the same year. In the Mahler the soloist is the great baritone, George London. Personally I prefer a female voice in these songs but a male voice is perfectly valid. London does them well, though the intimacy of much of the music is a challenge for a big voice such as his. The annotator, Michael Jameson, describes the performance as “searching and grimly argued”. How much this is due to London or to Klemperer I can’t speculate. The orchestra is rather exposed in the stark accompaniment to the first song and it takes a little while to settle but thereafter the accompaniment is good.

London gives us some finely controlled singing in the second song, ‘Nun seh ich wohl, warum so dunkel Flammen.’ Indeed throughout the cycle I was impressed with the way he fines down his voice so as not to sound overbearing. He’s very emotional, perhaps a touch histrionic, at the start of the fifth song, ‘In diesern Wetter’. However, when the music quietens (around 3:02) and Mahler adopts a mood of calm resignation London responds sensitively and deploys an excellent legato. In summary, this may not be a first choice performance – but it was never intended for posterity – yet it has much to offer and I don’t know that either singer or conductor recorded the work commercially, so this is a valuable issue.

The main work is Brahms’s First Symphony. To my ears Klemperer is pretty uncompromising here. The very opening displays massive purpose and strength, with pounding timpani providing a solid foundation. Klemperer makes the music sound dark, even tragic. He leads a stirring, steady account of the main allegro and his audible grunts and groans add to the sense of stress. The performance exudes integrity and while it may lack the warmth that other conductors have brought to the work one can’t help but admire Klemperer’s purposeful vision. He keeps the rhythms taut and his direction is clear-eyed at all times. There’s little lingering over expressive points and for myself I would have welcomed a few bits of rubato to make the music sound more humane.

This directness of approach carries over into the second movement. Frankly, I didn’t warm to this view of the movement. I like more give and a willingness to relax. There’s a total absence of geniality and everything sounds just a bit pressed and even fierce at times. This is Brahms shorn of any sentiment. Perhaps the 1950s mono sound, which is perfectly acceptable but lacking the depth and roundness of today’s recordings, adds to this impression. In the concluding pages the solo horn and violin are satisfactory but by no means as poetic as one has heard in many other readings – or perhaps the players were not allowed to be poetic.

The third movement sounds quite brisk but in fact when I checked against some other recordings in my collection I found that Klemperer, who weighs in at 4:31, is pretty much average here. I’d say the chosen tempo is a notch higher than I’d expect for an allegretto and in Klemperer’s hands the music doesn’t really sound ‘grazioso’. Indeed, this struck me as a pretty forthright account of the movement, almost tending to brusqueness.

It’s in the finale that Klemperer really comes into his own. He makes the introduction brooding and intense. The horns are a touch fallible when their Big Moment arrives and I find their tone at this point – though, oddly, not elsewhere - a bit of an acquired taste; I wonder if they were over-blowing? The great tune is sturdy and dependable and Klemperer also keeps it moving forward purposefully, which I like. The main allegro is fiery, propulsive and exciting. All in all this is a dramatic and very exciting account of the movement. The performance of the symphony as a whole won’t be to everyone’s taste and I hope I’ve given a flavour of what you can expect. It’s a valid, if rather severe view of the symphony.

As I’ve hinted, the sound is somewhat lacking in front-to-back perspective. It’s a rather typical studio sound, typical of the period, and perfectly acceptable. Klemperer’s penchant for prominence for the woodwind is also evident. The notes are serviceable but no texts are provided.

John Quinn

 

 


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