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Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century: Otto KLEMPERER

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Symphony No 38 in D major, K504. "Prague" * [25’56"]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949): Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 ** [14’37"]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971): Pulcinella – Suite (1947 version)*** [24’38"]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950): Kleine Dreigroschenmusik. Suite for wind orchestra from The Threepenny Opera – extracts**** [9’33"]
MOZART: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K183*****
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36****** [34’ 56"]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928): Sinfonietta******* [23’ 35"]
Recording details:
* RIAS-Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin. Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem(?), 22/23 December 1950
** WDR Sinfonie Orchester, Köln. Recorded in the Klaus-von-Bismark-Saal, WDR, Cologne, 27 February 1956?
*** Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. Recorded in the Herkulessaal, Munich, 26 September 1957
**** Orchester der Berliner Staatsoper. Recorded in Berlin, 1931
***** RIAS- Symphonie-Orchester, Berlin. Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, 20 December 1950.
******Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Recorded in the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin, 29 March 1958
******* WDR Sinfonie Orchester, Köln. Recorded in the Klaus-von-Bismark-Saal, WDR, Cologne, 27 February 1956
All conducted by Otto Klemperer
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75465 2 2 [152’19"]

 

Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) was a towering figure among twentieth century conductors. However, as Peter Heyworth makes clear in his masterly and detailed biographical study, Otto Klemperer, his life and times. Vol. 1 1885-1933; Vol. 2 1933-1973 (Cambridge 1983 and 1996), Klemperer was a complex man, bedevilled by depressive mood swings. In later life he was celebrated especially for his interpretations of the Austro-German classics. However, Heyworth chronicles in great detail the huge support which Klemperer gave to new music in the earlier years of his career. This was particularly true of his time at the head of opera houses in Cologne (1917-24), Wiesbaden (1924-7) and Berlin (the Kroll Opera between 1927 and 1931). Happily, some of the items on this pair of CDs illustrate those sympathies.

The Austro-German repertoire is represented by a pair of Mozart symphonies and one by Beethoven. I’m afraid I’ve never warmed much to Klemperer’s Mozart which, on record at least, has seemed to me often to be gruff and to be short on the grace, wit and charm which are so important in Mozart. However, I’m pleased to say that the two Mozart performances here are good ones. The orchestra at Klemperer’s disposal for these recordings was the one which Ferenc Fricsay had taken over in 1948 and perhaps his stylish training can be detected in the background. However, in pointing this out I do not mean to detract from Klemperer at all. In the "Prague" the introduction to the first movement is well phrased and the main allegro is sprightly (the exposition repeat is observed). The Andante seemed just a trifle too leisurely to me but the phrasing is graceful, especially in the first violins, and there’s some good work from the wind principals too. The exposition repeat is omitted. The presto finale fizzes along very nicely and, all in all this is a stylish and surprisingly genial reading of the work.

The ‘Little’ G minor symphony emanates from the same sessions. The first movement is reasonably light though the recorded sound is a bit muddy, especially affecting the horns, I found. However, there’s ample dramatic fire in the performance. Overall this seemed to me to be on a par with that of the "Prague" though there are some untidy bits such as the anxious moment for the horns in the finale (disc 2, track 4, 0’32")

Just over seven years later Klemperer returned to this orchestra, by now renamed, when the live recording of Beethoven’s Second Symphony took place. The introduction to the first movement has breadth and grandeur and there is drive and vigour in the main allegro. I’ve heard more extrovert accounts of this movement but on his own terms Klemperer is very convincing. His conception of the larghetto is very spacious – some may find it too leisurely. The scherzo has a rugged wit to it. Here I’d prefer more sparkle – Klemperer is a bit too forceful for my taste – but the performance is of a piece with his view of the symphony as a whole. The finale is purposeful and strong. The orchestra plays powerfully for him and with commitment. The notes relate that the other work in the concert was the Eroica Symphony. It seemed to me that here Klemperer related the Second very closely to its successor. His is not by any means the only way with this symphony and I can imagine some listeners finding it too forbidding and humourless. However, in its own way the reading is impressive and it certainly does not lack integrity. The many admirers of Klemperer in Beethoven (among whom I count myself, albeit not uncritically) will want to hear this live appendage to his celebrated Philharmonia cycle, completed not long before this performance.

Klemperer was selective in the works of Richard Strauss that he performed though he did record several of that composer’s works with the Philharmonia. In this performance of Till he doesn’t project, to my ears at least, a portrait of a "merry" prankster. Instead the malevolent side of practical joking is brought out, I feel. This is a portrayal of a sardonic, rather cynical joker and when Till gets his comeuppance it’s hard not to feel he has got his just desserts. This is very different from the sort of performance you’d hear from, say Kempe but it’s a perfectly valid view, I think and certainly the performance, which is well played, is biting and sharply observed.

Stravinsky’s is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of Klemperer but in fact the conductor programmed works by Stravinsky throughout his career though, as with Strauss, he was selective in his choice. He actually made a studio recording of Pulcinella with the Philharmonia in 1963 (a performance which I have not heard; it was reissued by Testament not long ago.). Out of interest I compared this account with the 1991 recording by another senior German conductor, Günter Wand. I’m bound to say that at almost every turn I found Wand’s performance to be markedly superior. Consistently he invests the music with more light and shade than does Klemperer and Wand’s rhythms have more resilience and vitality. The Serenata (disc 1, track 6) seems turgid in Klemperer’s hands (he takes 3’36" against Wand’s 2’38"). Klemperer has a reasonable spring in his step in the Tarantella (track 8) but the Toccata (track 9) again finds him too deliberate – Wand has far more bounce. The trombone in the Vivo (track 11) is far too prominent and vulgar – the glissandi are just outrageous and far too much of a good thing. Frankly, I don’t think this is a recording which enhances Klemperer’s reputation at all. I regret its inclusion and am unlikely to return to it

The four movements from Kurt Weill’s suite are a very different matter. These short pieces give us a flavour of what Klemperer must have been like during his iconoclastic time at the Kroll Opera when he flirted with artistic and political danger on a regular basis. ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’ (disc 1, track 14) may be a shade deliberate but Klemperer and his players invest it with a tangible air of sleazy menace. This authentic ambience is carried on in the other three extracts. The music is presented with sharp vigour and there’s a real sense of something racy and dangerous. Inevitably the recorded sound is a touch primitive (but pretty remarkable for its age) but this actually suits the primary colours of Weill’s scoring rather well. I would almost go so far as to say that, as a document, this is the most important item in the collection. It was Klemperer’s last recording before leaving Germany to go into exile and my only regret is that the whole suite wasn’t set down.

Janáček was also a composer championed by Klemperer in his early career and he performed several of the operas in the 1920s. As Alan Sanders points out in his notes he gave the German premiere of the Sinfonietta in 1926 followed by the US premiere in 1927 (and in between he gave the first performance in Berlin in the composer’s presence.) The initial impression made by this performance was not favourable for the opening fanfares are slow, well below the metronome mark, and sound lugubrious (disc 2, track 9). There’s no sense of extrovert joy. Later, however, I came to believe that in fact Klemperer’s is a rather dark view of the work. The second movement is slightly below the usual speed but here the biting accents compensate. The third movement is basically good though the prestissimo at cue 11 in the score (track 11, 3’49”) is not fast enough to make its full effect and for some reason the repeat of this section is ignored.

In general the last movement is powerfully done. I suspect the music must have been fairly unfamiliar to the players and at times the strain shows (e.g. the clarinet intonation at track 13, 2’45”). For the most part, however, they cope with the ferocious demands which Janáček makes of them. When the opening brass fanfares return (track 13. 3’35”) it’s at the same ponderous tempo that we encountered at the outset (though in fact the score indicates a very slightly faster speed of 92 minims compared with 72 minims at the beginning). There’s a rather clumsy gear change at cue 12 (track 13, 5’11") when Klemperer slows even more for the maestoso and rather catches his players on the hop. However, I must admit that the broad tempo does give a certain grandeur to the closing pages. This wouldn’t be a first choice recording by any means but it’s an interesting, darker view of this marvellous work. It has good things in it and is worth hearing.

As might be expected, the sound quality varies in this collection since the recordings are from several sources. However, the sound is generally satisfactory. Alan Sanders provides notes which, as usual from this source, are interesting and informative. I was a little surprised to find one or two inconsistencies, however. He says that the Mozart recordings "may" have been made in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche. EMI seems certain, however, and the discography to Heyworth’s biography (Vol. 2, p. 401) seems to support them for it clearly gives that as the venue for the recording of the 25th Symphony. It seems pretty likely, therefore that the recording of the “Prague” took place in the same venue. On the other hand, I suspect EMI are wrong to give the same recording date for both the Strauss and Janáček performances. Mr. Sanders says that the Strauss took place on 25 October 1954 and the Janáček in 1956. Since he quotes the full programmes for both concerts I suspect he’s done his homework and his is the correct version. These may seem small, pedantic points but they indicate sloppy sub-editing for an important historical series.

This is an uneven compilation and I don’t really think it shows Klemperer at his trenchant best. Having said that, it contains much that is of interest and it is valuable to hear Klemperer in some repertoire which played an important part in his career but which did not feature strongly in his commercial recordings. Eyebrows have already been raised at one or two of the names counted by EMI as "Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century" but surely Klemperer’s place in that pantheon is his by right. He was a major figure in the musical life of the last century. This issue is a most useful supplement to his more obvious recorded legacy. Whether you agreed with him or not Otto Klemperer always had something to say about the music he conducted and that is true of this set, which is well worth investigating.

John Quinn


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