By calling a series "Great Conductors of the Twentieth
Century", those planning it are in some instances taking it upon
themselves to prove their case. Asked to name the "great"
conductors, a casual listener would probably start by naming Toscanini,
Klemperer, Furtwängler, Walter, Beecham, Karajan (no order of preference
intended). If asked to extend the list a little further, the well-informed
would arrive fairly quickly at the name of Erich Kleiber, though in
our publicity-conscious days it may be that his elusive son Carlos has
a higher profile with the general public. Many will have seen footage
of Kleiber in the ‘Great Conductors’ video, and will have noted a very
clear-cut, almost military clip to his beat. Always precise, brilliant,
dynamic and a faithful student of the score, he did not always unbend
so easily to produce that elusive element which surely is one of the
things that turns a fine conductor into a great one, humanity. Even
his famous version of Beethoven’s Fifth can seem a touch drilled at
times. Does this set justify its premise that Kleiber was a great conductor?
Part of it, I think, yes.
Kleiber made a commercial recording of the Schubert
"Great" C major, but for our knowledge of his interpretation
of the 5th we have to be grateful for this live Hamburg recording.
The sound is limited in range with very little clarity in the bass line,
but it falls quite pleasantly on the ear. The orchestra is not a world-beater
– little imprecisions are fairly frequent, but nothing too serious.
The first movement is swift yet Kleiber’s flexible
phrasing prevents it from sounding driven – it bubbles along very happily.
Excursions into a minor key or more dramatic moments are expressed with
a darkening of the tone colours but never with a heavy hand. Kleiber
finds more in this music than many other conductors, but never tries
to force it to sound bigger than it is.
Similarly in the Andante con moto his flexible phrasing
keeps the music warm and affectionate at a tempo that in other hands
might seem brisk, and he has a way of making the key changes sound improvised.
A rather tough Menuetto – as befits its minor key – with a lovingly
shaped but not indulgent Trio and a vivacious yet relaxed finale complete
a performance that was well worth preserving.
Since Kleiber made two commercial recordings of the
"Pastoral" my first reaction was to query the necessity for
transferring this live performance given in Prague. I was wrong. For
one thing, the sound, if a little bass-light, is remarkably pleasant,
more so than the rather fierce quality characteristic of early Decca
LPs. But above all, this is a performance which demands to be heard.
Not especially in the first movement, which seems a little unsettled
(and lacks the repeat), finding a wholehearted quality in the fortes
but elsewhere failing to reveal the music’s more gracious qualities.
I was reminded of Kleiber’s account of the Fifth which, as I said above,
for me lacks something in humanity.
Thereafter things begin to happen. The slow movement
of this symphony can sometimes seem interminable. Kleiber is alive to
every change in the accompanying motives, brings out every strand of
the often complex textures, sees that the throbbing syncopations in
the background have their effect, that every trill speaks. It is like
looking at an apparently bland country scene and gradually realising
that it is teeming with life. A vigorous country dance follows, and
Kleiber’s presto at the end has to be heard to be believed. Most conductors
respond to the marking with a slight increase in tempo. Here conductor
and orchestra seem to take a collective breath and then simply go mad!
This makes the interruption of the distant thunder all the more ominous,
and when the storm breaks it is one of the most dramatic I know. Hear
how Kleiber gets not just mere noise but seems somehow to chart the
progress of the music. This is real conducting.
The final revelation is yet to come. Firstly, not a
trace of a rallentando at the end of the storm, not even in the flute’s
scale passage leading into the Hymn of Thanksgiving (because none is
marked). So, seemingly without transition, suddenly a mood of great
serenity opens before us. Kleiber is not alone in noticing that Beethoven’s
marking for this last movement is only fractionally faster than that
of the Scene by a Brook. Other conductors who respect this, however,
give the impression that they are obeying orders but not really convinced,
and surreptitiously start forging ahead as the movement proceeds. Kleiber,
assisted by fervent tones of the Czech strings, crowns his account of
the symphony with a truly heartfelt hymn to nature.
Kleiber was one of the great Beethoven conductors who
did not leave a complete cycle. Missing are nos. 1, 4 and 8 (and his
recording of no. 2 is very old). In spite of the coupling of the Amsterdam
recordings of nos. 3 and 5 in the Decca "Legends" series (467
125-2) there has been no very systematic attempt either to reissue his
existing recordings in a Kleiber Edition or to trawl European radio
archives for further ones. Is there any chance that the gaps might be
filled to give us a complete Beethoven cycle under his baton?
Comparing the 1949 recording of the Mozart G minor
with the 1953 Hamburg ones shows up in many ways the advantages of a
studio-made recording. The outlines are all so much clearer and thankfully
there are few traces of the shrillness which used to bedevil the transfers
to LP of Decca’s 1940s 78 material.
The performance is a fine one, strong and serious with
brisk but not overdriven tempi. Each of the outer movements gathers
tension in its later stages – it would be possible to find the opening
a little bland. I particularly appreciated the Menuetto where Kleiber
extracts a more singing line than we normally hear and lets the syncopations
make their mark without thumping them. In the last resort though, I
feel this is another of those exemplary Kleiber performances which lack
the humanity of, say, Bruno Walter.
I recently reviewed a Supraphon reissue (SU 3469-2
011) of Konwitschny’s 1952 performance of Till Eulenspiegel with the
Czech Philharmonic and declared I had not enjoyed the piece so much
for a very long time. Certain factors work against Kleiber. The clear
definition of the percussion only emphasises the woolliness of the recording
of the rest of the orchestra while the studio-made Czech recording was
as good as you could get in 1952. And the Czech Philharmonic was a very
special orchestra indeed in those days (as we hear in the Kleiber Pastoral)
while Schmidt-Isserstedt’s North-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
was only a decent one. Even so, this must have been the often dull Konwitschny’s
finest hour, for there is a sheer roguishness and recklessness about
his Till that I miss here. Still, Kleiber’s is a fine performance by
any standard, lively, brilliant and tender by turn, and a nice souvenir
of another interpretation which was not recorded commercially.
The Dvořák and two
of the J. Strauss items were recorded at Kleiber’s first sessions
with the LPO. Frankly, I am quite at a loss to understand why they sound,
not a year older than the Mozart, but about twenty years older; very
limited in range with no real presence or body. In fact the 1929 Vienna
recording sounds slightly more brilliant and is quite acceptable for
its age. The transfer engineer is not named and I feel that, if these
recordings caused particularly intractable problems, he should have
been asked to provide a note about them.
The Dvořák gets a
good, lively performance with considerable poetic warmth in the quieter
middle section. Ultimately, though, it has nothing that is not to be
found in many other excellent performances. I doubt if anyone who has
the Ančerl, with its special feeling
for the native inflections of Dvořák’s phrasing, will give this
a second hearing and I venture to suggest that the Strausses
meant much more to Kleiber. His performance of Josef’s Sphärenklänge
has all the poetry and elegance I missed in the chirpy performance under
Otto Aebi that I recently reviewed in a Brilliant 5-CD set. Worth putting
up with the poor sound to hear this.
I wonder which was recorded first, this or the Gypsy
Baron Overture. Here it sounds as if Kleiber is still trying to warm
the orchestra up, for this is one of those stop-go Strauss performances
that tear the music apart by sheer exaggeration. Surprising, and quite
lacking the easy dialogue with the music which informs every bar of
the version in the Brilliant set (so reinforcing my suspicion that there
is actually more than one conductor at work there). The 1929 item has
great brilliance and verve and shows Kleiber’s Strauss at its best.
This is an issue which will be appreciated by Kleiber’s
many admirers. To those who are not yet acquainted with his work, the
Beethoven, the Josef Strauss and perhaps the Schubert will give a good
idea of his art, but it is a set hemmed around by a number of ifs and
buts. If the object of this series is to present not just "fine"
conductors but "great" conductors – and to present on 2 CDs
enough evidence to prove the point – then I must say that some items
here could be taken as proof the other way. Was Kleiber at his greatest
in the opera house? His recordings of Figaro and Rosenkavalier are certainly
the work of a great conductor. Those to whom he is only a name are perhaps
advised to start with there. I also feel that, in order to show the
range of his art, at least one of the lighter items could have been
traded in for something contemporary. The booklet mentions Dallapiccola
and an Italian bootleg version of him conducting a piece by that composer
has been around. It would have added a dimension. But I am very glad
to have this Pastoral.