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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827):
Overture: Prometheus Op. 43 [5’32"]
Recorded 25 November 1957
Overture: Coriolan Op. 62 [7’58"]
Recorded 21 October 1957
Incidental Music: Egmont Op. 84: Overture [9’09"]; ‘Die Trommel gerühet’* [3’09"]; ‘Freudvoll und leidvoll’* [1’59"]; ‘Klärchens Tod bezeichnend’ [3’08"]
Recorded 21 and 25 October and 25 November 1957
Symphony No 6 in F major Op. 68 ‘Pastoral’ [45’57"]
Recorded 7-8 October 1957
All recordings made in the Kingsway Hall, London
* Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Great Recordings of the Century
EMI CLASSICS 5 67965 2 [77’20"]

 

Yet more illustrious recordings emerge, proudly refurbished from EMI’s vaults. In this case just a cursory look at the recording details gives many indications of excellence. The performances date from 1957, perhaps the high noon of the relationship between Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia. The recording was engineered by one of EMI’s best balance engineers, Robert Gooch and was produced by the eagle-eyed (or should it be "eagle-eared"?) Walter Legge. As if this were not enough the marvellous acoustics of the Kingsway Hall, allied to the skills of conductor, engineer and producer ensure that we hear a beautifully natural, musical sound.

It must be said straight away that Klemperer’s ‘Pastoral’ may not be to all tastes. Geniality was not one of the attributes with which one first associates him and, of course, geniality is at the heart of much of this music. That said, the performance has many insights and is characteristically thoughtful and trenchantly argued. In the first movement, Klemperer’s walk in the country is that of a sturdy hiker. The reading may lack something of a sense of wide-eyed wonder but there are abundant compensations. Klemperer is attentive to all the subtle nuances of the score, observing Beethoven’s accents and dynamic markings conscientiously but never pedantically. Here and, indeed, throughout the disc, the playing of the Philharmonia has a wonderful depth of tone, securely founded on a firm and sonorous bass line. The string playing is polished and we can also hear some top drawer wind playing.

In the second movement Klemperer lays before us not a "babbling brook" but one which runs slowly and deeply. The currents move with an imposing inevitability. There is much dignity here and, once again, every detail is keenly observed and allotted just its rightful place, no more, no less, in Beethoven’s musical landscape. This is a deeply satisfying traversal of one of Beethoven’s most lyrical inspirations.

However, I’m afraid I’m in danger of parting company with Klemperer in the third movement where the peasants’ dance is stolid almost to the point of being earthbound. It was of this movement that a member of the Philharmonia allegedly had the temerity to voice a reservation about the maestro’s tempo to his face to which Klemperer retorted that the player shouldn’t worry; he’d get used to it! Well, I’m afraid I’ve tried and I find great difficulty in getting used to it. To be sure, the performance does have an undoubted rustic feel and I do like the sturdy "clog dance" when both Beethoven and Klemperer pick up the tempo (track 9 from 2’05"). At random I got down from my shelves versions by three very different conductors. Toscanini’s 1952 NBC performance is surely too mercurial (he takes a mere 5’01" for the whole movement against Klemperer’s 6’33"). However, Willem Mengelberg (Concertgebouw, 1937) and Klaus Tennstedt (LPO, 1986) seem to be pretty much of the same mind as regards tempi; they weigh in at 5’34" and 5’38" respectively. I must say I feel much more comfortable with their pacing.

I’m much more at ease with Klemperer’s pacing for the remainder of the work. In his hands the storm is urgent and thrilling but, rightly, he keeps the speed on a tight rein; there is no rushing in the heat of the moment. In fact he exhibits a masterly control both of tempo and of dynamic contrast. One small typographical point. EMI’s track listing indicates that the storm movement lasts 8’43" whereas the actual timing is exactly five minutes shorter. However the overall timing given for the symphony is correct.

The skies clear magically in one of Beethoven’s most masterly transitions. Klemperer handles the join to the final movement with effortless mastery. He and the Philharmonia do the serene Shepherds’ Hymn of Thanksgiving superbly. Michael Steinberg has pointed out that in his sketchbooks Beethoven wrote the words "gratias agimus tibi" from the ‘Gloria’ of the Mass next to the theme of this movement, making quite clear to whom the hymn was addressed. It is beatific music and here it receives a devoted, majestic performance.

Despite my reservations over the third movement, and who am I to argue with a conductor who has so self-evidently thought through every note of the score in great detail, I am in no doubt that this is a masterly reading of the ‘Pastoral’. It is the product of Klemperer’s extensive performing experience of the score and of his deep reflection about it.

The remaining items are equally distinguished. The Prometheus overture is grand and splendidly articulated while the performance of its companion, Coriolan is patrician and magisterial.

In a recent review of a CD by Nicolai Malko and the Danish State Broadcasting Orchestra my colleague Jonathan Woolf fascinatingly suggested that Malko’s account of the Egmont overture was "Mendelssohnian rather than Wagnerian". Faced with such a choice I’d have to put this Klemperer reading firmly in the Wagnerian camp. It sounds as if it has been hewn from granite and I mean that as a compliment. I do wonder if the pace of the main allegro isn’t just a touch too deliberate but the blazing conviction and white-hot intensity of the performance sweep aside any such minor reservations. In his excellent and discerning liner note Richard Osborne comments: "No conductor in the present writer’s experience has shown a more precise sense of the balance between the overture’s symphonic and theatrical elements." I would also concur with his judgement that Klemperer’s way with the coda is "no vulgar grandstand finale … but a beautifully paced dénouement in which a sense of aspiration … is nobly maintained."

As well as this splendid account of the familiar overture Klemperer adds three of the other eight movements from the incidental music to Goethe’s tragedy which Beethoven wrote for the play’s Vienna premiere in 1809. Two are short vocal items, both sung by Klärchen, Egmont’s mistress. These are performed here by Birgit Nilsson, luxury casting indeed, who invests these two short items with all her great theatrical skill and presence. The extracts are completed by a brief oboe-led lament which is heard following the suicide of Klärchen. It’s a very moving piece, especially when played with the stoic dignity on display here. These pieces may not be top drawer Beethoven but their inclusion is much to be welcomed.

As I’ve said, the notes by Richard Osborne are of the high standard you’d expect from such a source. EMI’s recording wears its forty-six years lightly and has come up here as if new-minted. The sound is very full and truthful.

In summary, this is a highly distinguished release. Not every listener will agree with every interpretative decision. However, the performances are thoughtful and thought-provoking. These are Beethoven recordings of the highest distinction which have the power both to humble and exalt the listener. They fully merit their inclusion as Great Recordings of the [Twentieth] Century and I highly recommend them.


John Quinn

see Great Recordings of the Century



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