When I reviewed
the coupling of Beethoven’s 5th and 7th
Symphonies under Klemperer in this "Great Recordings of the
Century" series I ventured to suggest that the Klemperer
myth was at least partly born of the necessity to find a myth
at that time and in that place, and that several other German
conductors around in those days would have done just as well.
Somewhat facetiously I compared the recordings of the same two
symphonies under the baton of the alleged dullard Joseph Keilberth
and found there was often little to choose between them. At the
risk of taking the joke too far, I should like to bring in Keilberth
as a comparison again here, but I must immediately point out that,
whereas in Symphonies 5 and 6 his approach and Klemperer’s were
broadly similar, in the case of the "Pastoral" they
take quite different views (a double-CD pack of Symphonies 5,
6 and 7 plus Egmont and Leonore III Overtures under Keilberth
is available on Teldec 0630-18946-5).
In one sense, the comparison with Keilberth was
never wholly valid, for Keilberth was first and foremost an upholder
of the grand tradition while Klemperer, during the first part
of his career, was essentially a propagator of modern music. His
readings of the classics were controversial and not especially
appreciated. So I would like to bring in for comparison the recording
by another German conductor who was similarly a great advocate
of his contemporaries, a fervent proponent of Mahler and a controversial
interpreter of the classics, namely Hermann Scherchen (two companies
seem to be issuing Scherchen’s Westminster recordings, in different
couplings and packaging; I have Symphonies 6 & 8 on MCA MCD
80077). But I would also like to go back to the beginnings of
Beethoven on record and consider the only recording of the "Pastoral",
from 1927, by the first conductor to have set down all nine works,
Felix Weingartner (the Weingartner cycle is available from Naxos;
Symphonies 5 and 6, which I shall be reviewing separately in due
course, are on 8.110861). And lastly, I wish to take into consideration
Klemperer’s own first recording, made in 1951 (this is a Vox recording
which I have on LP; I am not sure about the availability of a
Although timings and metronome markings are hazardous
terrain, let us start from there:
Beethoven’s own metronome markings
= 108/TRIO: quarter-note
TIMINGS FOLLOWED BY METRONOME SPEEDS (R
= repeat observed)
One thing strikes us immediately; although certain
conductors of the "original instruments brigade" have
spoken about Beethoven’s metronome markings as if they had discovered
them themselves, in every case at least one of the above performances
has matched them and, with the sole exception of the first movement,
at least one conductor has actually exceeded them, often by a
considerable margin. However, the important thing is not the actual
tempo, it is the phrasing and the breathing of the music.
In the case of Weingartner’s 1927 recording,
which sounds remarkably well in Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer, we
must bear in mind the recording conditions of the day. It has
been demonstrated that in this conductor’s first electrical recording
of the 5th Symphony the second movement is swifter
than in his previous acoustic version. This was because the electrical
process resulted, initially, in slightly shorter sides, and Weingartner
was thereby obliged to speed up the tempo. We must at least consider
the possibility that he would have taken parts of the symphony
at a more relaxed pace in ideal conditions; and we can be fairly
certain that the omission of the repeat in the scherzo, and maybe
that of the first movement, was not what he would have wished.
But if this is so, we can only gasp in admiration at what he achieved
under the circumstances; this is one of the freshest and most
vivacious accounts ever put on disc. The first movement begins
as it means to go on, with a spring in its step. Weingartner’s
urgency does not preclude a couple of small ritardandos at structural
points in the development, and he underlines the harmonic shifts
more tellingly than any of the others.
The opening of the second movement is striking
for Weingartner’s very clear division of the music into 3-note
cells, setting up a minuet-like lilt. Once you have got used to
the idea that this is not a sluggish stream on a drowsy summer
afternoon but a fresh mountain brook, the performance is intoxicating,
and it certainly doesn’t sound hard-pressed.
The curious thing about the scherzo is that having
adopted a really exhilarating tempo for the 3/4 sections, Weingartner
then takes the 2/4 section rather steadily. Did he deliberately
intend to equate the two tempi? His storm is absolutely thrilling;
as will be seen later, several conductors who begin at Beethoven’s
slowish metronome mark get gradually faster in their excitement.
At least there’s no risk of that with an opening tempo as fast
as this. The finale begins only a jot faster than Beethoven’s
indication but is soon forging ahead rather more swiftly. All
the same, the phrasing is kept so clear that the effect is never
hard-driven, just wonderfully joyful. Weingartner is the only
conductor I know of who treats the last bars, not as a fading
sunset reverie interrupted by the two final forte chords, but
as a crescendo leading to those two chords.
All this was made possible by the excellence
of the orchestra (the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society,
not to be confused with Beecham’s post-war band); articulation
is remarkably clean, the string playing virtually free of portamento
slides between the notes and textures beautifully clear and transparent.
A comparison of this with a "period-band" performance
can only provoke the reflection that there is nothing new under
Much that Keilberth does is in the Weingartner
tradition – the 3-note cells at the opening of the second movement
are clear in exactly the same way – but there are also signs that
he was not unappreciative of the art of Furtwängler. His
tempi in the first two movements are only a notch slower than
Weingartner’s (and in three movements out of five he is virtually
spot on Beethoven’s own markings) yet the timings suggest a different
story. Without exactly dawdling, he allows himself more space
to shape transitions and the result is an amiably relaxed account,
though not without weight in the storm.
Scherchen is the one conductor here to match
Beethoven’s marking in the first movement. In theory the gap to
be bridged from Weingartner’s 63 to Beethoven’s 66 is minimal
but the results are actually rather uncomfortable. This for two
reasons. First of all, the other conductors, even Klemperer in
1957, are agreed that the music should have a one-in-the-bar feeling
so that, whether faster or slower, it has a lilt. Scherchen opts
for a tense two-in-a-bar. This leads to some crackling excitement
but come the more lyrical episodes and Scherchen seems to be forcing
things ahead, stopwatch in hand, as though he’s scared stiff of
falling behind the metronome (did he have it ticking over, silently
but visible, on the rostrum? It sounds terribly like it). One
is reminded of Richard Osborne’s memorable description of certain
"period instrument" performances where the music is
not so much interpreted as "barged through". Unfortunately
Scherchen has defeated his own object; he has shown that the metronome
marking is physically possible (did we doubt it?) but he has not
convinced us that it its observance is artistically desirable.
Luckily the second movement poses no great problem
since the prescribed tempo is not so very fast. Scherchen adopts
completely smooth phrasing at the opening, unlike Weingartner
and Keilberth, and allows himself less elbow room at transitions
than the latter; it is this rather than his actual tempo which
results in a timing a minute shorter. He is not unresponsive to
Beethoven’s sublimity, but he is possibly a little bland.
Scherchen was, furthermore, a law unto himself.
At times he would stand pedantically by a written metronome mark,
then he would get out of bed the other side and do his own thing
entirely. Whereas Weingartner had flattened out Beethoven’s contrasting
tempi in the third movement (and Keilberth got them proportionally
about right), Scherchen exaggerates them, with a lolloping scherzo
within reach of Klemperer’s and an upfront contredanse.
How odd, too, that his respect for most of Beethoven’s unmarked
tempi was aligned to such a cavalier attitude to repeats. Weingartner
was probably obliged to omit the scherzo repeat; on a 1958 LP
there can be no possible excuse.
Scherchen is very fine in the Storm, allowing
his (and Beethoven’s) original tempo to move ahead marginally
– while Keilberth, starting at the same tempo, goes for weight
rather than dynamism and so produces the longest timing of those
under consideration – but impressively concentrated nonetheless.
His finale is also a magnificent demonstration that Beethoven’s
markings can be given coherent musical effect. Scherchen was an
exasperating artist with the seeds of greatness and his performances
usually demand to be heard for the sake of their finest parts.
In 1951 Klemperer the modernist justifies his
slowish first movement tempo with a spiky Stravinskian clarity
of phrasing and texture (the staccatos are very staccato). The
movement proceeds on even keel with a certain gruff good-humour
but no great revelations. In the slow movement he lets us hear
the 3-note cells at the beginning (this goes for the 1957 version
too), but without pointing them out as Weingartner and Keilberth
do. Again, his principal concern seems to be a clean presentation
of the score. It is interesting that he sides with his fellow
modernist Scherchen in exaggerating the tempo contrasts in the
third movement. His Storm is certainly dramatic, and is treated
as a gradual accelerando, beginning at Beethoven’s tempo and virtually
ending at Weingartner’s. What price his reputation for objectivity!
But it is impressive in its way, as is the rather bracing finale.
Like Scherchen, he seems most engaged by the last two movements.
This is not a performance that aroused widespread enthusiasm in
its day and is interesting chiefly in the light of what followed
(but he was already 66!).
In so far as Klemperer’s earlier years are documented
on disc, there is little point in arranging his recordings in
chronological order and expecting to find a logical development.
Only six years separate the two "Pastorals", but something
profound happened to him during those years. In 1951 he was not
a great conductor; in 1957 he was. In attempting to work out the
metronome speeds of the 1957 performance I came up against the
fact that he allows himself continual breathing space, he moves
backwards and forwards in his tempi but with such naturalness
that most people seem not even to notice it. The first movement
is hardly slower than before, and the second movement has the
same tempo, but the actual timings are considerably longer. He
also has a quite different style of string playing, much less
staccato, much deeper in the bow. This restless, wandering man
had found a stability in has last period which corresponded to
that which the post-war public needed. He finds in this music
a heartfelt thanks for deliverance from the terrors of the past
and a prayer for a better future. In view of the wholeness of
his statement, it is scarcely relevant whether we always agree,
for example, with his clod-hopping tempo for the scherzo, or whether
we note that the storm is still treated as an accelerando; it
is scarcely even relevant that the finale, at least as powerfully
urgent as before, flows for much of the time at Beethoven’s own
The Symphony is preceded by three overtures and
some additional "Egmont" music, all played with unvarnished
strength and conviction. The "Prometheus" overture responds
remarkably well to this treatment; I thought the "Egmont"
overture hung fire a little but the coda is terrific and in the
first of the two songs (with Nilsson in gleaming voice) Klemperer’s
deliberation gives stature to what can sometimes seem banal. The
recordings still sound very fine; this is Beethoven you must have.
As long as you don’t have only this Beethoven.