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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major op. 15 (1800) [38:50]
Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat op. 19 (1798) [30:35]

Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor op. 37 (1803-4) [39:39]
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major op. 58 (1805-6) [37:49]

Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat op. 73 Emperor (1809) [43:07]
Choral Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra op. 80 (1808) [21:06]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
John Alldis Choir (op. 80)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, 4, 5, 9-11, 14, 28 October 1967. Stereo. ADD
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3615252 [3 CDs: 69:25 + 77:28 + 64:13]

Some 25 years on I can still remember the mix of friendliness and awe attendant on my first visits to my local recorded music society – or gramophone society as it then was. After all these people had vast collections, didn’t they ? They had all been listening to music for years, decades even … hadn’t they? Views and opinions rolled down from the heights like holy writ. What ... you don’t know Klemperer’s Fidelio, Schwarzkopf’s Four Last Songs, Furtwängler’s Tristan? What version did you say you had of K595? Ah well, of course nobody has quite matched the Busch Quartet.
Despite the genuine welcome one felt … well, intimidated. Certain artists were held in untouchable esteem, and contrary opinions had to be strongly held to gain any respect. Most of these giants were unsurprisingly from a former generation, although a few such as Abbado, Barenboim, Brendel, Du Pré etc appeared to be grudgingly admitted too. Yet I can still remember discussing with a fellow member, whose knowledge of Klemperer seemed encyclopaedic, the Beethoven concertos recorded with Barenboim. I was surprised to be met with the curt rebuff, “a mismatch!” Such was the force of this proclamation - it stuck. And so despite listening gradually to the symphonies, the violin concerto, Missa Solemnis and Fidelio under Klemperer’s baton, so it remained …. until now.
Approaching them with greater experience I would now amend my erstwhile colleague’s assessment of a “mismatch” to one of “creative tension”. Klemperer’s undoubtedly grand view of these works vies with Barenboim’s freshly romantic one resulting in mutual admiration and respect.
The awkward, gruff, curmudgeonly Beethoven I missed - in parts - in my recent report on Kempff’s mono set (Deutsche Grammophon, The Rosette Collection 476 5299 - see review) is well in evidence here. Listen for example to the finale of the fourth concerto. The music-making is trenchant and soloist and conductor dig into the rhythms. The music simply has more profile. Yes I accept that elsewhere stretches of music taken at random can seem too slow, but this is to miss both how they fit into the overall conception and that, in themselves, they are full of incident and colour which keep the ear enticed.
If I were to give some ground it would perhaps be over the B flat concerto. Here the conception becomes a little too grand overall, sinking just a trace under its weighty superstructure. Yet interestingly comparing the opening of the slow movement with Aimard and Harnoncourt (Teldec 0927 473342) I found the latter actually felt slower, despite an overall movement timing some 45 seconds less than the EMI. I think this boils down to a matter of Klemperer articulating the orchestral chords more than Harnoncourt, leading the latter to sound more relaxed. Elsewhere I have few complaints.
Indeed whilst listening to this set two insights into Klemperer’s approach were called to mind. I remember the conductor being asked about his colleague Bruno Walter and he replying - I cannot recall the exact words - that whilst he was a very “moral” conductor, Klemperer meanwhile was an immoral one!
On the face of it this appears a very odd remark, but one which makes more sense when taken within the context of further comments by Hugh Bean, one time leader of the Philharmonia. Bean stated that Klemperer was never concerned with “the beauty of sound per se”, but was meticulous about its integrity, especially balance, rhythm and clarity. I believe that what Klemperer was driving at was that, unlike him, Walter was a warmer-hearted individual, both in his approach to his musicians and his outlook to music. To Walter beauty is truth; to Klemperer truth is beauty.
Transfer this concept to the collaboration with Barenboim, and we find the young pianist’s “beauty” rising to the challenge and interacting with Klemperer’s truth, creating the stimulating result we find in these discs.
Furthermore put into an historical perspective the match does not seem so haphazard or unlikely. Before coming to these sessions Barenboim had traversed the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, also for EMI, in a set that still receives much acclaim. Klemperer meanwhile had tackled much of Beethoven’s orchestral music, some of the symphonies more than once. Following an initial and successful collaboration, on Mozart’s concerto K503, the rest, as they say, is history. Presumably further projects were curtailed, at least in part, due to the conductor’s age and infirmity.
There has been some comment in the music press at large about GROCs - as they are affectionately called in the industry - to the effect ... do they all really merit the appellation “great”? In this case I’d have to concede that despite some excellently re-mastered sound, originally masterminded by Suvi Raj Grubb and Robert Gooch, the nay-sayers might have a point. Perhaps Gramophone Magazine originally came closer to the truth in its first assessment when they reported, “I cannot think of another cycle that so consistently rivets the attention.”
To conclude; do I therefore regret the missed opportunity, stretching over a couple of decades, to acquaint myself with this set? Yes I do. Do I think these are the “greatest” Beethoven concertos? No, I don’t. However whilst I cannot put them forward as a “standard recommendation”, I do believe that they have a lot to say about this repertoire.
It’s taken a while, but at last my attention has been riveted too.
Ian Bailey

see also review by David Dunsmore

Great Recordings of the Century page


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