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Preiser Records


Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major (1888) [49:30]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat op.38 Spring (1841) [29:48]
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Paul Kletzki
rec. 1954
PREISER 90730 [79:23]

I nearly saw Paul Kletzki conduct during my student years in Edinburgh. He was booked to appear in the - not yet Royal - Scottish National Orchestra season and rehearsed the orchestra up to the morning of the concert. He then fell ill and was replaced by the SNO’s Assistant Conductor, Julian Dawson. Evidently his health was already failing, for he collapsed during a rehearsal in Liverpool not long after and died on 5 March 1973. The second half of the concert began with Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and I remember to this day the extraordinary refinement of the orchestral texture at the beginning. The horn employed just a shade of vibrato – something the SNO player was not wont to do – and the other instruments were perfectly balanced, producing a magic, shimmering effect. I take it this was Kletzki’s doing – Julian Dawson certainly never produced anything like that on his own account when I was in the audience.

Born at Łódź, Poland, in 1900, Kletzki was already well established as a conductor and composer before the First World War. He limited himself to conducting after 1942, stating that Nazism had robbed him of the will to compose. He began recording regularly in 1946 for Columbia (EMI) and was included in their introductory LP catalogue. Here the booklet note becomes a little misleading, stating that “New recordings with Kletzki appeared regularly up until 1955. Then Walter Legge discovered Otto Klemperer and promoted him to replace the recently deceased Wilhelm Furtwängler”. The implication that Kletzki was suddenly dropped is not quite true, though Klemperer certainly got to dominate the German-Austrian repertoire and several of Kletzki’s Philharmonia recordings from the 1960s appeared straightaway on the budget-price SXLP/XLP label. This produced two incredible bargains – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and the Tchaikovsky Pathétique – which dominated the catalogue for decades afterwards. After the mid-1960s he did fade from view a bit, but Supraphon chose him to conduct a Beethoven cycle with the Czech Philharmonic which has tended to stay around. Towards the end of his life he began recording for Decca with the Suisse Romande Orchestra, which he took over from Ansermet in 1967 in a somewhat decadent state. These records show that he raised their standards considerably and he was the first conductor to record Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony without cuts. Preiser’s notes are wrong, by the way, in stating that he recorded Mahler’s First and Fourth Symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic – the Fourth was with the Philharmonia.

Having said all this, I’m afraid I didn’t get very much out of this disc. I do believe Kletzki’s art should be investigated but this seems not to be the best place to start. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of putting on a disc and wondering if the music, or even music in general, is losing its appeal for you? This can happen especially when nothing is ostensibly wrong. Leaving aside a smudged trumpet note at the beginning and an imprecise chord as the first tutti opens, the orchestral playing is good enough, the tempi reasonable and conviction is not lacking. The recording is tubby, but you get used to it. I felt a degree of physical engagement with the performance in the moments where it drives forward vigorously, but in between my attention wandered. It’s what is sometimes described as a “serviceable” performance, but if other listeners are as little engaged as I was I don’t quite know what sort of service it really provides either for them or for the composer.

Turning to Furtwängler’s live version (1951) I quickly found I hadn’t lost my interest in music. There is so much more distinction to the phrasing; Kletzki never approaches anything like Furtwängler’s sudden magic hush before the first movement launches into its “Allegro molto vivace”. Furtwängler slows down much more than Kletzki for the lyrical second subject and at certain points in the development, yet he gives a far better impression of a developing argument. He even persuades the ear to accept his way of sidling into the main Finale theme a long way below tempo.

But, while I was pleased to hear Furtwängler again, I was enchanted by Sergiu Celibidache (Milan 1968). Alone in my experience, Celibidache can find not only energy and warmth, but also the sort of fantastic imagination and emotional freedom which makes Schumann sound as much at home with the orchestra as he is with the piano. Here is not only grand symphonic writing, but woodland scenes, harlequins, merry peasants and knights-at-arms. This performance was once available on a Cetra LP. At present, EMI have issued much later Munich performances of Celibidache conducting the other three Schumann symphonies but none of this one. But in any case, the insistence on Celibidache’s last performances, when he was declining into self-parody, probably does him no favour. During his RAI years he was at his peak, with relatively “normal” tempi; he is faster than Furtwängler in all movements and faster than Kletzki in the scherzo, which he really makes dance. Those old bootleg LPs sounded pretty dim but Arts Archive have shown in their Maag and Cluytens issues that, with access to the original tapes, RAI material can actually be quite impressive.

Kletzki recorded all four Schumann Symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic, as well as the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale” and “Manfred” Overture. I fear the present sample does not encourage further investigation of this long-forgotten cycle.

It was complete news to me that Kletzki and the Israel Philharmonic had recorded not only Mahler 1 but also no. 9. As an inveterate browser in old record magazines and guides, I was well aware that the standard critical recommendation, before the arrival of the Bruno Walter stereo version (1961), was Horenstein (Vox) for the best performance but in poor sound, or Leopold Ludwig - Everest, circulated by World Record Club in the UK - for a clear-headed rendering by the LSO in good stereo. Kletzki was never mentioned. A spot of Internet navigation revealed the disconcerting information that the score was considerably cut.

On the other hand, a 24-bar cut in the finale* didn’t prevent Kletzki’s Mahler 1 from circulating more widely, the present mono version on Music for Pleasure and the 1962 remake with the Vienna Philharmonic on Classics for Pleasure. The 1954 recording is a little more transparent than in the Schumann and, a little surprisingly given the greater complexity of the score, the orchestral playing is superior. However, it is a remarkably faceless reading of the score. The first movement builds up well – though the repeat is not given – though without illuminating details along the way. I like Kletzki’s tempo for the second movement. He neither hurries it into a scherzo nor relapses into a countrified plod. But parts of the trio hang fire. The slow movement is so laid-back, so bereft of its parody elements, as to become rather tedious. The finale has its moments – and the cut!

Turning to the VPO remake, the reading has acquired a new lease of life, as well as good stereo sound for the date. It’s evident from the start that countless details emerge with phrasing and colouring that was scarcely hinted at before. The numerous requests for string glissandi are much better managed, notably in the trio of the second movement, which does not hang fire this time. The third movement feels considerably faster, though the timings reveal there is little in it. Just compare the dead-pan Israel double-bass at the beginning with all the inflections and shadings by which his Vienna colleague gives life to the music. No short-changing of the parody elements this time, either. I find these two middle movements pretty well ideal. But the first, though still without repeat, nonetheless contains numerous felicities as it moves inevitably to a resounding brass-capped climax. And even the finale, in spite of the cut, contains many insights.

You may wonder if a cut of 24 bars, amounting probably to less than a minute, is worth making such a fuss about. Apart from the question of principle, I feel that today, when this symphony is almost as well-known as Tchaikovsky 5, even a listener with no specific musical training will go away feeling the end came a little too soon for its own good.

So there is no way Kletzki’s Mahler 1 can be a first recommendation, but those who have several versions of major works on their shelves might find the Vienna version worth having in spite of the cut, in view of the insights and beauties shown elsewhere. Alas, the Israel recording is no substitute for it.

But why is the Vienna performance so much better? Is it simply a question of the difference between the two orchestras? In other words, did Kletzki just beat time and take what the orchestra gave him? Clearly not; orchestras don’t give anything to a conductor who does no more than that, least of all the Vienna Philharmonic. The VPO certainly is the better orchestra. And in the radiant G major lyrical music in the third movement we have a classical example of the sort of string playing which only the VPO could provide. But this orchestra notoriously does not provide such playing for conductors who are perceived by them to be unworthy of it. The more likely explanation is that Kletzki matured and deepened his art from the early 1960s. In which case he must be judged by his later recordings, in particular those with the Philharmonia and the few he made with the Suisse Romande in his last years. His uncut Mahler 4 and “Das Lied von der Erde” are likely to remain classic Mahler recordings for many years to come. If we wish to know more of his work, rather than delve into his earlier recordings, perhaps we should see what the various European radio archives can produce from his last decade.

Christopher Howell

* Somebody else has counted 16 bars. I make it 24, from fig. 57 to one bar before fig. 59


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