My eyebrows were raised by the anti-chronological programming
of this disc. Whether deliberate or not, it ensures that the
news comes first.
The problems of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge might not even exist as it
unfolds seamlessly in Klemperer’s hands. All the stopping
and starting are absorbed into a single, inevitable trajectory,
rising steadily to the sublime conclusion. Fine as are so
many of Klemperer’s Beethoven recordings, I wonder if this
is not the greatest of them all. He really does sound born
to conduct this work. Despite its early date the fine-sounding
recording is stereo with good separation.
He is also unsurprisingly suited to Mozart at his most proto-Beethovenian
in the Adagio and Fugue. There is less variety of expression
and dynamic shading than in the Beethoven – it’s all impressively
massive and that’s that. But these doubts came to my mind
only retrospectively after hearing the Serenades.
I should state that I am not naturally resistant to Klemperer’s manner
in Mozart. Back in the LP days I enjoyed his coupling of
Symphonies 31 and 34 so much at a friend’s house that I bought
my own copy straight away. A rehearing confirms its combination
of grandeur with luminosity.
The first two movements of the Serenata Notturna are gruffly vital
though after a while I began to feel the music was being
shaped with a blunt instrument. It was in the Finale, however,
that I realized what was wrong. The upper strings are actually
shaping their lines rather elegantly but down below is a
doggedly even, un-phrased bass line, at times fractionally
behind the beat, which becomes increasingly pervasive and
ultimately bogs the whole thing down.
Having noticed this, I found it inescapable for the rest of the programme.
For all the robust energy of the first movement of Eine kleine
Nachtmusik, accompanying figures are gracelessly mechanical.
Some conductors can make the first two notes of the Romance
sound like an elegant upbeat to the third note where the
rest of the orchestra enters. Under Klemperer they sound
like two notes. The even stressing of the three beats in
the Minuet has an almost pile-driving effect and in the Finale
there is another leaden bass-line. If the upper strings could
be separated out and a springier bass-line newly recorded
underneath, the performance would actually be rather good.
Handelian grandeur might be expected to respond better to
Klemperer treatment but yet again, in the “Largo e piano” third movement
I could only wonder at a conductor who can phrase the upper
melodic lines with such unaffected dignity, even sublimity,
yet apparently not notice that the bass-line is plodding
away with such shapeless automation as to suggest the players
are sleepwalking. Their somnolence seems to have affected
everyone by the finale. Despite Klemperer’s reputation for
slow tempos this is the only movement on the disc where the
actual tempo seems to be the problem.
Defenders of Klemperer tell us he was concerned to tell us
truth”. In certain works this was undeniably impressive and
the Beethoven on the present disc represents his art at its
greatest. But the “unvarnished truth” is surely a matter
of style as well as of notes and at times in Mozart and Handel
his own bluntly unceremonious character seems to prevent
him from perceiving essential aspects of the music.
The Grosse Fuge remains an essential recording, well worth the price
of the disc on its own account. The rest is perhaps best
left to those who wish to gain as full a picture as possible
of a great and fascinating, but sometimes infuriating musician.
After a brief historical introduction to the recordings the booklet
reproduces the original sleeve-notes by Deryck Cooke and
Alec Robertson, reminding us what a wealth of good material
disappeared with the transition to CD.