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Otto Klemperer
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

Grosse Fuge in B flat op.133 (1825) [16:31] (rec. 26-27 March 1956)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Adagio and Fugue in c K.546 (1788) [08:37] (rec. 27 March 1956)
Serenade in D K.239 – “Serenata notturna” (1776) [12:59] (rec. 25 March 1956)
Serenade in G K.525 – “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” (1787) [17:37] (rec. 25 March 1956)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Concerto Grosso in a op.6/4 (1739) [15:27] (rec. 28 March, 26 July 1956)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, dates as above
EMI CLASSICS 3773642 [71:29]

My eyebrows were raised by the anti-chronological programming of this disc. Whether deliberate or not, it ensures that the best 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 the “unvarnished 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.
Christopher Howell


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