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Erich Kleiber
Carl Maria von WEBER

Euryanthe: Overture (1823) [9:10]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 33 in B flat major K.319 (1779) [20:01]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1892) [46:30]
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Erich Kleiber
rec. Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne, 20 January 1956 (Weber), 23 November 1953 (Mozart), 28 March 1955 (Tchaikovsky)
MEDICI ARTS MM003-2 [75:51]

The Viennese Erich Kleiber, father of Carlos, was first turned on to conducting when he heard Mahler conducting his Symphony No.6. After a distinguished career in Germany he left in 1934, unable to tolerate Nazi interference with his programming. He took up residence in Buenos Aires and became an Argentinean citizen for a decade, returning to Europe in 1948. In 1954 he accepted the position of conductor at the Berlin State Opera in East Berlin, but resigned in 1955 again unable to work under the imposed conditions. These recordings were made in the final phase of Erich Kleiber’s career, when he was still working as a guest conductor in London and Vienna, as well as other European centres such a Stuttgart and Cologne in particular.
The 1956 recording of the Weber Overture is part of his final visit to the Cologne orchestra and one of his last recordings. He died a week later on 27 January 1956. While the sound on all of these recordings is somewhat thin and dated, Euryanthe in fact comes up rather well, and betrays no flagging of energy in the lively opening and final sections. Only the strings from 3:40 in have a strange wandering quality and some suspect intonation in places. These central, slower parts are eloquent enough however, with plenty of that attention to detail for which Kleiber was famous.
While avoiding anything modern, the programming in this disc reflects Kleiber’s musical tastes to a certain extent. He was recognised as a great Beethoven and Mozart conductor, apparently having little interest in Bach or Brahms, and his enthusiasm for Mahler and Bruckner having waned somewhat towards the end of his career. He was an unremitting perfectionist, seeking to re-create the music exactly as written by the composer: “There are two enemies to good performance: one is routine, the other is improvisation.” While this credo might have worked through many a performance, the results in Mozart’s Symphony No.3 are a good deal stiffer than many might appreciate – accurate it may be, but the score never really seems to come to life. The recording is again rather thin as one might expect, and there are one or two artefacts of extreme age, such as the strangled opening to the Menuetto which is probably due to tape damage. Personally I would have gone for the ‘fake’ and pasted on the opening of the repeat to cover for this, at which I hear hissing from the purists, but as there seems to be hardly any difference between any of the repeats or recapitulations I’m sure few would have noticed. There do seem to be a few edits which tune slightly differently as well. Aside from these minor points and one or two wobbly horn moments, the playing is reasonably good, but not much more than that. Kleiber’s background as an opera conductor means that Mozart’s sense of musical argument does come through as a thinly disguised instrumental version of something from that genre – you could imagine someone bursting into song at almost any point, but with the orchestra sounding a little as if it is ‘in the pit’ this might just be more of an acoustic artefact. If I’m honest, this kind of relic has to be more of interest to Kleiber historians than for genuine musical pleasure in my humble opinion.
Kleiber recorded Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra for Decca eighteen months before this recording, and clearly had the music well under his skin. String ensemble is not always that great, but the orchestral tuttis have a stormy quality, and Kleiber’s operatic pedigree comes through in his freely expressive way with the ‘big tunes’. We’ve become far less used to the kind of tugging around with the tempo Kleiber asks for at these moments, but the music gains a weird character of its own, and there is a strange kind of symbiosis between the score and the conductor which created its own worlds of passionate intensity and bizarre beauty. Those expecting a performance of the first movement which mirrors the Decca reading are likely to be in for a surprise. The second movement is more con grazia than Allegro, but you get a sense of Kleiber’s ability to draw every last drop of detail from the score, from the outspoken pizzicati from the strings, the circular movement of the dynamics and the ongoing forward momentum in both this and the Allegro molto vivace third movement.
Freedom in rubato returns in the final tragic movement, giving the work more of a symmetrical feel than I think I can recall having heard anywhere else. Does this performance come up with the goods? If you can place yourself into another era, with a conductor steeped in the traditions which gave us the kind of romanticism embodied by the works of Mahler, then yes. The blood is wrung from Tchaikovsky’s enigmatic stone with every ounce of strength available to Kleiber, and with something which could so easily be bordering on over-sentimental farce the heart and sinews of the music are laid bare, and one can only gasp at the results.
Mastering on these recordings has to be as good as it can get. You cannot expect genuine HiFi from this era, and oboes will almost always be gargling away in there somewhere. There are one or two moments where some kind of strange phasing seems to crop up, but this is very minor. Tape hiss has been kept low but without apparent loss of treble detail, and as historical fare goes the results of re-mastering give as good an impression of the originals as one might expect. What we have is a valuable document of a great conductor giving us his last thoughts on a number of significant works. The orchestra might not have been the greatest Kleiber ever conducted, but in the Tchaikovsky at least one has the feeling of the musicians consciously raising their game to meet the demands of the old maestro.
Dominy Clements


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