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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 [27:46] rec. 7 June 1960
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 Eroica [49:04] rec. 29 May 1960
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 [35:45] rec. 29 May 1960
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [38:18] rec. 2 June 1960
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60 [34:26] rec. 31 May 1960
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 [27:03] rec. 4 June 1960
Overture: Egmont, Op. 84 [9:35] rec. 31 May 1960
Overture: Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op. 43 [5:27] rec. 2 June 1960
CD 4
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [35:06] rec. 31 May 1960
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral [42:54] rec. 2 June 1960
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 Choral [69:55] rec. 7 June 1960
Overture: Coriolan, Op. 62 [8:19] rec. 4 June 1960
Wilma Lipp (soprano); Ursula Boese (contralto); Fritz Wunderlich (tenor); Franz Crass (bass)
*Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. public performances, Musikverein, Vienna
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1252 [5 CDs: 77:45 + 75:10 + 78:38 + 79:05 + 79:08]

Experience Classicsonline

In 1960 Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra were invited to participate in the Vienna Festival at which, over the course of five concerts, they gave a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies. This cycle has previously been released on CD by Music & Arts in 1996 (CD 886/890) and is now reissued with a new catalogue number. It appears that the recordings have been newly re-mastered by Aaron Z Snyder, using "the best surviving sources". It may be appropriate to point out that most of these Klemperer performances have been appearing individually on the budget IDIS label in recent months and have been reviewed on MusicWeb International (Symphonies 1 & 3 Symphonies 2 & 5 Symphonies 4 & 6 Symphony No 9). I have not heard any of these IDIS transfers but I note from my colleagues' reviews that there is minimal documentation and that the sound quality is not especially good. This Music & Arts set contains a good essay in English by Colin Anderson, who discusses the performances as well as Klemperer's approach to Beethoven in general. There are also notes in German, taken from Wikipedia.

As for the recorded sound, Aaron Snyder is an experienced transfer engineer. I don't know the exact nature of the sources with which he has worked though I presume that the recordings originated from radio broadcasts. In general the sound is satisfactory though the balance is not always ideal. The violins are often very prominent - for instance, they swamp the horns in the first movement of the Seventh, which is bizarre. As a general rule the woodwind are not as prominent in the texture as we know Klemperer liked. Despite the issue of balance one can get a good aural picture of these performances and only in the biggest climaxes of the finale of the Ninth is there even a hint of overloading. Aaron Snyder can only work with the material at his disposal and it seems to me that his transfers of recordings that are now over fifty years old are pretty successful. Certainly no one's enjoyment of the performances is going to be marred by the recorded sound.

As to the performances, there is much to admire, not least the excellent playing of the Philharmonia. They were well versed in Klemperer's way with Beethoven, not least through recording all the symphonies with him for EMI in the late 1950s. That set has long been a staple of my collection and the present performances show remarkable consistency with the studio versions, though I fancy there's an added electricity from the live performances, especially in the Third, Fifth and Ninth symphonies. I suspect also that the performances gain something in immediacy through the fact that all nine symphonies were given in the space of nine days.

I liked the performance of the First Symphony. Klemperer invests I with vitality - and the orchestra's articulation is excellent. He judges II nicely, giving it an appropriately Haydnesque feel. The Menuetto is steady, even slow by today's standards, but I didn't feel the music sounded ponderous. In the finale Klemperer imparts good drive to the music without rushing it off its feet.

The Second Symphony is also successful. In particular I liked the sensitive playing in II. This movement gets a graceful reading and there's plenty of light and shade in the playing. I also liked Klemperer's way with III. He takes the Scherzo at a relatively steady pace but then is able to take the trio at the same pulse, without the need for slowing down which many conductors have to do. As a result the movement is beautifully integrated. In his good booklet note Colin Anderson says of the finale that it "has vigour, significance and integration, and with no lack of exhilaration in the finale." I agree.

The Eroica was always a Klemperer speciality and he delivers the goods on this occasion. His reading of I is spaciously conceived but completely convincing. He brings out the strength and drama in the music but is far from unyielding. The Marcia funèbre is gaunt and grave. In a searching reading Klemperer digs deep without any histrionics. His trenchant reading of the finale is superb though I was sorry that, as recorded, the horns don't ring out in the coda as I'm sure they did in the concert hall.

The Fourth Symphony is well done. Klemperer generates suspense in the introduction to I and then the allegro itself is properly 'vivace', though the music is kept on a fairly close rein. The pacing of II is noble; Klemperer ensures that the line is maintained at all times. III is rhythmically pointed and while some may feel that the finale is a bit too steady the choice of speed is vindicated by the qualification 'ma non troppo' in the tempo marking. At his chosen tempo the music has life but it's not taken at such a pace that the music is rushed off its feet. In short, the conductor's decision seems to me to be sensible.

Klemperer was a noted exponent of the Fifth Symphony. It will surprise no one that his view of the first movement is strong, rugged and very dynamic. He eschews the exposition repeat. The transition passage from III to IV is a properly tense affair though I don't entirely care for the rhetorical slowing just before the finale erupts. The finale itself is tremendous. Klemperer brings out the grandeur in a reading of energetic majesty. This is one of the places where I think he transcends his studio recording. The performance is gripping and burns with conviction, leading to an exhilarating coda.

I'm not so convinced by the interpretation of the Pastoral, however. The first movement is taken steadily - perhaps too steadily for some listeners - but at least one feels the music has a purposeful gait. Colin Anderson feels that the 'Scene by the Brook' is "especially restful". To be honest, I feel there's a touch of summer somnolence here. Despite the lovely playing - and the Philharmonia is just the right orchestra to fulfil Klemperer's conception - the brook meanders just a bit too slowly for my taste. Klemperer's tempo for III was always controversial - as Colin Anderson reminds us, even Walter Legge was perplexed by it. I'm afraid I just don't like the music at this lumbering speed; there's surely an excess of rustic stomping. On the other hand, Klemperer unleashes a mighty storm and his way with the finale is noble and very satisfying.

The Sixth may have its pros and cons but I'm afraid I can find few "pros" in Klemperer's traversal of the Seventh, which strikes me as a singularly joyless affair - just as it was in his famous 1955 studio recording. The first movement is done well. The allegro is a touch steady but Klemperer's reading is strong and purposeful and he uses the accents to impart energy though I must say I don't care for his tendency to slow down to make points. From then on, however, the interpretation goes downhill. By no stretch of the imagination could the tempo for II be said to be "allegretto". Klemperer's pace is, at best, a slow trudge. Frankly, Beethoven's melodic material isn't the most interesting; what this movement is about, surely, is rhythm and if the conductor doesn't invest the rhythms with some life the movement is just dull. It's certainly dull here. Colin Anderson comments that Klemperer makes this movement "a funeral summons that becomes a first-cousin to the second-movement march of the Eroica". I don't disagree; but is that what Beethoven intended, I wonder. The treatment of III is no better. The presto is far too slow, leading to what Mr Anderson rightly says is a "rather static trio". This speed makes the trio material seem less than inspired and then, because the basic speed is too slow, the presto doesn't explode back into life as it should. The performance reaches its nadir in the finale, which is where I completely part company with Klemperer. His tempo is stolid and four-square. Where's the joy? There's a complete absence of exaltation in this unsmiling reading and one has the feeling of a 'take it or leave it' approach. Colin Anderson hits the nail on the head in commenting that "the finale sounds like an exercise in revealing what Beethoven wrote as opposed to what he meant." With all due respect to a great conductor this interpretation of the Seventh strikes me as simply perverse. The audience clearly disagreed, greeting the end of the performance with an ovation.

Having been so disappointed by his way with the Seventh, just two days later Klemperer delivered what is to my ears a much more congenial account of the Eighth Symphony, which I must say was a relief since this is a favourite of mine. Klemperer takes I more spaciously than many conductors but it works, not least because there's still energy in the music-making and the essential geniality of the movement is still there. In II Colin Anderson says the orchestra is "dancing on tiptoe". He's right. Who said Klemperer couldn't "do" lightness of touch? He's broad again in III but the music can take it. I love Colin Anderson's phrase that the movement "gathers the bustle of its ball-gown in courtly fashion". As with the first movement, Klemperer's pace for the finale is steadier than we are accustomed to hearing nowadays but, aided by well-articulated playing from the Philharmonia, the delivery is crisp. This account of the symphony may not be the most extrovertly witty that one has heard but the seventy-five year old conductor's gruff humour is engaging.

The Ninth shows Klemperer at his best, starting with an imposing reading of I which is full of rugged strength. In the slow movement we find the conductor at his most elevated. This is a patrician and probing performance and the Philharmonia rises to the occasion. In the finale I regret the backward balance of the woodwind in the variants on the Big Tune. Klemperer's soloists are something of a mixed bag. Franz Crass often sounds effortful, as if he's trying too hard and I don't care for Ursula Boese very much. Wilma Lipp, on the other hand, is secure and pleasing. She and Fritz Wunderlich offer by far the best singing. The latter is excellent throughout, especially in the tenor's martial solo, which he sings accurately and with no sense of strain at all. The choir is fervent and the tenors and sopranos don't flinch in the face of Beethoven's frankly unreasonable demands. However, by the side of many of today's choruses - and indeed the Philharmonia Chorus of the day - the Viennese choir is somewhat lacking in polish. However, the finale is given with real feeling and spirit and crowns what must have been a memorable performance on the day.

This is a valuable set, not least because it preserves a genuine cycle rather than a series of live performances given over a period of time. One may not agree with everything that Klemperer does but there is no doubt as to the integrity of his performances; we're hearing one of the last century's great Beethoven interpreters at work, distilling a lifetime's experience of these scores. Sterling performances of three overtures add to the attraction of the set. This is a set which complements Klemperer's studio recordings of the symphonies. There is some great Beethoven conducting here. There is applause after every piece but in each case it is separately tracked.

John Quinn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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