The Klemperer Edition - Romantic symphonies and overtures
Full track-listing at end of review
Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras/Otto Klemperer
EMI CLASSICS 4043092 [10 CDs: 746:07]
During his Indian summer in the studio, which lasted for some twenty years between 1952 and 1972, Klemperer recorded a vast amount of music. Not all of it was within the central field of Viennese classics on which his subsequent reputation has principally resided. Richard Osborne in an informative booklet note points out that Klemperer had indeed performed much of the music included in this collection during his years in exile in America. That said, his recordings of the same repertoire here for EMI during the 1960s did not meet with universal acclaim even from those London critics who were busily promoting Klemperer’s stature in opposition to Karajan in Berlin. Indeed some of these LP recordings did not remain in the catalogue for very long - all have been subsequently reissued on CD. One track appears to have gone missing even here - more of that later.
It must be remembered that Klemperer’s reputation in Europe before he fled the Nazis was not centred in the classical repertoire in which he subsequently made his name, but in the field of modern and indeed positively avant garde music. He made very few recordings of this material. What there is, is scheduled for issue as part of this ‘Klemperer Edition’ later this year. Even so, there are certainly some items here which would seem to lie well outside what one thinks of as the Klemperer comfort zone.
Klemperer was much loved by his orchestral musicians. Indeed he repaid this affection by rescuing the Philharmonia Orchestra from bankruptcy when Walter Legge abruptly pulled the plug on them. In his later performances in the concert hall one frequently gained the impression that the players were leading him, rather than he leading them. Now this may have been misleading, the leader Hugh Bean simply putting flesh onto the bones of a fully worked-out Klemperer interpretation that the semi-paralysed conductor was unable to realise through his gestures. It must be said that there are a number of instances here where one has the uneasy suspicion that the interpretation is running out of control, or where matters of balance are simply going by the board.
One of these instances comes at the end of the first movement of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, where at bar 661 Schubert brings back the theme of the opening played on full woodwind and horns all of which are marked ben marcato. Here the theme is almost totally overwhelmed by the plunging strings and brass (the trumpets only marked forte) and the theme does not emerge until ten bars later (CD 1, track 3, 13.59). Now this is not just a matter of individual interpretation; it is perfectly clear what Schubert wanted, and that is just not what Klemperer gives us here. In fact his Schubert is a very unsmiling composer; the theme of the following slow movement, admittedly marked Andante con moto, has a good deal more moto than one would expect in the context of such a performance. Then the following scherzo, marked Allegro vivace, is very ponderous indeed. This is not just a result of Klemperer’s old age; Sir Adrian Boult made a recording in 1972 which has all the light spirits and good humour that Klemperer’s Schubert lacks. By the same token this is a very Brucknerian interpretation of the Unfinished, and the light-hearted Fifth just has no feel of joie de vivre at all.
One might suspect that the Klemperer approach would pay better dividends in the Schumann symphonies, with their greater earnestness and more saturated orchestral textures. Here Klemperer lets us down at just the moments that one would have expected him to excel. The earliest recording is of the Fourth Symphony, and the passage where the scherzo leads into the finale is one of the great passages in early romantic music - with more than a hint of Bruckner in the portentous brass writing. Not here. In the first place the scherzo itself slows down at the end to a ponderous tempo, so that when the transition to the finale begins (CD 5, beginning of track 9) the orchestra actually picks up in speed; and the string lines, yearning upwards to the new material, are far from clear. The transition accelerates rather suddenly and without very much cause into the finale proper (track 9, 0.58), and that movement is then also rather sluggish. One actually gets the impression that the performance has been assembled from a number of different takes which have been stitched together. Nor does the extraordinary piling-up of chords which segregates one section of the finale from another sound arresting enough (track 9, 3.15), and the balance between the orchestral strings and brass is far from ideal. The other Schumann symphonies, made between five and nine years later, are less controversial in some respects, but there is little feeling of the arrival of spring in the Spring Symphony. Klemperer is really at his best in the three Schumann overtures, especially Manfred - and his reading of the Faust overture has more grandeur and passion than Britten’s highly regarded performance made some four years later.
Unexpectedly Klemperer is superlative in his Mendelssohn recordings, just where one might have been most suspicious of his persistent tendency to slow tempi. The Italian Symphony is all too often treated as a race round a speed circuit, especially in the final tarantella; but by pulling the tempo back a little, Klemperer enables the woodwinds to perkily highlight the many delightful little touches of phrasing and melody that Mendelssohn built into the score. His slow movements in both the Scottish and Italian may be slightly faster than one would expect, but this is advantageous especially in the Scottish where the music can settle down into a sort of Brahmsian gemutlichkeit which can overbalance the earlier scherzo. His interpretation of the nearly complete music from A midsummer night’s dream is far from orthodox, but even the slow speed for the scherzo allows for plenty of woodwind shading, and the horn playing in the Nocturne is absolutely gorgeous. We also have the advantage of Heather Harper and Janet Baker in duet in Ye spotted snakes. Again one suspects that more than one take has been stitched together - the music for the ‘mechanicals’ sounds different each time it occurs in the overture (compare CD 3, track 1, 3.18 and 8.57), and different again in the Burgomask Dance (track 9) - but this is not a real problem, and for once the Wedding March is not too ponderous.
From the same period we have three Weber overtures, of which Klemperer gives decent performances. When the original LP was issued I seem to recall that it also contained both the Overture and Dream Pantomime from Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel and Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis. Now I note that the latter has been segregated off to an 8-CD box of baroque and early classical music to be issued in May 2013, but I can’t see that there is room for the Humperdinck anywhere else in this ‘Klemperer Edition’. I remember those Klemperer performances with affection, and I hope they have not simply been overlooked. They were included in a 1999 reissue of the Symphonie Fantastique which is still available.
On the other hand, if the performances of the three late Tchaikovsky symphonies here had been mislaid I don’t think we would have been much the worse off. Richard Osborne tells us in the booklet that Klemperer “mistrusted Tchaikovsky” and his performances seem to have been an attempt to overcome the “bad taste” of other interpreters. Not only the baby, but a substantial amount of bath-water, is being summarily thrown out here. The Sixth, which seems to have been the symphony Klemperer most revered, suffers worst. The development in the first movement has neither the necessary violence or speed, and as it approaches the recapitulation it actually seems to lose momentum altogether. The 5/4 waltz is fine, but the following scherzo is really absolutely grotesque. Starting from an initially slow speed, it slows down even more as the march material begins to predominate, and the final bars are vulgar and overblown in the extreme. The sudden plunge into the slow finale, which should come like a dive into icy water, goes for almost nothing when the preceding scherzo has nearly slowed down to that speed; and then the finale moves along at a gentle trot which is almost entirely devoid of any sense of tragedy. Klemperer may have sought to re-envision the Pathétique in this recording, but this is certainly not the way in which it should be done. The Fourth goes rather better, with predictably the second movement faster than usual and the third movement slower. The latter helps to bind the various material together better than the usual headlong rush. In the finale Klemperer adopts the usual barbaric Soviet practice of scything out the woodwind doubling of the trumpets at bar 599 when the Fate motif returns to threaten the merry-making (CD 9, track 4, 6.18). Tchaikovsky simply didn’t make mistakes in his scoring - he wanted the trumpets to drag the rest of the orchestra into the restatement of the theme - and the resulting trumpets when unaccompanied sound blatant and vulgar. The Fifth Symphony is the best of these three performances, but again there are matters of balance which require the conductor’s attention and don’t seem to get it.
Nor need the Johann Strauss performances detain us for long. It defies conception why Walter Legge thought that Klemperer would make a good conductor in this music, which simply wilts and dies in his hands. The playing totally fails to achieve any kind of lift or Viennese lilt. Richard Osborne quotes a Sunday Times review regretting that “a musician who in his young days had been a highly successful champion of what was then new and good should be turned into a mere purveyor of handsomely boxed sets of the World’s Classics”. One imagines this release might have been what that critic had in mind. An odd aberration over which it might have been better to draw a discreet veil.
Two other CDs in the box contain the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, the Franck Symphony (split across two discs) and the Dvořák New World. None of these are precisely normal Klemperer fare, but his approach here pays real dividends. In the Symphonie fantastique he keeps a tight rein on the music, emphasising the symphonic construction without losing sight of the eldritch effects. He also includes Berlioz’s cornet part added to the score at a later date, so far as I aware the first conductor to play the ball scene in this revised form - many conductors have done so since. The scene in the fields moves along steadily, but has plenty of atmosphere; and Klemperer does not stint the many peculiar orchestral timbres in the final Witch’s Sabbath, giving them full prominence. His bells, although an octave too high, are much better than the tubular bells commonly used even today. The only point where he is lacking is in his failure to bring out Berlioz’s ominous trombone pedal notes in the March to the scaffold (CD 7, track 4, 1.45) - it sounds almost as if he was using the old and now discredited Breitkopf edition of the score where the parts were re-allocated to tubas.
At the time of this recording Franck’s Symphony was still regarded as the greatest French symphony of the latter part of the nineteenth century, but in the intervening forty years it has been decisively outstripped in popular esteem by Saint-Saëns’s Third. Oddly enough there are elements in Franck’s scoring (in particular his use of cornets to double melodic lines) which sound far more vulgar than anything in the Saint-Saëns concoction. Klemperer does his best to minimise these even if he misses the Brucknerian elements particularly in the first movement. The cor anglais solo in the slow movement is delivered with beguiling tone, as indeed is the similar solo in the Dvořák. The world is hardly short of excellent recordings of the New World, but this must be ranked among the best, with superbly judged balances. We are also - correctly, but unusually for the date of recording - given the first movement exposition repeat which helps to balance the structure correctly; the presence of identical slightly idiosyncratic inflections in the flute solo (CD 8, track 3, 4.14 and 7.08) tends to suggest that this is a simple editing insertion, but no matter.
Klemperer completists will probably have most of these performances already, and more general collectors will not necessarily regard any of the recordings as being first choice in the repertory. They nevertheless give an unusual sidelight on a conductor whose interpretations may be controversial but are always interesting.
It will be noted from the recording dates that Klemperer was afforded extremely generous recording schedules by EMI (spread over six days for the Symphonie fantastique), which clearly allowed not only for the conductor’s physical infirmities but also for a chance to explore the music thoroughly. The box is “handsomely boxed” indeed. The only information lacking is whether the individual performances are given by the Philharmonia Orchestra or their successors the New Philharmonia. Many of the instrumentalists are the same, and Klemperer is owed an inestimable debt of gratitude for his part in keeping the players together.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
An unusual sidelight on a conductor whose interpretations may be controversial but are always interesting.
In his review of this set, Paul Corfield Godfrey states that "The only information lacking is whether the individual performances are given by the Philharmonia Orchestra or their successors the New Philharmonia." This information is given on p.9 of the booklet, though I must say I can certainly imagine a number of more reader-friendly ways in which it might have been stated.
Masterwork Index Mendelssohn symphony 3 Mendelssohn symphony 4 Schumann symphonies Tchaikovsky symphonies Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Dvorak symphony 9
CD 1 [77.35]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in D minor, D759 Unfinished [25.13]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 4 and 6 February 1963
Symphony No. 9 in C, D944 Great [52.11]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 16-19 November 1960
CD 2 [78.51]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D485 [26.29]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 13, 15 and 16 May 1963
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides Overture, Op.26 Fingal’s Cave [10.16]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 15 February 1960
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op.56 Scottish [41.50]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 22, 25 and 27 January 1960
CD 3 [76.28]
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.61 [48.55]
with Heather Harper (soprano), Janet Baker (mezzo), Philharmonia Chorus
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 28-29 January and 16 February 1960
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op.90 Italian [27.22]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 15, 17 and 19 February 1960
CD 4 [76.48]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op.38 Spring [35.36]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 21-23, 25 and 27 October 1965
Symphony No. 2 in C, Op.61 [41.08]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 3, 5 and 6 October 1968
CD 5 [77.11]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op.97 Rhenish [38.55]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 5-8 February 1969
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op.120 [28.25]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 4-5 May 1960
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust , WoO 3: Overture [9.38]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 8 February 1969
CD 6 [79.02]
Genoveva, Op.81: Overture [9.52]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 7 October 1968
Manfred, Op.115: Overture [12.30]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 21-23, 25 and 27 October 1965
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz, J277: Overture [9.37]
Euryanthe, J291: Overture [8.53]
Oberon, J306: Overture [9.34]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 5-6 May and 28 September 1960
Johann STRAUSS the Younger (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus (1894): Overture [8.36]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 30 October and 2 November 1961
Wiener Blut, Op.354 [8.32]
Kaiserwaltzer, Op.437 [10.54]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 20 October 1961
CDs 7-8 [75.07 + 67.17]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie Fantastique, Op.14 [57.06]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 23-26 April and 17-18 September 1963
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1888) [39.26]
rec. Abbey Road Studio No 1, London, 10-12 and 14-15 February 1966
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op.95 From the New World [45.38]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 30-31 October and 1-2 November 1963
CDs 9-10 [62.38 + 75.10]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36 [44.01]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 23-25 January and 2 February 1963
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op.64 [45.52]
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 16-19 and 21 January 1963
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 Pathétique [47.33]
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rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 18-20 October 1961