The Klemperer Legacy: Twentieth Century Music
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony in three movements (1945) [24.21]1
Pulcinella (1920): Suite [25.18]2
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950)
Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (1929) [20.30]3
Otto KLEMPERER (1885-1973)
Merry Waltz (1915)[7.34]3
Symphony No 2 (1969)[25.07]4
String Quartet No 7 (1968)[23.15]5
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Nobilissima visione (1938) [20.38]6
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1893):Overture and Dream Pantomime [17.19]7
Philharmonia Orchestra [except 4New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer; 5Philharmonia String Quartet
rec. 1954-70 (see end of review for details)
Otto Klemperer: a biographical memoir - written, narrated and produced by Jon Tolansky [106.52]
EMI CLASSICS 4044012 [4 CDs: 70.25 + 56.15 + 73.57 + 71.22]
When reviewing the Klemperer box of romantic symphonies and overtures I remarked upon the odd omission of his recordings of the Overture and Dream Pantomime from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Well, here they are, although Humperdinck’s name is omitted from the box cover and neither piece comes from the twentieth century. They are indeed as good as I remembered, serious performances that nevertheless have plenty of sparkle when required and bring out many of the delightful felicities in the scoring; there are subsidiary themes here which often go unremarked in other performances. It is extraordinary if, as Richard Osborne states in his booklet notes, Klemperer never conducted this work in the opera house; one would have thought that during his lengthy career in German theatres before 1933 he could hardly have avoided it, especially since his wife frequently sang the part of Gertrude and the Witch.
The remainder of the works in this collection are undeniably from the twentieth century, and the earliest recording here is the suite from Hindemith’s ‘choreographic legend’ Nobilissima visione.Richard Osborne tells us that this was a last-minute substitute for the Hindemith Horn Concerto, the recording of which had to be abandoned when Klemperer and Dennis Brain failed to agree over the proper tempi for the performance. Brain subsequently recorded the work with Hindemith himself conducting. I cannot find that the Klemperer recording of the ballet was ever issued during his lifetime, or indeed before it appeared on CD in 2000; perhaps Walter Legge was at a loss to find a suitable coupling. It is a very good performance indeed, with only a slight lack of full string tone to indicate the age of the mono recording which otherwise is admirable in all respects. The Philharmonia at this time were making a number of recordings of modern scores, including Hindemith and Bartók with Karajan and Britten with various conductors; in later years such studio ventures into modern territory would become rarer.
Klemperer himself had commissioned Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik following the successful stage première of the Dreigroschenoper the year before, and gave the first performance at the Kroll Opera in Berlin during his final years in pre-Nazi Germany. He always had a warm affection for the work, and this comes across in this delightfully insouciant performance which is superbly inflected by the Philharmonia players with just the right degree of sleaziness, never overdone. Klemperer also espoused the music of Stravinsky during these years, but the only recordings he ever made were those included here of the Pulcinella suite and the Symphony in three movements. He takes a very serious view indeed of the latter at an unexpectedly slow speed, bringing out the ominous nature of the writing but at the expense of some of the more abrupt violence that Stravinsky himself revealed in his recording of the score. Pulcinella, on the other hand, has a lighter touch which allows for Klemperer’s sly and mordant humour to come through. Klemperer paid his own compositional tribute to Stravinsky’s take on Pergolesi in his own orchestral suite on pieces by Rameau, which has a similarly quirky and consciously ‘modern’ approach to the music.
The second disc in this set gives us three examples of Klemperer’s own compositions. Like many conductors of his generation, Klemperer desired to make a reputation as a composer; unlike his contemporaries, he was rather diffident about putting his works forward for recording or performance. He spent some forty or more years working on an opera entitled Das Ziel, but the only piece from the score that was published was the Merry Waltz included here, probably the best-known of his compositions (not that that is saying much) and the only one that attracted the attention of other conductors including Leopold Stokowski. The Second Symphony was recently recorded for CPO by Alun Francis, as part of a valuable disc that also includes the First Symphony and a number of other shorter works including the Merry Waltz.
Shortly after early performances of the First Symphony Klemperer sent a copy of the score to Benjamin Britten, whose response is documented in Richard Osborne’s booklet: “I feel that your ideas are often very good. But, dear Doctor, I am not always so sure that the notes you have chosen are always the right ones to express what is so clearly in your mind.” One has to admit that Britten’s instinctive response was right; one can sense the purposefulness of the ideas that underlie the Second Symphony, but at the same time remain unconvinced that Klemperer is at his best in trying to convey these to the listener. The result is rather Mahlerian in texture - late Mahler, rather than the composer’s earlier more romantic style. The basic themes are not particularly memorable; and, although the music is often entertaining and sometimes demonstrates a real depth of emotional feeling, the most effective moments come when Klemperer is closest to models such as Shostakovich; an almost exact quotation of a phrase near the beginning of the Fifth Symphony. The Sibelius-like brass chords which interrupt the progress of the slow movement are also significant.
Klemperer’s String Quartet is a curiously inconsequential work; the opening fugue has hardly begun before it tails off into decidedly un-fugal material. The same lack of continuing sustained development is apparent as in the Second Symphony. There is some decidedly insecure playing in parts of the symphony, seemingly recorded in a solitary session although there is some unexpectedly lush string playing. The players, drawn from the New Philharmonia in the quartet, seem to be more comfortable with the music itself. The quartet has never been recorded subsequently, so this is our only opportunity to hear it.
The final one-and-a-half discs in this collection contain an extensive biographical documentary - near two hours long. Memories of Klemperer from those who worked with him are combined with extracts from his BBC Face to face interview with John Freeman and snippets from the EMI archives. There are also extracts from various recordings which often continue - somewhat disconcertingly, because just on the borders of audibility - beneath the dialogue. As is the inevitable nature of such things, the text verges on the hagiographic, with little indication of the many problems that Klemperer caused to his fellow performers beyond oblique mentions of truculence and bullying. Klemperer’s jokes, delivered in an almost impenetrable accent, are never as funny as his audiences seem to find at the time. The documentary is nevertheless valuable in resurrecting some rare recordings - previously unpublished rehearsal sequences from Don Giovanni, and a section of a remarkable 1929 recording of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome which shows the results that Klemperer could obtain from his Berlin players in the late 1920s. It demonstrates that his recordings made in London some thirty years later were not just a matter of superlative playing but also of deeply-felt involvement by the conductor.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Not just a matter of superlative playing but also of deeply-felt involvement.
Masterwork Index: Pulcinella
Kingsway Hall, London, 128-30 March and 16 May 1962: 218 February, 14-18 May 1963 and 20 February 1964: 330-31 October and 2 December 1961: 67-8 May 1954 [mono]: 727-29 September 1960: Abbey Road Studios, London, 43 March 1969: 516-17 February 1970
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