Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.4 in E flat (1886 version, ed. Nowak) [61:01]
Symphony no.5 in B flat (1878 version, ed. Nowak) [79:29]
Symphony no.6 in A (1881 version ed. Haas) [54:52]
Symphony no.7 in E (1885 version, ed. Nowak) [65:11]
Symphony no.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak, with cuts in finale) [84:15]
Symphony no.9 in D minor (1884, ed. Nowak) [65:18]
Philharmonia Orchestra (Symphonies 4, 7), New Philharmonia Orchestra (Symphonies 5, 6, 8, 9)/Otto Klemperer
rec. 1-5 November 1960 (Symphony 7), 18-20, 24-26 September 1963 (Symphony 4), 6, 10-12, 16-19 November 1964 (Symphony 6), 9, 11, 14-15 March 1967 (Symphony 5), 6-7, 18-21 February 1970 (Symphony 9), 29-30 October, 2-4, 10-11, 14 November 1970 (Symphony 8), Kingsway Hall, London, UK.
EMI CLASSICS 4 04296 2 [6 CDs: 61:01 + 79:29 + 65:11 + 64:49 + 74:30 + 65:18]
This is Klemperer-story as much as it’s Bruckner-story, so I’ll discuss these performances in the order they were set down rather than in numerical order of symphonies.
Richard Osborne’s notes point out that it was with Bruckner that Klemperer first achieved international fame. A series of performances of the 8th Symphony in the 1920s – Berlin 1924, New York 1926, London 1929 – set the ball rolling. In the 1930s he made a speciality of no.5 – Berlin, Frankfurt and Leipzig 1932, New York 1935. Klemperer’s success with Bruckner somewhat irritated Furtwängler, who favoured a very different style of interpretation.
As is well-known, Klemperer was seriously under-recorded until his final EMI period. The Adagio of no.8 was set down for Polydor in 1924, followed in 1951 by a rabidly up-front no.4 – seemingly the fastest on record – for Vox. When Walter Legge signed up Klemperer for EMI, Bruckner was not high on his priorities. Only well into the stereo age did Legge relent and allow Klemperer a 7th (1960) and a 4th (1963). Some live recordings have emerged to flesh out slightly the picture of Klemperer’s Bruckner in the 1950s.
Legge’s lack of enthusiasm seems to have spread to the players in the 1960 Seventh, which did not inspire much critical approval even when choice was more limited. For once the issue does not appear to be one of slow tempi – or is it? Reference to John Berky’s marvellous Bruckner site shows that quite a lot of esteemed and loved recordings take longer than Klemperer’s 65:11, even ten minutes longer. Whereas the faster renderings are rarely shorter by more than five minutes. Rather more significant may be the fact that those shorter-by-five-minutes versions include all the various live Klemperer performances that have come to light. Not just the earlier ones but even a couple from the mid-sixties. The inference is that this was an off-day for all concerned.
The opening paragraph is actually quite promising. But Klemperer’s refusal to interpret the music, welcome enough when combined with more drive, means that a lot of the first movement lollops along amiably without generating much tension. In the second movement the ragged string attack in the first forte near the beginning, repeated in all subsequent similar passages, only confirms the suspicion that the players’ minds are not on the job. When the music changes to three-time Klemperer refuses to move forward and things get badly stuck. The slow, listless scherzo seems to stem from the desire to find a tempo which will also do for the trio. This consequently emerges faster than I’ve ever heard it and sounds amazingly humdrum. In the finale Klemperer’s droll sense of humour amuses itself at the beginning by exaggerating the rallentandos concluding the opening phrases to an almost parodistic degree. The trouble is that these rallentandos are not Bruckner’s own. As I understand it, Nowak – whose edition Klemperer uses – accepted them as having Bruckner’s approval. Haas excluded them from his edition on the grounds that they were wished on the composer by friends – Nikisch in this case – who were forever telling him how he ought to write his music. But, Nowak or Haas, I’ve never heard these rallentandos drawn out so much. Thereafter Klemperer goes back to sleep and the performance plods through to the bitter end. I’d swear the chorale theme is slower at the recapitulation than it was the first time round. Maybe one of the live Sevenths under Klemperer tells another tale.
The Fourth, made three years later, registers a completely different level of orchestral response. Full justice is done to an interpretation that has remained controversial. The tempi are all slower than in the 1951 Vox recording and one can only admire the steadiness with which the first movement unfolds. From the opening horn call, bold rather than mysterious or romantic, everything proceeds with logic and clarity. Yet it comes to seem almost breathless, perhaps because Klemperer refuses to mould transitions, or usher in new themes with even the smallest comma. Added to this is an orchestral sound that is analytical and tangy, not rounded and blended in the manner of Karajan or even Haitink.
I began to click to Klemperer’s view in the second movement. It’s true that Klemperer neither inhabits the mountain heights nor the deep Austrian woods. It’s as though the trees in this Brucknerian forest are shorn of foliage, we are visiting a romantic world that is dead, maybe the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Seen in this harsh light, the interpretation becomes completely convincing. The brazen fanfares from the brass in the third movement, for example, seem not a jolly hunting party but a world of ruined, long-deserted mediaeval towers and castles.
The finale raises a question of tempi, or rather of tempo relationships. The issue, as I understand it – and I am ready to be corrected by readers with a better knowledge of Bruckner editions – is that the Nowak edition, published in 1953, contains some indications for playing certain passages in half-tempo. The earlier Haas edition omits these indications on the basis that Bruckner did not write them. Whereas Nowak believed that, since Bruckner had sanctioned them on his friends’ advice, they should be included. Even if you’re not technical enough to know exactly what I mean by “half tempo”, the result is perfectly clear. If you listen to a thorough-going Haas man like Karajan, you will note that he starts the movement quite broadly. When the secondary material arrives – the passage rather like a funeral cortège, opening out into some folksong-like melodies – Karajan plays it fairly lightly and liltingly, slackening the tempo only minimally. Kempe, if a little more excitable here and there, is similar. So, logically, will be any conductor using the Haas edition, with the proviso that not all recordings name correctly the edition used. Back in 1951, and in his live Amsterdam recording of 1947, Klemperer was perforce a Haas man since Nowak had not yet appeared. His tempo was faster than Karajan’s and he slackened as little as possible for the secondary material, which, in 1951 in particular, was practically frogmarched along.
The publication of the Nowak edition seems to have resolved for Klemperer a problem that had worried him all along – the impossibility of reconciling the themes in this movement to a single tempo. For other conductors it was less of a problem – you just change the tempo a bit to suit the music. The possibility of halving the tempo gave Klemperer the opportunity to have his cake and eat it. The pulse was the same, it was just the note values that were double. He was already applying this in his live Cologne reading of 1954, but perhaps he was not yet used to the new slow tempo for the secondary material, since he gets fidgety and moves on at times. By 1963 he had thought it all through. In simple terms, he starts the movement much faster than Karajan or Kempe, then the funeral cortège is really that, quite dolefully slow, and the folk-like melodies are broad and hymn-like. Obviously, the listener’s perception of the movement will be totally different, so you had better decide which you prefer. The Nowak solution, as interpreted by Klemperer, is perfectly brought off here if you like it.
“The Nowak solution, as interpreted by Klemperer”. Yes, the plot gets thicker still. Mario Venzago also uses the Nowak edition. He begins at a tempo not far distant from Klemperer’s, and his funeral cortège, in half-tempo, has Klemperer’s same doleful tread. But Venzago makes it clear in his booklet notes that, for him, the half-tempo applies only to the funeral cortège section. Come the folk-like melodies and, in place of Klemperer’s broad hymn we get, in Venzago’s own words, a “polka”, and quite a frisky one at that.
I find all this rather worrying. Here we have three different solutions, each of which imposes a very different character on the movement. But Bruckner himself can’t have intended all three of them! Two of these solutions must be wrong. Klemperer certainly presents a trenchant argument for this finale as he understood it.
Klemperer’s commitment to Bruckner’s 6th Symphony was such that, faced with Walter Legge’s indifference, he persuaded the BBC to allow him to conduct it for them in 1961. This BBC SO performance has been issued on CD, as has a Concertgebouw performance from the same year. With the disbanding of the Philharmonia, Legge’s resignation from EMI and the reconstitution of the orchestra as the New Philharmonia, Klemperer lost no time in setting down what has always been his least controversial Bruckner recording and, by common consent, one of the glories of the Bruckner discography.
It may be hard for younger Brucknerians even to imagine that, when this Bruckner 6 was issued in 1965, it essentially filled a glaring gap in the record catalogue. No regularly available recording had been listed for many years. Brucknerians desperate to get at least some idea of what the symphony sounded like, might have run to earth Henry Swoboda’s Nixa-Westminster version (VSO, 1950), or perhaps that by Georg-Ludwig Jochum with the Linz Bruckner Orchestra (1944, issued on LP by Urania). Other early recordings – the Furtwängler torso (BPO 1943, first movement missing), Charles F. Adler (VSO, 1952) and Volkmar Andreae (VSO, 1953) – seem to have come to light much more recently. Oddly enough, Klemperer’s recording coincided with a minor flurry of discographic interest in the work. Hubert Reichert’s Vox recording (Westphalian SO, exact date unknown) aroused no enthusiasm, but collectors able to get East German imports might have hunted up a version under Heinz Bongartz (Leipzig Gewandhaus, 1964). More significant, perhaps, was Joseph Keilberth’s Telefunken recording (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1963). This reached the UK market in about the same month as the Klemperer and not every critic preferred the latter. History seems to have made its decision, but it would be interested to re-run the comparison one day.
Klemperer’s credentials seem pretty unassailable, though. The features that made his Fourth fascinating but controversial – the steadily unfolding tempi and clear textures – seem made to resolve the problems of the Sixth. The inexorably tragic onward movement of the first movement allows all the various rhythmic complications to fall into place with complete inevitability. Some have found the second movement too fast but, at least in this context, it follows on from the previous movement perfectly. Such criticism ignores, too, the eloquence of Klemperer’s phrasing. The Scherzo sheds a haunting, nocturnal spell, the Finale surges, never hurrying, never dragging, to its resounding conclusion.
Following on two-and-a-half years later, the Fifth raised a number of eyebrows. The grave opening seems to promise well, in spite of some tentative orchestral attacks. The allegro sets off far faster than one might have expected, but with the secondary material comes the first surprise. Yes, he’s been at his tempo relationships again. Unable to find a uniform tempo that will work for both the first and the second subjects, rather than just relax a bit, as most conductors do, Klemperer halves the pulse exactly. The music takes on a dolefully expressive character. The first movement thereafter alternates between sections that are pretty brisk, and an exciting ride into the bargain, and passages that are puzzlingly slow unless one has understood the rationale behind them. As far as I am aware, this is not a Haas versus Nowak matter, just a decision Klemperer made.
The second movement is sublimely unfolded, its cross-rhythms lucidly expounded. Klemperer really has you thinking that this must be one of the most timelessly spiritual outpourings since Bach. It’s worth having the performance just for this.
In the Scherzo Klemperer resolves the alternating scherzo and landler by simply halving the tempo for the latter. This makes a much greater difference between the two tempi than we usually hear, but is quite effective The scherzo parts acquire a rough-hewn vigour, the landler has a heavy bucolic lilt. Most conductors follow the landler sections with an accelerando back into the scherzo. Klemperer simply doubles his tempo straightaway. It sounds odd till you’ve got used to it. The Trio is beautifully done.
In the Finale, Klemperer has a field day relating all the various ideas, tempo-wise. The result is an almighty slow, lumbering first fugue, some quite brisk passages elsewhere and a strange incongruence when he is compelled to bring the first fugue subject back at double the original tempo to make it fit one of the other themes. This would seem strong evidence that he is looking for tempo relationships that just aren’t there in the music. It needs to be added that, in the Finale above all, Klemperer’s conductorial grip had not yet left him. He presents his strange view of the music with cataclysmic conviction. Nobody hearing this Finale blind would have any doubt that the performance was in the hands of a truly great conductor. All the same, the deeply satisfying slow movement apart, it is difficult to escape the feeling that a potentially great performance has been gravely undermined by a senile obsession with arithmetical tempo relationships.
Three years later still and we have ultra-late Klemperer with all its attendant problems. The opening of the Ninth evolves, not so much from the mists as from a corporate attempt by the orchestra to work out what tempo he’s really going at. A blip in the horn, some ropy ensemble and patches of strident tuning remind us that the New Philharmonia in those years, lacking a real Music Director in the Szell/Reiner sense, had fallen to a level where a distinguished guest conductor actually queried whether it was a professional orchestra at all. The secondary material is didactically shaped. However, the music does settle into a majestically lumbering tempo eventually. The suspicion remains that this is not so much Klemperer’s tempo as a sort of default tempo the orchestra fell into as a result of not really being conducted at all. In the later stages Klemperer the conductor regains a measure of control, shaping some devastating climaxes that could hardly have got like that by accident.
The Scherzo is better. The tempo is by no means the slowest one has heard. It is fairly close to that adopted by Carl Schuricht, though Klemperer hammers away to more single-mindedly tragic effect. Where Schuricht relaxes affectionately during parts of the Trio – and where some conductors plough on unedifyingly in a fast tempo – Klemperer abruptly halves the tempo. An extreme solution but a curiously affecting one.
For at least the first part of the last movement, Klemperer the great conductor is once more at the helm, wringing Mahlerian intensity from the opening phrase, creating a shattering first climax and then having the strings really dig into the second theme. This overwhelming conviction isn’t quite maintained. There’s a feeling that Klemperer, having spent his physical resources on getting it well started – as he failed to do in the first movement – sat back and watched over it, so to speak, until the final wind down, which is impressively controlled. Still, the later stages of this movement are disappointing only in relation to the expectations aroused in the first paragraphs.
Richard Osborne mentions that February 1970 saw an “awe-inspiring concert performance alongside a rather more broadly paced though no less tragically imposing studio version” of the Ninth. Edward Greenfield, though enthusiastic over the new recording, enlarged on this matter: “.. the first and last movements are both roughly a minute and a half longer [on the recording], the central scherzo a minute longer” (Gramophone, April 1973). I wonder if a tape of that concert performance exists? Strangely, whereas various live alternatives have emerged for all the other Bruckner symphonies performed by Klemperer, for the Ninth the only one to have been found so far is a New York performance in far-off 1934.
The Eighth, posthumously issued, aroused a lot of head-shaking. For the EMG Monthly Letter “It would have been kinder to the memory of Otto Klemperer not to have issued this recording. … the performance itself is so unutterably dreary, and blotted with downright bad ensemble, that it sounds almost as if the orchestra was trying the symphony through at sight, and at groping tempi, just to find out what it was like. Hearing this travesty, we remember with great sadness the magnificent performances Klemperer gave of this symphony when he was at his greatest before the war” (December, 1973). Edward Greenfield bent over backwards to speak kindly of this “glorious if eccentric example of Klemperer’s art at the very end of his career” (Gramophone, December 1973) but his review is spattered with provisos all the same.
That said, I found the first movement curiously impressive. As with the Ninth, the orchestra spend the first paragraph working out what tempo they’re going at. But they settle down sooner and, pace EMG, I thought the orchestra on better form than in the Ninth. The secondary material is affectingly phrased and Klemperer’s slow basic tempo means it is accommodated without further slackening. It’s a tragically gaunt ruin of a performance with a haunting day-after effect.
The Scherzo goes at a pace that might have been judged stately even if it had been entitled minuet rather than scherzo. With a slow, striding swing, it works better than I would have expected. All the same, there seems an almighty lot of it at this tempo. Klemperer’s purpose becomes clear when he moves into the Trio at a related pulse. This is actually quite a good tempo for the Trio, though whether the Scherzo should be subjugated to it out of obeisance to an arithmetical pattern is another matter. Unfortunately, the Trio gets slower as it proceeds and attention wanes.
The slow movement is not intrinsically all that slow, but this, too, gets slower as it goes on. Instead of building inexorably it droops and wilts. Klemperer gets a shattering final climax. A pity the wagon had got so bogged down in the build-up to it. Likewise the closing threnody, with its numbly wandering violin line against a Mahlerian horn-chorale, is deeply affecting in itself, but would have been truly devastating if it had not come as an epilogue to nothing in particular.
The Finale opens at an unbelievably slow tread, yet with such a gorgeous panoply of brassy sounds as to hold out hopes that it may actually come off. Alas, it doesn’t and things get very dreary indeed. And then there is the issue that most people know about this recording even if they haven’t ever heard it – the whacking great cuts. While I am in principle wholly against hacking bits out of works of art, I can only say that, conducted like this, what’s left is more than enough.
A problematic package, then. Though cheap on a disc-by-disc basis, it could be an expensive way of acquiring the one Klemperer Bruckner performance everyone should have – the Sixth. I hope this is still available on its own. Or maybe a twofer wouldn’t be bad that combined it with the Fourth, a great performance in its way and one that Brucknerians should certainly hear. The Seventh, as I said, comes from the Klemperer/Philharmonia “golden age” but finds them off form. As for the late trio of 5, 8 and 9, these performances stand like a mysterious gateway to another world, intermittently impressive, rising gaunt and sphinx-like against the Brucknerian night sky. Though one does wonder if their suggestiveness, like that of Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments, is not due more to the ravages time has wrought upon them than to anything their conductor intended.
A problematic package. It could be an expensive way of acquiring the one Klemperer Bruckner performance everyone should have – the Sixth.
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