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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 5 in C minor Op 67 [31:23]
Symphony No 6 in F major Op 68 (Pastoral) [41:28] 
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Erich Kleiber
rec. September 1953, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Presto CD
DECCA 4176372 [73:09]

Presto Classical continue their facsimile reissue of currently unavailable CDs with two recordings from the early days of the analogue LP. Erich Kleiber (1890-1956) was one of the great conductors of the first half of the twentieth century. His reputation has remained high over the past sixty years since his comparative early death. He was one of the five illustrious conductors in a famous photograph of a meeting in Berlin in 1929. His companions in the picture were Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer and Wilhelm Furtwängler. It was his Vienna Philharmonic “Eroica”, from 1953, that I heard on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme in July 1988. I was hearing, for the first time, Erich Kleiber and learning of his superb affinity with Beethoven.

Unfortunately, Kleiber’s recorded legacy is far smaller than those other conductors, although some of his concerts have emerged including performances of these two symphonies. His studio Concertgebouw recordings have always been highly regarded and have been available in digital format since 1985, having been reissued variously singly and in various CD sets and collections. Both symphonies form part of a six CD Decca set of his 1949-55 recordings, issued in 2004. There is a review here by Jonathan Woolf. They also feature in a twelve CD Decca set which I bought in 2016. It also includes such things as the renowned stereo “Le Nozze di Figaro” and a slightly earlier “Der Rosenkavalier”.

The present Fifth has always enjoyed cult status. I would like to quote this interesting anecdote from Christopher Howell’s review when it was issued with the earlier 1950 recording; with the later 1953 VPO recording, that’s two Kleiber studio versions of the  “Eroica" symphony: “At the end of the sixties it was still in the catalogue at full price with its original LXT number, when mono-only recordings were almost extinct. Questioned why by the Guardian in the course of a debate on LP pricing (plus ça change) Decca replied ‘because the EMG Art of Record Buying (does anyone remember that cult?) recommends it as the best available recording.’ Questioned in their turn, EMG admitted that they hadn't sold a copy for years. It was deleted within days and began a new life in mock stereo on a budget label. It has rarely been out of the catalogue”. What we have here though is a clear analogue mono with 1980s re-mastering. It’s fine despite some inevitable tape hiss. This is also interesting as it’s one of those symphonies that were later recorded by Erich’s son Carlos. As with the Sixth below, CH reviewed concert recordings from Medici Arts but in neither case did he think they added anything appreciable to one’s assessment of Kleiber’s interpretation. He did, however think very highly of the studio Concertgebouw Beethoven Fifth Symphony: “taut, fiery and with a wonderful sense of line”. I would certainly refer you to his full review with which I generally concur.

CH wasn’t sure about the humanity of certain parts of this performance, but to my ears, this “Fifth” certainly delivers the goods right from the get-go and is in the same class as the recording by his son Carlos. Carlos’s CD with the VPO is an awesome disc. There’s a review by John Quinn of the Blu-ray coupling with an equally distinguished Seventh. I have these two in a 12 CD box, plus Blu-ray of Carlos’s complete DG recordings. After a superbly-paced opening movement, the Andante con moto further exhibits Erich’s skill as an orchestral conductor and how well does the Concertgebouw respond. In fact, this seems of greater quality than the first movement. It deserves to be considered alongside performances by the other “four’ greats who all left several famous Fifths. Erich Kleiber is often cited as being true, in the main, to what Beethoven wrote. That certainly isn’t the case with, say Furtwängler, much as I love his way with the music. The Allegro anticipates the explosion ahead and how good it is to hear a full orchestra very well captured in the acoustic so much so that one can be deceived into believing we are hearing early stereo. The final movement doesn’t rush its fences but is steady. This which gives the brass more impact it does for those cellos and basses and there seem to be a lot of those instruments, not one too many in my book. The movement develops lyrically and there is a certainty that all will be well. The ending is suitably dramatic. Truly one of the great Fifths and I won’t try to list them. As with the “Pastoral”, if you don’t have this CD, then you really should remedy the situation at once.

Kleiber’s Concertgebouw “Pastoral” is from 1953. Jonathan points out in his review in the Decca Recordings 1949-55 set: “one might think Kleiber cool and aloof but the virtues are ones of the most acutely penetrating insight in the architecture and sense of fluctuation inherent within it – of tempo and feeling”. The Concertgebouw performance is greatly to be preferred over the earlier 1948 LPO traversal which also has recording problems. There is a third “Pastoral”, live from Prague, in May 1955 with The Czech Philharmonic from an excellent double set of “Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century” (review by Christopher Howell) from 2002, which I’ll refer to briefly later. CH had also reviewed, in 2007, a live combination of both Symphonies 5 and 6 on Medici Arts; the latter slightly earlier than the Prague performance. I haven’t heard this fourth recording but CH felt that listeners, although perhaps disappointed that it added nothing to Kleiber’s repertoire, nevertheless would “find plenty to interest them.”

I loved Kleiber’s way with the “Pastoral” and found it superbly paced. There is real strength in the first movement and, as in the Prague performance, the “Scene by the Brook” never flags. In the third movement, the peasants’ merrymaking moves seamlessly into the rain sequence before the storm. With Klemperer the dancing is too slow for everyday and with Toscanini, he seems to waiting for “the Storm” before the performance comes to life. The final movement is full of gratitude and joy and ends everything on a high. It’s certainly one of the great mono “Pastorals” and should always be available.

These are two very fine performance from one of the twentieth century’s great conductors. Unless you are averse to vintage mono recordings, this re-release is essential. For me, I want the whole Kleiber 12 CD set but for many, this single release will do very well.
David R Dunsmore