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Erich Kleiber (conductor)
The Complete Polydor 78s
rec. 1926-29
ELOQUENCE 4842049 [3 CDs: 219:37]

Erich Kleiber was made music director of the Berlin Staatskapelle or the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, as it was known in translation at the time, in 1923 when he was 33 years old. The appointment was on the recommendation of the orchestra’s intendant. Max von Schillings. His very first recordings had been a sequence of late acoustic and early electrics for the Vox label between 1923 and 1927 but between 1926-29 he made a concentrated batch of discs for DG, whose export arm was Polydor, hence the title of this set of three CDs.

DG had many of Germany’s leading conductors on its books so Kleiber’s opportunities to record were restricted, given that repertoire duplication was then uncommon and commercially largely unviable, unless there had been a seismic acceleration in recording techniques, such as from acoustic to electric recording.

Eloquence doesn’t run the recordings chronologically, preferring instead a grouping by composer. Thus, Mozart’s German Dances, of which he recorded two sequences two years apart, are programmed one after the other. He must have liked them because he returned to a number three decades later when he was recording for Decca. The overture to Idomeneo is made of sterner stuff and is authoritatively delivered by an operatic director of importance; it was a performance of Fidelio, given on a single rehearsal, that had first convinced von Schillings that Kleiber should take over the directorship of the orchestra but here, and in the 1928 Mozart Dances, Kleiber conducts the Berlin Philharmonic not the State Opera. The first Dances set was made, as were other early Kleiber Grammophon/Polydor recordings, using Brunswick’s proprietary ‘Light-Ray’ system, never good news for restoration engineers or, to be honest, listeners. The two scenes from Schubert’s Rosamunde derive from a single 78 but the main attraction of the first CD is Beethoven’s Second Symphony made with the State Opera orchestra.

It was recorded as part of DG’s celebration of the centenary of Beethoven’s death, an undertaking that continued well into 1933. This has been reissued before, as part of Naxos’ restorations of this DG legacy, but there are differences to be noted, as Mark Obert-Thorn makes clear in his portion of the notes. To clarify, Naxos 8.110919 used a later substituted take of the Scherzo – it was made a year later in fact - which was almost certainly not conducted by Kleiber. Speculation has always focused instead on little-known Hermann Weigert as he conducted sides from nearby matrices. In any case we can be sure that this Eloquence transfer is wholly the work of Kleiber. This new transfer has also dealt with a missing chord in the first movement side change. Kleiber is a weighty but clean and clarity conscious interpreter and though dynamics don’t always register in this 1929 reading, the winds and brass are invariably audible.

In the second disc the focus falls on Schubert’s Unfinished, a recording made in 1927 with the Berlin Philharmonic, generally well-conceived with sufficient metrical flexibility in the first movement and splendid wind playing – especially clarinet playing – throughout. The Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music is probably the best played of the three scenes; Scherzo, Nocturne and inevitably the Wedding March. Rossini’s William Tell overture and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture show the State orchestra was just as technically adroit as the Berlin Philharmonic at this time.

The final disc focuses on Czech repertoire. His paternal grandfather was Czech and Kleiber studied at the Prague Conservatory, later learning his trade as an unpaid musical assistant in the city’s Deutsches Landtheater. Dvorak’s New World symphony was recorded with the State Opera orchestra in 1929 and is excellent. There’s a live 1954 Cologne performance (review) that’s much more expansive in the slow movement but the 1929 has an attractive expressive quality. There’s also the advantage that Eloquence has included, as a kind of appendix, the original take of the second side of the Scherzo, which Kleiber clearly disliked as he re-recorded it three months later and it was this later take that formed part of the whole set. There are also two recordings of Vltava, one from 1927 and the other from a year later, of which the earlier is very much rarer. The overall tempi are much the same but the 1927 is much better recorded, the 1928 version being strangely watery and ill-defined. I wonder if this 1928 version was recorded in two different locations. Don’t overlook the fast and (too) furious Slavonic Dance in C major or the buoyant and brilliant realisation of the overture to Die Fledermaus.

This 3-CD set offers a compact body of recordings from an important period in Kleiber’s life. It’s excellently transferred, offers those additional takes, has carried out restorative work in the Beethoven and comes with a fine booklet note from Alan Sanders. It’s the pre-war yin to Kleiber’s post-war Decca yang and as such mandatory for true, devout admirers.

Jonathan Woolf

Idomeneo – Overture, KV 366
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
German Dances Staatskapelle Berlin · Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Staatskapelle Berlin
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Rosamunde – Incidental Music, D.797
No. 5: Entr’acte No. 3 in B flat major
No. 9: Ballet Music in G major
Staatskapelle Berlin
CD 2
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D.759 ‘Unfinished’
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Ein Sommernachtstraum – Incidental Music, Op. 61 (excerpts)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Guillaume Tell – Overture
Staatskapelle Berlin
HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803–1869)
Le Carnaval romain – Overture, Op. 9 Staatskapelle Berlin
OTTO NICOLAI (1810–1849)
Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – Overture
Staatskapelle Berlin
CD 3
Die Fledermaus – Overture
Staatskapelle Berlin
Má vlast
No. 2: Vltava 1927 recording
No. 2: Vltava 1928 recording
Staatskapelle Berlin
ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’
III Molto vivace original take of second side
Slavonic Dance in C major, Op. 46 No. 1
Staatskapelle Berlin

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