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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K183, [19:31]
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K543 [27:51]
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550, [27:10]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
Rec. 21-25 July 1956, Kingsway Hall, London
Klemperer Conducts Mozart, Volume 2
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC606 [74:34]

Back in the early 1960s, as I was feeling my way into and around the world of classical music, my enthusiasm was boundless but my knowledge was, well, not quite zero. In particular, my critical faculty was still in its mother’s womb. It was enthusiasm – and an eye-popping LP cover image – that drew me to “Klemperer Conducts Wagner, Volume 2”. But, who was this Klemperer? I had no idea, but I liked the sounds he made. An ancient (pre-stereo) edition of “The Record Guide”, discovered in – of all places – my school’s library, opened my na´ve eyes to the startling fact (well, it was to me at the time) that different recordings of the same work were not necessarily identical. This, soon superseded by “Gramophone” magazine and the “Penguin Stereo Record Guide”, taught me a bit about Klemperer: I soon had him pegged as an opinion-divider – not only in the sense that critic A would applaud something he’d done while critic B would pick it full of holes, but also that the same critic’s opinions could vary widely between or even within pieces.

Take for example his Bruckner Fourth Symphony: some thought it of great architectural strength and momentum, some bemoaned its haste and lack of mystery, and others found his brass over-bright, steely and overbearing (indeed, some would opine on all three at once). Klemperer’s recording of Franck’s Symphony attracted, on the one hand, something approaching hoots of derision and, on the other, guarded compliments for the combination of structural sinew and (unexpected) romantic warmth. I bought them both, and in spite of later acquiring (on CD) and enjoying Monteux’s legendary recording of the Franck, my affections for Klemperer’s remained virtually unruffled. Oddly enough, amongst all this apparent disparity of opinion, on one point all critics were ever in complete agreement: Klemperer was one of the great conductors!

His preferences seemed to be for composers from Beethoven onwards, although his relatively rare forays into earlier music often earned him some comparatively unanimous accolades. These days, such recordings have to vie not only with those by Klemperer’s peers but also with the proponents of the Johnny-come-lately HIP movement – bringing me nicely to the present disc, “Klemperer Conducts Mozart, Volume 2”, which, you may notice, is very nearly where we came in!

Pristine’s booklet note, only a single but nonetheless an interesting page, consists almost entirely of the glowing review by “T.H.” (Trevor Harvey) in the September 1957 issue of “The Gramophone”. I say “glowing” yet, strange to relate, over half of this review is devoted to condemnation of what seems to be a tiny point: merely Klemperer’s choice of tempo for the second movement of K183. This demands a closer look. Basically, T.H. argues, quite convincingly, that Klemperer has mistaken Mozart’s andante, 2/4 marking as relating to the crotchet beat rather than the quaver pulse, rendering the movement more allegretto than andante, a speed that T.H. says he “cannot accept”. Call me slow on the uptake if you like, but until I read this I’d always imagined that “beat” and “pulse” were synonymous. So, I had to think this through, and that led me inexorably to this question: wouldn’t such a mistake actually make the resulting tempo, not just a bit faster than, but double the one intended by Mozart? To answer that, we need to know what T.H. regards as the correct tempo.

His review says that Solti (Decca, 1954) “hits it off exactly”; so, let’s compare Solti directly with Klemperer. I measured a segment selected for its sharply-defined start and end: Solti took 65.5 seconds, while Klemperer took 55.4 seconds. The latter is about 15% faster: that’s not insignificant, but it’s nowhere near twice as fast, is it? As far as I am concerned, this proves that Klemperer had made no such “mistake” (and really, it doesn’t seem likely, does it?): he’d simply decided that he wanted the notes to go by a bit more quickly. Whether this is a misjudgement is purely a matter of taste. For context, I also measured a couple of other contrasting versions. The “authentic” Hogwood (L’Oiseau Lyre) took 60.1 seconds, splitting the difference (interesting, though, that a leading proponent of the notoriously “hasty” HIP movement is actually slower than Klemperer). The “modern” Wordsworth (Naxos) took 54.8, the merest smidgen quicker than Klemperer. Granted, this is a rather small sample, but it does tend to confirm that Klemperer, at worst, is “at the quick end of the right ball-park”.

Having started to consider the performances, I way as well continue the job. Love it or loathe it, the “HIP”/”original instruments/authentic” movement (call it what you will) has done us one indisputably inestimable service: it has made us aware of the increasing disparity between our modern orchestras and those for which earlier composers designed their music. Thus, simply to play Mozart or Haydn (or whoever) using an orchestra of the right size, even without reverting to “olde worlde” instruments or otherwise going the whole “authentic” hog, should make a huge – and revelatory – difference. Yet, even before, so to speak, authentic became HIP, there were a few conductors who, conscious of the “bloat” factor, already tended in this direction, though, I may add, steering well clear of the point of emaciation. In his earlier review of this CD, Michael Wilkinson mentioned almost in passing that the “orchestra size was reduced”. That quietly places Klemperer among those few.

Klemperer’s other incidental HIP feature is his preference for placing the second violins on the right, opposing the firsts. My impression is that, when fashion favoured placing all the violins together Klemperer showed himself to be no follower of fashion. Why more don’t adopt this arrangement puzzles me, considering that we all know this practice so often illuminates composers’ carefully crafted interplays of firsts and seconds. Oh, there are those who argue that this angling away weakens the volume of the seconds, but surely this argument is somewhat specious: transferring one or two players from the firsts to the seconds would redress any such imbalance, wouldn’t it? It’s also worth mentioning that the effect is rather more than just antiphonal. Placed on the conductor’s right, the second violins are angled away from the audience; this results in a slight mellowing of their tone, so that they slot in between the first violins and the violas – a clearly perceptible distinction that falls most pleasantly on the ears.

At this point, I must make a confession – Mozart comes nowhere near the top of my list of favourite composers. All through my life, believing that the fault must somehow be mine, I’ve kept trying to crack the Mozart nut. I’d have had a far easier – and shorter – ride if I’d come across these Klemperer performances fifty years ago. Now, all of a sudden, Mozart has shot up my list. For me, to have what seemed to be a firmly closed door unexpectedly thrown wide open, without the least effort on my part, is a completely new experience. So, having been knocked sideways, how did I get my critical faculties back on an even keel?

Well, it wasn’t easy. The first step was to realise that the credit isn’t Mozart’s since, evidently, other performances of the same works have not had this effect. The second step, not generally recommended as good reviewing practice, was to read the earlier reviews by my colleagues Michael Wilkinson and David R Dunsmore. They suffered no revelatory shock. Nevertheless, they were both deeply impressed, and declared Klemperer to be a truly exceptional Mozart interpreter. Basically, this is the same reaction as mine, albeit strongly moderated by the seasoned sensibilities of obviously knowledgeable Mozart-lovers.

The third step was to ask: what is Klemperer’s secret, and is this why, on the CD cover picture, he’s wearing such a rare and enigmatic smile? In other words, what is so different about Klemperer’s approach? Well, one thing that always tended to put me off Mozart was the apparently pervasive air of purity, elegance and refinement; it seemed somehow “in-bred” – or more likely, it now occurs to me, it was the result of some long-evolving performing tradition. Particularly in view of what we know about Mozart’s personal character, does it seem likely that all his music should verge on the “foppish”? Somewhat belatedly, Klemperer’s take on these symphonies has made me believe that it shouldn’t; that sometimes, even Mozart liked to live a little dangerously.

This is nowhere more evident than in the first movement of K183 (Symphony No. 25). Both Solti and Hogwood play it allegro (as marked), but set beside Klemperer you’d think that they’d completely overlooked the qualifying con brio. Not only is his allegro several notches quicker, packing the notes of Mozart’s rapid-fire sequences about as tightly as is humanly possible, but also he elicits from the fabulous Philharmonia razor-sharp, spark-spitting articulation and nerve-tingling verve that will, at the very least, make you sit up and let your jaw drop. Such a con brio leaves little room for niceties like purity, elegance and refinement – and who’s to deny that here Klemperer may well have a valid point?

Needless to say, none of the other music on the CD lives anywhere near as dangerously as this opening movement; but the latter does, so to speak, give you a darned good shake, dislodging any lurking complacency and opening your ears to Klemperer’s way with Mozart. The contentious Andante comes straight after this barn-storming first movement, and in context Klemperer’s tempo immediately feels justified: it feels as laid-back as anyone would wish it to be, whilst the counter-phrases in shorter note-values tend to trip appealingly rather than simply “tiptoeing” by. So, unlike the venerable T.H., I can accept this speed. The Menuetto is quicker than the Andante, yet not pushed beyond acceptable bounds for a stately dance; and its delectably rustic woodwind Trio, although at the identical tempo, somehow sounds more relaxed. In fact, although faster still than the Menuetto, so sounds the final Allegro, only more in the sense of “playful”.

At this juncture, certain things stand out. Klemperer is of no mind to mess with the tempi: in each movement he maintains a strictly constant pulse (or beat). You may well ask, “Surely that will make the music stiff and relentless?” I did wonder, but was forced to conclude that the answer is “no, not at all”! Somewhat belatedly, I’ve now realised that Mozart has incorporated a perhaps surprising degree of flexibility by the simple expedient of shifting between longer and shorter notes (thus, I suppose, at least partially presaging Sibelius’s famous technique). This is the case all through these Mozart recordings – and moreover it feels as though he is also taking the fabled long view, defining each movement’s “right tempo” in relation to the other movements.

Having, in effect, denied himself the luxury of expressive tempo-changes, Klemperer enlivens the music through meticulous attention to every detail of phrasing, accents, balance and dynamics – and that, it would seem, suffices. Thus, even in the headlong first movement the solo oboe passage, although the tempo is utterly unchanged, really feels like a relaxation. In the finale these same considerations excite all the music’s bountiful “bounce”. Further egging of the pudding is thus superfluous. Now, isn’t that just neat?

In the first movement of K543 (Symphony No. 39), Klemperer’s “fixed tempo” brings both grandeur to the Adagio introduction (its dissonances sounding like a dignified pre-echo of Herrmann’s Psycho “shower scene” music) and, allied to superbly judged accentuation, thoroughly irrepressible vigour to the Allegro. Isn’t the second movement, though, surely too slow, andante but “non con moto”? It seems so, yet, when the first climax arrives (2:55), it magically acquires moto a-plenty; I suspect that in this movement Klemperer does nudge his chosen tempo, but if so, then it’s only by the merest whisker. Klemperer’s way with the Menuetto is simply fabulous; it seems to commingle two contrasted airs – the air of an aristocratic ball and that of a rustic revel (just listen to the delicious, Alberti-style burbling of the Trio’s clarinets!) – and thence forms the perfect prelude to the irrepressibly festive frolics of the final Allegro.

Again in the first movement of K550 (Symphony No. 40) Klemperer’s allegro molto is somewhat on the moderato side. However, the overall effect is similar to K543’s Andante con moto – the busier episodes, notably the climactic ones, are in no way short of vibrant energy. Do you recall that famous exchange between Klemperer and Walter Legge regarding the former’s tempo for the “Peasants’ Merrymaking” of Beethoven’s Pastoral? Well here, once the first few minutes of K550 have slid into your ears, it won’t be so much “you’ll get used to it” as “you’ll not want it any other way”!

In the context of the whole disc, it may seem outrageous that in K550’s Andante Klemperer departs significantly from his “fixed tempo” rule – but we must note that he strictly limits his caprice, to lingering a little at the very ends of the movement’s two “halves”; and very touching it is, too. The Menuetto is as lusty and robust as any on the disc, and the final Allegro assai fair leaps from the speakers. The clarity of this finale’s central fugato passage – a four-way marriage between Klemperer’s technical cunning, the Philharmonia’s flawless execution, EMI’s original recording (no, 1956 is not a misprint) and Pristine’s masterly remastering – is a joy to behold, as is (need I add?) the rest of this CD.

Which brings us nicely to considerations of recording quality. In my first review of a Pristine remastering, about two-thirds through, you’ll find an appraisal of Andrew Rose’s XR technique(s). That earlier review was of a monaural recording remastered in “ambient stereo”, whereas this Mozart disc is EMI early stereo. I presume that Pristine worked with the master tapes or, at worst, “best available” original LP pressings; so, for an optimally valid comparison, I’d really need LPs. Unfortunately, all I could lay hands on was EMI’s remastered CD boxed set (EMI Classics 4043612, 2013), but what its remastering involved I’ve yet to learn.

Listening to it in isolation, I would have called the EMI quite well recorded, certainly considering its vintage. But, considered dispassionately, the CD remastering does sound dry, lacking in ambience (especially during pauses and between movements), whilst the instrumental sound feels somewhat rounded off and dull, tymps. and basses in particular coming across as too plump-waisted and woolly. By comparison, the Pristine felt open, airy and more illuminated; the instruments sounding “firmer and fresher”; and the tones of the tymps. and basses more even, having, if anything, greater depth. Initially I wondered whether it was too lightweight, but that was because I had listened to the EMI first – the second time round, my feelings had already done a u-turn: I was now convinced that the EMI was too heavyweight. And that sets me thinking: wouldn’t a “heavy” recording tend to undo the good wrought by pruning the orchestra’s size, imparting a (false) sense of ponderousness that, perish the thought, may have been attributed to the conductor?

To check my subjective impressions, using an audio editor I examined the normalised EMI and Pristine waveforms of a selected movement. Looking at only the noise floor (i.e. a portion with no musical signal, consisting only of noise and residual ambience), the two appear to be at the same general, commendably low level. However, the Pristine’s proportion of ambience is much higher than the EMI’s, which fact becomes only too obvious when looking at the decaying reverberation after the (loud) ending of the movement. The EMI’s lasted under 1.4 secs., whilst the Pristine’s was a good 1.8 secs. – a smallish difference but a significant one, changing an ending that feels almost “clipped” into one that retires gracefully. I would guess that the EMI has been noise-reduced, and that much of its original ambience has been taken out with the noise; whilst Pristine, using their extended suite of facilities, have applied noise reduction and recovered (or reinstated, using convolution reverb) the Kingsway Hall acoustic, along with (judging by differences in the spectral analyses) a fair amount of HF and LF extension.

That said, the really big difference shows in the smoothness of the whole-movement spectral curve. That of the EMI has umpteen notches/spikes and its high-frequency end wavers up and down, with significant droops below about 60 Hz. and between 100 and 1200 Hz (the entire lower half of the “fundamental” band). The Pristine curve is much more even, with greater bass and HF extension and with the notches/spikes nigh-on ironed out. This suggests Pristine’s use of XR “re-equalising” to reduce these symptoms of defects in 1950s’ recording technology, which process is largely responsible for the perceived improvement in instrumental sound-quality. Put in its simplest terms, the Pristine version sounds like a much more recent recording than it is. I would add that this CD has persuaded me that Pristine’s remastering techniques are useful for far more than simply rescuing “old” recordings; even recordings that are merely “less modern” stand to gain much from the XR treatment – it makes you wonder, will Pristine eventually dazzle us all with an XR remastering of the Decca Ring cycle?

The one thing that no-one has messed with is the stereo imaging. This captures a wide and realistically filled sound-stage with a splendid feeling of depth – further enhanced by Pristine’s more natural hall ambience and clearer detailing. It also gives a wonderfully vivid impression of a great and characterful orchestra at the very top of its form – and a rather late reminder that I’ve said very little about what is, after all, the lynchpin of all recordings, great or otherwise. Let me therefore end with a challenge: listen to this CD, and if you find anything about the orchestral playing that is, for whatever reason, the least bit short of magnificent, you may stand me a pint! I’m certain that you’ll get the best of the bargain.

Paul Serotsky

Previous reviews: Michael Wilkinson ~ David R Dunsmore



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