Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Klemperer Legacy Part 1: Beethoven

EMI 50999 4 04275 2 (10-disc box set) (2012)
Beethoven: The Orchestral Recordings:
Symphonies and Overtures
Otto Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra/New Philharmonia

An illuminating--if not always electrifying--survey of Otto Klemperer's EMI Beethoven recordings from the 1950s and `60s; this generous 10-disc box set from 2012 has much to offer fans of both the composer and the conductor. The heart of the set is the complete symphonic cycle, recorded in stereo between 1957 and 1960 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London's Kingsway Hall. Collectors will be pleased to find additional readings of several of the symphonies (no fewer than three versions of the Seventh!) and popular overtures, a few recorded in mono between 1954 and '55; and others from the mid to late 1960s, making for a through-going, intense, and highly rewarding listening experience.

There's nothing polarizing, or especially galvanizing, about Klemperer's Beethoven. For the most part, his interpretations stake out a modestly traditional middle ground, which, while not raising eyebrows or blood pressure, are decidedly less in service to the conductor's ego than the composer's score. Listeners will not find in these readings the bombastic thunderings of a tortured titan. There is no heaven storming here. Klemperer does not attack the music with the technical ferocity of a Toscanini (would that, at times, he did); nor does he attempt the daringly modish as Herbert von Karajan (1962) or Carlos Kleiber (1975-76) (both for DG). To modern ears, Toscanini's Beethoven can at times seem heavy-handed (I've never cared for his overblown reading of the Fourth, and am still fairly lukewarm (after nearly fifty years) regarding his "Eroica", though I think his Fifth and Ninth are the greatest ever recorded), but the long line is always clearly defined, its inevitability never in doubt. Structural coherency is never an issue, even if texture and dynamics sometimes are. By contrast, Karajan can be too light; his radical, ultra-frenetic readings can come off as flippant, even soulless, in their too-buoyant alacrity. At his best, Klemperer lands somewhere well between these two interpretive poles.

The true crown jewels of this collection are the shorter works, the well-known overtures and incidental pieces, particularly on disc 9. Klemperer's July 1956 recording of "The Consecration of the House" is one of the most hair-raisingly brilliant things he ever did, and by itself, nearly worth the price of the set--though, alas, the later 1959 recording included on the same disc barely inspires a half-hearted stage yawn. There are superb readings of the various "Leonore" and "Fidelio" overtures, again, in several different recorded versions, as well as very fine renditions of the "Egmont" incidental and "Creatures of Prometheus" ballet music.

The symphonies represent a decidedly mixed interpretive bag. The Kingsway Hall cycle, with the glaring exception of the Ninth, is generally quite good (First, Third, Fourth, Fifth), if sometimes merely fair (Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth). Some listeners may remark a certain heaviness in the orchestral texture, which can (as in the case of the Eighth) pull things down rather awkwardly. Klemperer's predilection for more deliberate tempi does not always work in his favor; the conductor recorded the Seventh on no fewer than three occasions, but somehow never managed to set the music ablaze. On the other hand, his relatively slow-paced 1959 "Eroica" is a justly lauded classic, and the mono 1955 recording is nearly as fine.

The nadir of this set is an "unfortunate" reading of the Choral Symphony recorded between October and November, 1957. The Ninth is one of those works in which vast, disparate elements must come together just so; myriad musical egos set aside their differences for the sake of a miraculous momentary synergy; I do not know of a more perfect piece of music that has so defied a perfect performance. A few have come close; Toscanini (RCA); Böhm (DG); John Eliot Gardiner (Philips); even the recent reading by Vanska (BIS); but it's doubtful the score has ever been realized to its fullest potential; I honestly don't think it's possible. This is in no way to excuse Klemperer's ill-advised essay that impresses more as an example of a petulant conductor versus a defiant orchestra than a meeting of great musical minds. Ensemble is ragged; entrances are sloppy; whole instrumental sections are lost in a miasmic blur of confused sound. The plodding scherzo never achieves critical velocity; like some Sisyphusian figure attempting to run up the side of a hill, but never building enough momentum to crest the top. In the finale, the introduction is treated without reverence, a thing to be gotten past. The solo vocal ensemble is simply horrid; the chorus and orchestra out of sync much of the time. This performance is little short of a disaster that should never have seen the light of day.

[The assertion by some breathless "Klemperer groupies" that this performance of the Ninth couldn't possibly be so bad as all that, based on the assumption that "arch-perfectionist Walter Legge" would never have allowed it to be released, is not only an example of seriously flawed logic (so and so likes this so it must be good), but represents a simplistic understanding of the very complex and thorny relationship between the conductor and the executive. In fact, Legge was happy to tolerate Klemperer's tyranical tendencies, his sometimes bizarre mood swings and divers eccentricities so long as the conductor's name was selling records for EMI, the "bottom line" being his principle driving concern. Nor was Legge about to lay out money in order to record a large (and I presume expensive) piece like the Ninth without seeing a return on his investment--the man had a cultivated reputation as an artistic perfectionist, but he was a businessman first and foremost. The two men ultimately had a falling out, both refusing either to speak to the other, which may have been due to Legge's simply getting fed up, or the fact that Klemperer--in spite of the drawing power of his name and many superb, even sublime readings--did occasionally turn in sub-par performances--this Ninth, the 1954 Brahms' Haydn Variations (with out-of-tune winds no less!), the 1966 Beethoven Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhim which is as turgid and lifeless a reading as one could imagine, and a notorious handful of others--all of which the great Mr. Legge and his successors at EMI had no qualms about releasing. So, if Legge was such an "arch-perfectionist" how did these demonstrably less-than-perfect recordings get past him? Ka-ching! Ka-ching! That's how! Some die-hard fans simply cannot accept the fact that their "god" was sometimes prone to fallibility, or that their hero was, on occasion, a clay-footed klutz.]

It goes without saying that most, if not all, this material has been available separately for many years. The Kingsway stereo cycle made its first appearance on CD in the mid-1980s and has been re-issued several times since. Most of the re-masterings for this present box set date from the late 1990s and early 2000s, representing a marked improvement over earlier issues.

Here's a summary of the contents. I've included the month and year each work was recorded as noted in the liner notes, along with the year in which the session was re-mastered. This does make a difference, as the technology for mastering and transferring pre-digital recordings has advanced significantly over the past three decades. Transfer engineers in the early `80s often failed to recognize the broader dynamic potential of the new digital technology, or take informed advantage of the full aural pallet, with the result that some of the earlier re-masterings retain a rather timid, tired-sounding quality.


Symphony #1 in C Op. 21 (October 1957) (1998)
Symphony #6 in F Op. 68 "Pastorale" (October, 1957) (2003)


Symphony #2 in D Op. 36 (October, 1957) (1998)
Symphony #5 in c minor Op. 67 (October, 1959) (1998)


Symphony #3 in E-flat Op. 55 "Eroica" (November, 1959) (1998)
Große Fugue Op. 133 (March, 1956) (1998)


Symphony #4 in B-flat Op. 60 (October, 1957) (1990)
Symphony #7 in A Op. 92 (October-November-December, 1960) (1990)


Symphony #8 in F Op. 93 (October, 1957) (1998)
Leonore Overture #1 Op. 138 (November, 1963) (1998)
Leonore Overture #2 Op, 72a (November, 1963)
Leonore Overture #3 Op. 72b (November, 1963)


Symphony #9 in d minor Op. 125 "Choral" (October-November, 1957) (1998)
Aase Nordmo Lovberg (sop); Christa Ludwig (alt); Waldemarr Kmentt (tenor); Hans Hotter (bass)


Symphony #3 "Eroica" (MONO: October-November, 1955) (2002)
Leonore Overtures #s 1 and 2 (MONO: November 1954) (2002)


Symphony #5 (MONO: October-December, 1955) (2002)
Symphony #7 (October, 1955) (1987/2002)


Leonore Overture #3 (MONO: November, 1954) (2012)
Fidelio Op. 72 Overture (MONO: November, 1954) (2012)
Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House) Op. 124 (July, 1956) (2012)
Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op. 43 Overture (November, 1957) (2003)
Egmont Incidental Music Op. 84 (October-November, 1957) (2003)
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
König Stephan (King Stephan) Op. 117 Overture (October, 1959) (2000)
Consecration of the House (October, 1959) (2000)


Fidelio Overture (February 1962) (2000)
Symphony #7 (1968) (2012)
The Creatures of Prometheus Ballet Op. 43 (October, 1969) (1977 & 2012)


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