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Ludwig van Beethoven
Nine Symphonies plus Coriolan, Egmont,
and Prometheus Overtures
Otto Klemperer Philharmonia Orchestra

Review by Ray Chowkwanyun
Click here to e-mail reviewer

CD Stock Number: Music & Arts 886/890

 

  To a beginner, the classical catalog is daunting in its vastness. This huge thing sprawls in three dimensions. First there is the large number of composers, secondly the number of works written by each composer and thirdly different recordings of the same work by different musicians. (And even different editions of the same work by the same musicians.) But one thing every classical collection should have is Beethoven and the cores of every Beethoven collection are his symphonies. In all that huge array of composers, Beethoven is first amongst equals. It's like Isaac Newton in the company of physicists. Beethoven's stature derives from his 32 piano sonatas, 7 concertos, chamber music and the towering achievement of the 9 symphonies, which has dogged all his successors, even such a genius as Brahms.

Beethoven was a master of sonata form that in the right hands is the pinnacle of musical expression. But so few hands, either compositionally or conductorially are right! And Beethoven in the hands of a run of the mill conductor is bad. Unfortunately there is a lot of that type currently infesting our concert halls. But properly interpreted, Beethoven's use of sonata form results in a constant tensioning and relaxing of the emotions that builds and builds into tremendous climaxes.

Otto Klemperer in the summer of 1960 showed undoubtedly that he was one of those few who could get Beethoven right. If you are only familiar with Klemperer's deadly studio recordings of these works, be prepared to be surprised with the lively suppleness he displays in these performances alongside his trademark gravitas.

Many people have a prejudice against live recordings. I suppose they worry that the second flute might bobble a note in the third movement. They feel as if only with a note perfect studio recording will they get their money's worth. What they are missing out on is the life and spontaneity of a good live performance. I'd much prefer to get that spark than to listen to some dull studio recording merely for the sake of technical perfection.

 

Symphony Number One

Klemperer's is a playful Symphony Number One. Somewhat surprising from this dour faced Prussian. The music pulses and surges under his baton. The heavy accents will surprise those used only to the rather bland performances that are commonly heard in today's concert halls. The first movement is played with vigor as the composer indicated. Likewise Klemperer follows Beethoven's directions in the second (slow) movement and makes the music sing. Strings and woodwinds alike contribute some sweet and delicate playing. Listen to the way the third movement is made vivacious by the upswelling of the orchestra and the fine attention to dynamic nuances. The final movement is a swift and joyous outpouring of music as Klemperer lets the orchestra run free. A truly classical performance; perfect in its proportions.

What stands out above all is the unified nature of this performance. All four movements come together to form a whole. There are no weak movements. Throughout one feels the guiding force of two powerful musical intellects at work: Klemperer's and Beethoven's.

 

Symphony Number Two

What great strides Beethoven made between his first and second symphonies. From the opening notes of the first movement the music is stronger. The strings and woodwinds interact far more, playing off each other to great effect. The twittering in the woodwinds is followed by a great swirling in the strings. For the first time, Beethoven makes use of pregnant pauses to ratchet up the tension before the music picks up again and hurtles on. Beethoven the musical colossus is emerging before our eyes.

The slow movement is rapturous with each phrase lovingly and gently turned. Klemperer conducts the music with just the right lilting tempo. It sounds so free and easy and natural as if the music were being improvised on the spot. This mood carries on into the third movement with different sections of the orchestra trading phrases in a delightful back and forth before launching into a rushing final movement. The master has his little joke, reducing the mighty symphony orchestra to a couple of woodwinds before once again moving on. The strings provide flourishes throughout. We are hearing Beethoven at play, having some fun and we enjoy the music with him.

 

Symphony Number Three

This was the symphony with which Beethoven broke the mold. The crash of the opening chords must have shocked the opening night audience, used as they were to the polite and gradual introduction of the classical symphony. This is Beethoven in full heaven storming mode. Klemperer responds with a superb performance that builds a huge over-arching structure out of all four movements. This is symphony as massive monument. Once again we feel an awesome unity of purpose as one hundred musical individuals are bound together as one by Klemperer's iron will. Do not take this kind of performance lightly. In lesser hands, this symphony is apt to sprawl and fall apart as indeed it must have on opening night for one disgruntled concertgoer was heard to shout, "I'd give a farthing if it would only stop!" Standards of audience behavior were considerably more relaxed twenty decades ago.

Feel Klemperer ram home the accent marks at the 12-minute mark of the first movement before bringing the whole to a gigantic boil. The strings sustain the line beautifully in the slow movement that follows. The hairs on the back of your neck will stand up when this superb orchestra gets going after the 7-minute mark. The effect is truly poignant and funereal. An absolutely magnificent second movement indeed! From there we skip to some much needed relief in the third movement with the horns and woodwinds pushing things briskly along. The final movement is equally light hearted with plucked strings leading us to an elegiac conclusion as the Philharmonia digs in and gives us some truly committed playing. What a marvelous Third Symphony Klemperer gives us. Had he recorded nothing else, he could have been proud.

 

Symphony Number Four

The classical grace of the Fourth is bracing, so perfectly balanced are its components. This is the most Apollonian of Beethoven's symphonic works. Klemperer gives it a muscular, two-fisted interpretation. His deliberate tempos are ideal for realizing the tensions inherent in each movement. Beethoven creeps up on us slowly like a stalking tiger until he finally pounces and leaps ahead. Throughout, this work is filled with sweet, gentle themes that Klemperer allows to unfold in a most natural and pleasing manner. A sprightly performance of a sprightly symphony.

 

Symphony Number Five

Beethoven's Fifth would be my suggestion for introducing people to classical music. Most people are probably already familiar with the famous four note opening phrase, giving them an instant point of reference as they embark on their journey into a strange new world. You will oftentimes read the Fifth being described as a "warhorse" by jaded music reviewers. Don't believe them for a minute. If the Fifth is played with conviction, it sounds as fresh as if it were composed yesterday. It only sounds like a hoary old warhorse if played that way.

Klemperer gives the first movement a heroic interpretation. All the exclamation points are hammered home with full force. More than usual, the slow movement provides a calm amidst the storm of the outer movements. Yet even here the accents continue to be driven with tremendous force as the strings and woodwinds provide a twirling counterpoint. The third movement begins with a mysterious theme in the basses that is answered by a clarion call in the horns. The transition from the third to the final movement is one of the most thrilling in all of music. Beethoven elects to tiptoe out of the third movement, the tempo slows, the volume softens, and the strings sustain a tense shimmering figure until the last movement bursts out in all its triumphant glory. If the first movement is, as has been described, fate knocking on the door, then the final movement is fate blowing the doors off - before blasting through in a hurricane of fury. Midway through, the storm abates just like the eye of hurricane before returning again to finish in one final grand rush.

 

Symphony Number Six

In the Pastorale, the Teutonic taskmaster finally relaxes and shows that he too can put his feet up and relax. The first movement brims with geniality, conjuring up bucolic images of peasants frolicking in the May time. I especially liked the elegance with which the strings turn the corners. Yet, Klemperer never allows the music to grow flabby. A strong beat pulses beneath the surface of the music, giving it a feeling of tremendous strength being held in reserve. The second movement is more heartfelt and serious in tone as Klemperer shapes his phrases very deliberately, constructing long elegiac lines. If the first movement was the music of the simple countryside, this is the music of a more sophisticated Arcadia. It is really quite astonishing how Beethoven manages to conjure up these extra musical associations and still respect the strictures of musical form.

The last three movements are really chapters in a single musical construct. We begin with a return to the mood of the first movement. Very relaxed, except now there are hints of tension about the edges of the music. The themes are slightly off key and the tempo subtly speeds up and becomes more agitated until (literally) the storm breaks. The strings and woodwinds do their utmost but unfortunately, the kettle drums are muted in this recording so that what we get is more in the way of a squall than a full blown storm. Still, the transition to the sunshine of the last movement is as gratifying as ever. This is countryside in joyous celebration as the orchestra plays with true enthusiasm and commitment.

 

Symphony Number Seven

The supreme feature of the Seventh is the heartbreakingly beautiful slow movement. No make that the two supreme features are the heartbreakingly beautiful slow movement and the Dionysian madness of the last movement. The Van Man gets down and raves.

Klemperer's measured tempos yield a first movement that is impressive in its weightiness, but not at all flabby. Then comes the promised nectar of the second movement. There is an ineffable sadness to the funeral march. Klemperer intones it with reverence and most importantly gives the music time to breathe. He sustains an achingly beautiful arcing line of incredible length without ever letting it collapse. The third movement has vigorous themes delivered with great rhythmic power and one always wonders while listening to it how Beethoven could possibly top this for excitement. The last movement's wild celebration of the dance is the answer and Klemperer doesn't fail us, delivering the terpsichorean frenzy that the music demands. You'll want to play this one at maximum volume. And you rockers thought you were the only ones who knew how to let your hair down! The unrestrained fury of this last movement is simply breathtaking.

 

Symphony Number Eight

The Eighth is a golden jewel of symphony, glittering brightly in all of its movements. It is the sunniest of the Nine. Klemperer gives it an interpretation that is brimming over with good nature and warmth. In mood, the Eighth is most like the Fourth, with which it is paired on these CD's, with the twist that the Eighth has a distinctly baroque flavor, especially in the second movement. But this is baroque on steroids. After all it is heaven-storming Beethoven who is composing here. No baroque composer ever inserted thunderous kettledrums as Beethoven does at the end of this symphony.

 

Symphony Number Nine

Soprano: Wilma Lipp
Contralto: Ursula Boese 
Tenor: Fritz Wunderlich 
Bass: Franz Crass 
Chorus of the Organization of Musical Friends in Vienna
Chorusmaster: Dr. Reinhold Schmid

Ah, Da Ninth. The great and glorious Ninth. One has only to mention that magic numeral to send a delicious quiver of anticipation up the spine of any Beethoven fanatic. The Ninth is arguably the first piece of modern classical music ever composed. Nine decades were to elapse between the premiere of the Ninth and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring that is unofficially considered to have ushered in the modern age. The master was so ahead of his time.

Listen to the clanging dissonant disturbed and disturbing beginning of the first movement. Were any such sounds heard again until the modern age? Especially so under Klemperer's direction as he manages to create a very agitated feeling. Neither does the performance lack for architectonic detail. Klemperer carves enormous blocks of sound out of the score and puts them together in a huge cathedral of music. The fortes are rammed home with tremendous force giving them great authority.

Instead of the customary slow second movement, Beethoven opts for a fast tempo in the second, delaying the slow movement till the third. Klemperer is truly electrified by this point and leads the orchestra at a galloping pace. The second movement is more conventional than its forerunner and the mood is more akin to the excitement of the Seventh's third movement with Klemperer emphasizing the propulsive rhythms indicated by Beethoven. Still there is an interlude for woodwinds around the halfway mark that must have dumbfounded his 19th century audience before the strings rush in with a lovely soothing phrase. Delaying the slow movement till the third is a canny move by Beethoven. After being worn out by the heat of the first two movements, we are primed for music of a gentler nature.

The third movement is a trap lying in wait for the unwary conductor. Its length combined with the slow tempo makes it easy for this movement to come apart. Klemperer's architectonic skills truly come into their own here. His third movement is all of a piece despite the deliberate tempo. The music has time to breathe but it also coheres. Strings, woodwind and brass all play mightily, caressing their phrases with especial tenderness.

After once throwing Arafat out in the middle of a performance of the Ninth, Mayor Rudy remarked that if you miss the last movement, you haven't really heard the Ninth. There may be something to that idea. The first and last movements form modern age bookends to the more conventional 19th century music sandwiched in between.

Once again, we hear the clanging dissonances of the first movement, now underpinned by mighty rumblings from the basses before the ode to joy theme wins out sounded first by the bass and then by the other sections of the orchestra. Such simplicity and yet so effective. What a triumphant feeling when the entire orchestra joins in. And what a sensation Beethoven created by having the bass solo announce, "No more with these sounds. Let us make a more joyful noise." The soloists are a distinguished if not outstanding group. The choir is excellent, articulating, "Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt" with especial clarity and feeling. The little hairs on the back of your neck will stand to attention. That's about all you can ask of a performance, really.

There is no libretto in the liner notes.

 

Coriolan Overture

Klemperer starts with thundering drumbeats to put us in the proper mood of tragedy and seriousness. In contrast, the strings skate lightly over their phrases. But time and again, the music surges to put that momentary frivolousness to rest.

 

Egmont Overture

You will need deep bass to accurately reproduce this recording. Wimpy mini monitors need not apply. Solid bass is needed to convey the haunting opening chords. Nothing good is going to happen to the hero of this piece. That much is apparent from this overture. Splendid playing from the woodwinds provides relief from the constant assault of the basses.

 

Prometheus Overture

Not one of the master's ripest. It roars and blusters for five minutes and that's about it.

 

Orchestra and Sound

A word about the Philharmonia Orchestra that is heard on these recordings... This was a crack outfit put together by legendary EMI producer Walter Legge after the war out of his own pocket. Its ranks were drawn from England's finest musicians.

The sound quality is uneven. At times on the rough side with outright distortion when the brass gets loud, at others showing great articulation as in getting a very rosin-like string sound. No clue is given as to who made this recording of a cycle of concert performances at the 1960 Vienna Festival. It's hard to believe the normally stellar Austrian Radio could have been responsible. Probably then it was just a recording taken by the house for archival purposes, little realizing the scale of the performance they were about to witness. On the positive side, dynamics are reproduced with compelling fidelity. Hard to believe a bunch of stiff upper lip Englishmen could produce such volume of sound. The audience noise is minimal.

 

Other Zykluses

There are, of course, many many Beethoven Zykluses in the classical catalog, some of them worthy of your attention. The most famous is probably Karajan's first Zyklus with the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded in the sixties. Before that he recorded a Zyklus with the same orchestra heard here, the Philharmonia, that I think is actually superior. It is a young man's Beethoven, full of vigor and life. I don't he ever captured that sense of spontaneity again in his later Zykluses. Then there is the Master: Furtwängler. After listening to Klemperer's towering achievement in this Zyklus, it is hard to believe there could be better but the best Furtwängler performances take us to another level. There is a spiritual quality to a good Furtwängler performance which makes you feel, at that moment of listening, as if no other interpretation were possible, that indeed the music is being composed right in front of you.

 

Musical Enjoyment: 95

Sound Quality: 60

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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