Ludwig van Beethoven
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
When in 1957 the shrewd Walter Legge decided to launch a "Beethoven Festival" that would feature complete cycles of both the symphonies and concertos as conducted by Otto Klemperer, he was as usual combining artistic and commercial considerations. Klemperer was, at the time, his most valuable property, the very man for whom the Philharmonia Orchestra had been created. The festival would, at long last, establish Klemperer's reputation in London and create an instant market for the performances that were being recorded in tandem with the live performances.
At first, Claudio Arrau might seem an odd choice to partner Klemperer in the five piano concertos, but again never underestimate Legge's entrepreneurial zeal. Arrau was also, at this point in his career, an EMI artist. Still, in Arrau and Klemperer, you have two very different views about the interpreter's art: Klemperer spent his career guarding against the excess of Romantic "self-expression." Arrau, who had undergone a life-changing psychoanalysis, came to believe that "self-expression" was the only sure path. The Apollonian Klemperer was as grounded in history and science, as the Dionysian Arrau was in literature and mysticism. Still, they had one important thing in common: for both men, Beethoven was central to their thinking and their repertory.
A Pairing of Remarkable Talents
And happily, in 1957 neither Klemperer nor Arrau had yet to ossify into the more rigid interpreters they would become in the later stages of their careers. Thank God, none of these performances is in any way "magisterial," the adjective most commonly used to describe the extremes of that late style. Instead, there is a flexibility and liveliness, a tenderness and roughhewn humor that will surprise those who know these artists from their later recordings. In general, these performances are characterized by Mozartean grace and Beethovian gravitas. As you might expect, Arrau and Klemperer project a clear sense of each concerto's structure, but they also take much delight in the moment. In the Third Concerto, they're able to suggest the work's tragic subtext without overstating it. In fact, the play of light and dark shadings in this ever-fascinating music gives it a more definite profile than we're often used to hearing: typically, in any cycle of the five, the third comes off as the weakest link in the chain. Not so here.
In the justly popular Fourth Concerto, Arrau and Klemperer strike a perfect balance between the work's inwardness and exuberance, its spiritual and physical aspects. The Fourth is not quite the "Ode to Joy" that the Ninth Symphony is, but here there is a sense of blossoming, of emergence, that sweeps any lingering doubts away. For Arrau and Klemperer, the "Emperor" is also a celebratory piece, a study in the relationship between elegance and power.
A Word of Warning
Since I see you're already adding this disc to your "wish list," let me add an important caveat. The sound is pretty dreadful, even for a mono-only transcription from 1957. Essentially the scrawny, congested sound deprives both these artists of their strongest suit: subtlety. Both the absolute clarity that Klemperer was always striving for and the multicolored variety and nuance of Arrau's playing are missing here. This is at least one Klemperer performance where none will remark the transparency of the wind playing. You can hardly tell they're there. And for once, Arrau's bottomless-seeming bass counts for nothing. All of which leads me to ask a more or less obvious question: WHY IN G-D'S NAME WEREN'T THESE PERFORMANCES RECORDED AT THE TIME? It counts as a tragic loss that these probing and very individual performances will only be heard in the compromised sound on display here. I think we can assert without fear of contradiction that in this case the usually enterprising and prescient Walter Legge quite simply dropped the ball.
Was Klemperer best heard live or in the recording studio? Two earlier Testament issues seem to suggest that he was a better conductor "live." Testament 1328 is a transcription of the opening night of a Covent Garden Fidelio that is in every way more exciting and deeply felt than the studio recording that followed at the end of that same season. Testament 1177 contains a "live" Beethoven Ninth that preceded the studio recording by a mere four days. Still, it is the better performance: more concentrated and incisive, and more powerfully sung by the Philharmonia Chorus on the emotional occasion of their debut.
In relation to the Resurrection Symphony, Klemperer's bona fides are not in question. His first conducting assignment was the off-stage band in an early performance of the symphony, and his first important position was secured thanks in no small measure to a letter of recommendation signed by Mahler himself. Though there were (surprisingly) many Mahler Symphonies he never warmed to (#s 1,3,5,6, and 8), Klemperer regularly programmed the Second throughout his career. Along with Beethoven's Eroica, it was the piece he most often used to introduce himself to new audiences and orchestras.
Klemperer's 1962 studio recording of the Resurrection Symphony is one of his most enduring achievements: it has held its own against all comers for the past forty-three years. The conductor's absolute refusal to over dramatize or in any way exaggerate the music results in a performance that builds steadily, if not remorselessly, to its ecstatic and otherworldly climax. I would certainly love to report that the present issue is even better, as was the case with the concert performances of Fidelio and the Beethoven Ninth. But I can't.
Good and Great
Here follows a cautionary tale that tells us just how little separates a great performance from one that's merely okay. With the exception of the opening movement, which is marginally weightier and slower than the earlier version, the 1963 "live" is nearly identical to the 1962 studio: same tempos, phrasing, dynamic shadings. But you immediately sense that something's missing: the restless inner tension that drives the music from moment to moment. That convincing sense of purposeful momentum makes all the difference. By comparison, this performance feels flat, as if the life has been drained out of it. I'd stick by some of the adjectives I hastily jotted down during my first listening session: "stolid," "dour," "declamatory." I remember a friend once traveled from Boston to Philadelphia to see his beloved Otto Klemperer conduct the orchestra there in an all-Beethoven program. You would have thought he was on the way to Mecca. But he came back disappointed. He could never quite put his finger on what had gone wrong, but there had been something off-putting about the performances. Forty-some years later, I now have a sense of what he heard there. Like all conductors, Klemperer could have his off days. And apparently, it didn't much seem to matter whether he was live or in the studio.
Admirers of Arrau and Klemperer will probably not be deterred by the poor sound of the Beethoven set, and the performances of the concertos are at least good enough to suggest what might have been. And for them, too, there's a considerable bonus: very clean-sounding and gripping studio performances of sonatas 24 and 31, which make for fascinating comparisons with Arrau's later darker, more deliberate recordings for Philips.
There's also a bonus for those who must have the Klemperer Resurrection Symphony: the performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 29 that took up the first half of the program. (Ah, the good old days, when the Resurrection would be only the second half of the program!) K. 201 was another specialty chez Klemperer, but again the earlier studio recording is even better-played and livelier. In case you're still interested after all of this, I can report that the sound, though clearly a transcription, suffers from none of the distortion of the Beethoven set. But I'd still point you in the direction of the studio versions. Those who simply must have a "live" Klemperer Resurrection Symphony should consider the 1951 performance with the Concertgebouw on London: its fierce, aggressive, no-holds-barred approach will tell you much about Klemperer's pre-EMI past.
Beethoven Concertos, Sonatas:
Mahler Resurrection Symphony:
Mozart Symphony No. 29: