, March 2008
Discussion of the distinctive characteristics of Otto Klemperer’s conducting tends to focus on the final phase of his long career, when many of his interpretations appeared to mirror his impassive – if not positively stern - facial expression and his physical immobility.
In fact, his best-known and most widely circulated recordings – made with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s – almost invariably attract such adjectives as “forceful”, “unwavering”, “solid” and “craggy” (the word “granite” appears with almost monotonous regularity).
But that seriously distorts Klemperer’s overall achievement in the recording studios. Many of his early 1950s Vox discs, for instance, exhibit a far less monolithic “style”. And the interpretations preserved on this new Naxos Historical issue offer surprising and conclusive proof of the individuality and subtlety of his interpretations of core repertoire at an even earlier stage of his career.
Klemperer’s image in the late 1920s was that of a progressive modernist. Appointed Chief Conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin in the very year that most of these recordings were set down and remaining in that post until 1931, Klemperer famously outraged the Nazi Party’s cultural panjandrums by focusing on works by such culturally – and often racially – suspect composers as Hindemith (Neues vom Tage, 1929), Schoenberg (Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, 1930) and Kurt Weill.
And yet these Brahms and Wagner recordings, expertly restored to fine effect by Mark Obert-Thorn, show him to have been, at the same time, an entirely sympathetic and often quite surprisingly flexible interpreter of such late 19th century Romantic repertoire.
From the very opening of the Brahms symphony, we are in for a surprise, for the timpanist’s strokes - far from driving all before them in the usual relentless and dominating fashion - are, while remaining the music’s key propulsive driver, far more integrated into the full orchestral mix than we generally expect.
Of course, it might be argued that a single such instance might well be due to the inadequacies of late 1920s recording technology (even though modern restoration techniques have shown conclusively that many surviving masters have far more detail embedded in them than used to be assumed.) But further listening reveals that the C minor symphony’s opening is of an exact pattern with Klemperer’s conception of the whole work, with showy dramatics consistently eschewed in favour of lightness of touch, frequent fleetness of foot – especially in the finale - and orchestral transparency that allows the score’s finer detail to shine through. And what lovingly-presented detail there is! Just listen, for instance, to the sweetly seductive solo violin in the slow movement (from about 6:56 onwards), geműtlich almost in the manner of a Viennese café player and making a noticeably more striking contribution that usual.
This is, in fact, an interpretation which might be said to draw out the similarities to Brahms’s second symphony, rather than following the usual practice of emphasising the contrasts: Klemperer revealed not as granite, but as chalk. As such, I enjoyed it immensely.
The performance of the Academic Festival Overture exhibits many of the same qualities. This is a piece that can easily sound somewhat episodic, but Klemperer moulds its various elements together into a coherent and musically convincing whole in which, for once, Gaudeamus Igitur does not sound like it has simply been tacked onto the end for dramatic effect.
The Tristan Prelude is something of a disappointment – but only compared to the exceptional music-making found on this disc’s other tracks. Though just as well played, here Klemperer’s interpretation lacks individuality. The recording by the same orchestra under the much-underrated Max von Schillings, also made in 1927 (and available on Preiser Mono 90267), is, to my ears, a far more involving experience.
That leaves us with an exquisitely shaped, well-balanced and beautifully paced performance of the Siegfried Idyll that not only demonstrates, once again, Klemperer’s fine musicianship but also showcases the Berlin orchestra’s qualities to perfection.
Today we tend to remember the Weimar Republic’s more avant garde contributions to the arts. This disc performs an important function of reminding us that, even in an era marked by prolonged economic crisis and political instability, the German musical tradition was still being maintained at the highest levels. Indeed, having listened to this disc, many might argue that such superb and responsive musicianship puts to shame a good number of well known orchestras making recordings today.