Symphony No.1 (Symphony in Two Movements)
Recorded June 16-21 2003 in the Philharmonie, Ludwigshafen
CD No: CPO 999 987-2 Duration: 66 minutes Reviewed: May 2005
Otto Klemperer Orchestral Music
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
Composers whose principal concern is the writing of new works do not always conduct or conduct well. Notable exceptions spring to mind are Britten, Elgar, Lutoslawski and Stravinsky. In our own time, one might cite Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and John Adams.
But what of those artists who are primarily known as performers, but who also had or have aspirations as composers? For all their creative achievements, figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez are more widely known as interpreters, though their work in one field undoubtedly fuelled/fuels the other.
In this second category of, shall we say, 'conductor/composers', (as opposed to vice-versa), let the names of Sergiu Celibidache, Wilhelm Furtwängler and the subject of the release under consideration, Otto Klemperer (1885-1973), be cited.
Whilst the first-named was indifferent to his fate as a composer even to the extent of 'forbidding' performances of his work the latter most certainly considered their compositions as their main musical legacy. Indeed, I well recall a television interview with Klemperer during which he nodded his head most vigorously and replied emphatically in the affirmative when asked whether he would be preferred to be remembered as a composer rather than as a conductor.
So, how does the music of this distinguished conductor actually sound and compare with that of those composers whose work
Klemperer interpreted and championed?
The first thing which might surprise the unprepared listener is that, in overall terms, Klemperer's music as captured on this disc, sounds nothing like the music we are accustomed to being performed by Klemperer the conductor.
In fact, Symphony No.1, which is the first work on the CD, sounds
incredibly like a young man's music not someone in their mid-seventies when it was completed in 1960. Here is music of brightness, freshness, seeming spontaneity, but perhaps
seeming unsure of its ultimate destination. This is certainly not
material which 'behaves' like a 'traditional' symphony, and customary symphonic development is not readily apparent.
There are pithy themes which are subject to repetition; indeed one, a not-so distant relative from, of all origins, Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, is heard frequently to the extent that one might imagine the first movement of Klemperer's Symphony No.1 as being a kind of rondo a form customarily found in finales from the 'classical' period.
In other instances the quirky juxtaposition of ideas, and apparent non sequiturs puts one in mind of Charles Ives or Havergal Brian.
The unusually informative and interesting booklet notes quote a letter from Britten, who had perused the score of Klemperers Symphony No. 1 and gently declared: "... you have many good ideas..." but suggested that Klemperer had not always found the "right" means to express them.
One of the oddities, which the booklet note does not explain, is the presence of the Marseillaise in the second movement, but this symphony which, one would probably have to admit is, formally, something of a misnomer is full of such intriguing ideas as to make for rewarding repeated listening.
Symphony No.2, from a few years later and premiered in 1969, is a somewhat longer work and its more diffuse musical thoughts make it an even less cohesive whole than its predecessor. The discursive outer movements frame a second which attempts at Brucknerian nobility (though employing a degree of sentimentality eschewed by the Austrian symphonist) and a third whose structure seems to hark back to the classical minuet. Nevertheless, the diversity of musical thought once again encourages the listener to re-visit.
'Alternatives' from this symphony are included as separate pieces;
Recollections and Scherzo were originally intended as movements for Symphony No.2, and can be heard alongside two other comparatively brief works. The Marcia funèbre is contemporaneous with the symphonies and was due for inclusion in an opera which was not completed, whilst the Merry Waltz derives from Klemperer's early opera Das Ziel, first played in
open rehearsal in Berlin in 1931.
This piece has become somewhat better known, not least from Klemperer's own recording (and, indeed, one led by Stokowski on a now deleted BBC Radio Classics release), and its bitter-sweet Prokofiev-tinged melodic writing is one of its attractive features.
Alun Francis and his orchestra deliver performances of conviction and technical polish. There are one or two moments when the engineers have audibly assisted in balancing moments of Klemperer's eccentric scoring, and whilst this music is never likely to enter the mainstream repertoire, it nevertheless serves to cast further light on the character of Otto Klemperer who, without doubt, possessed an exceptionally fertile musical mind even if, in the case of these compositions, his inspiration was uneven though not, as I have indicated, without a high degree of interest and integrity.