Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies and Five Piano Concertos

0 of 5 stars

Symphonies 1-9
Piano Concertos 1-5

Daniel Barenboim (piano), Aase Nordmo Lovberg (soprano), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor), Hans Hotter (baritone), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: January 2001
CD No: EMI CZS 5 73895 2
Duration: 9 CDs

Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) initially conducted the then recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra in 1947, first recording with it in 1954. For nearly twenty more years Klemperer and the Philharmonia made many LPs for Columbia and HMV (now EMI), quite a number of which remain available today and benefiting from EMI’s latest digital technology.

This cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies was made between 1955 and 1959 (all in stereo); the concertos date from 1967-8. Klemperer’s relationship with the Philharmonia culminated in 1959 when he became Principal Conductor, a position he held for life.

Anyone familiar with Klemperer’s recordings from the ’twenties, ’thirties and ’forties will know that he could be a quite a firebrand, adopting quick tempos and investing much passion. As he grew older so his speeds dropped. Consequently the picture that many of his later recordings give is of a musician who took his time with his chosen music. There are exceptions to this rule of course; however these Beethoven symphonies are generally ample and uncompromising.

Klemperer’s greatness is not just his fidelity to the score. It’s his ability to convince that his tempos ’work’ – which they generally do – and the reason is he sees each movement whole. This structural focus, the organic building of climaxes, the lofty expression all come from Klemperer giving the music time to breath and articulate – always with a sense of purpose and direction.

There are so many recordings of Beethoven symphonies currently available that it’s almost impossible to nominate one conductor as being the definitive interpreter. There’s Furtwangler and Toscanini who are continually exhibited as the two extremes – the former fast, fiery and direct; the latter fluctuating and spiritual – and there are many styles and views in between. Beethoven’s fast metronome markings continue to be debated and find favour with so-called ’authentic’ performers, and more traditional conductors such as Claudio Abbado and David Zinman have recently adopted Beethoven’s request for swiftness.

I’m not so sure just how convincing all this speed is in conveying Beethoven’s message. Klemperer’s monumental approach speaks of great things, his ear for detail (especially among the woodwinds) is emphasised by giving the players time to express the notes and Klemperer’s focus on the whole ensures each symphony’s architecture is laid bare. Klemperer’s Beethoven symphonies remain compelling and satisfying readings. The highlights are a rugged No.2, a massive Eroica, a powerful Fifth and a spacious, lyrical Pastoral. However, the whole cycle is wonderfully lucid. Add to this Klemperer’s use of antiphonal violins, which really clarifies internal dialogue between these sections, some wonderfully characterful and committed playing from the Philharmonia, and these recordings stand the test of time very easily.

Of the piano concertos, I’m slightly less sure. Barenboim, then 25, plays with command and spirit – and seems to have formed a positive relationship with Klemperer – but the soul of the music isn’t quite as exposed here in the way that Klemperer had previously achieved in the symphonies. That said, the concertos are certainly fresh and communicative and document a fascinating collaboration between youth and ’grand old man’.

The recordings are excellent, the concertos especially so. The symphonies don’t really sound their age being full and spacious, although there are a few moments where the remastering, in an attempt to reduce tape-hiss as much as possible, compromises somewhat the natural tones of the orchestra – try the ’nasal’ strings at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony’s slow movement and the pizzicato strings at the close of the opening movement of the Eighth. These vagaries to the sound are few, not especially distracting, but are surely avoidable.

However, the joy is that Klemperer’s spacious and focussed Beethoven symphonies – attractively presented in a slimline box with full notes – remain available not only as superb cycle on its own terms but one that is a valuable alternative to the slick and uneventful way of presenting this music that is becoming more and more the norm. At EMI’s giveaway price, this treasurable box could make a rather special Christmas present

As a postscript, I must also recommend a live Beethoven 9 with Klemperer and the Philharmonia, which took place in the Royal Festival Hall on 15 November 1957 just a week before the studio recording from the above set. Splendid though that is, the live performance has that something extra. Issued for the first time in 1999, this live Choral – with the same soloists and then newly-formed Philharmonia Chorus – is among the greatest of the Choral that I know. It’s an essential document capturing Klemperer and the Philharmonia on the wing. TESTAMENT SBT 117.

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