Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
George London (baritone)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Recorded in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne – on 28 May 1955 (Beethoven) & 17 October 1955
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: August 2007
CD No: MEDICI MASTERS
Duration: 74 minutes
A mixed blessing, but still a decent memento of Otto Klemperer just before the ‘Indian Summer’ of his career. The Egmont Overture makes an uninteresting start – passable radio sound and adequate balance but nothing strikes the ear with any great impact and Klemperer understates the music in a manner not at all typical of this conductor.
Brahms 1, surprisingly placed next, is another matter, yet I am not convinced that it accurately represents Klemperer’s interpretation. Naturally, comparison with his familiar Philharmonia Orchestra recording is relevant; this is in stereo but was recorded well before recordings were issued in that form. It gives a reasonable representation in the circumstances but it is a cobbled-together job, having been recorded in December 1955, October and November 1956 and March 1957. In the circumstances, it is amazing that it makes a convincing whole as a performance. The sound is reasonably consistent but there is one give-away in the positioning of the timpani, which are central in the first movement but to the right in the finale (I don’t recall Klemperer ever placing these instruments to the right in his concert performances).
In all I prefer the Cologne mono sound to EMI’s stereo. The WDR engineers obtain more warmth, more power and achieve a natural balance – big climaxes are coped with well and there is a richness in the bass that does not cloud surrounding low-frequency instruments. Again, though, I am not entirely convinced that this is Klemperer’s true view of the music. There is one particularly controversial moment: the final statement of the great chorale near the end of the finale. In the old days it was the fashion to romanticise this moment by slowing grossly. In the 1950s and 60s we had to depend on Scherchen, van Beinum, Klemperer himself and Horenstein (his RCA version) to play the music straight through in the exciting undeviating tempo indicated by the score. In the Cologne version Klemperer surprisingly relaxes a little at this point – the only time I have heard him do this. The relaxation is only slight but it is sufficient to disappoint. I heard him on more than one occasion in the concert hall and he always kept to a strict tempo at this point. One memorable performance in November 1956 found Klemperer obeying Brahms’s instructions at the end of the first movement where, at bar 495, the composer asks for ‘Meno Allegro – most refreshing because at that time (and often today) it was another of those old traditions to anticipate this slowing by many bars. Unfortunately Klemperer does make an early slowing in both the Philharmonia version and this Cologne recording.
All this means that I have my concert-hall memories of Klemperer at his greatest in this work (and those performances were praiseworthy for much more than merely following the composer’s instructions) but the recordings do not fully reflect that greatness. Despite this I remain impressed with the sensitivity of this Cologne version – in particular, the slow moment is far more expressive than in the Philharmonia recording.
“Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), placed last, is a great success, with excellent sound and it’s a relief to hear the music sung by a male – the tradition of employing a female singer nullifies the emotionalism of the tender words. In such movements as “Wenn dein Mütterlein” it is such a touching revelation of a man’s feeling towards mother and child that it would be meaningless for a woman to sing it. The engineers have given George London great presence yet the orchestration is clearly and warmly captured – in particular there is superb detail in the lower woodwind. This is a moving, deeply-felt account of the music and there is admirable fullness in the soloist’s voice – even in those moments when he is required to move into the higher registers.
There is nothing special about Egmont, but the remainder of the disc presents notable music-making in extraordinarily good sound for 1955. In the circumstances, the limitations of mono recording seem relatively unimportant. I have heard recently-recorded discs that are less skilfully balanced than this.