Medici Masters – Otto Klemperer [Beethoven Missa Solemnis]

0 of 5 stars

Missa solemnis, Op.123

Annelies Kupper (soprano)
Sieglinde Wagner (contralto)
Rudolf Schock (tenor)
Josef Greindl (bass)

Hans Bachem (organ)
Helmut Zernick (violin)

Kölner Rundfunkchor
Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks

Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Otto Klemperer

Recorded in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne – on 6 June 1955

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: November 2007
Duration: 75 minutes



Otto Klemperer is primarily remembered in the UK for his increasingly slow performances with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras during the 1960s. Many remember his Beethoven through the unsatisfactory Philharmonia symphony cycle recordings and the laboured live performances from the Royal Festival Hall, which were shown on the BBC.

There is also a tendency to think of the conductor as a grand old man, dogged but undaunted by severe physical disability, who was massive in both frame and musicality. In fact, as Peter Heyworth’s brilliant two-volume biography (Cambridge University Press) has shown, Klemperer was a difficult man to work with, who could be highly abusive and who seemed to have little understanding, or tolerance, of human nature. As to how much of this was down to his manic-depression and how much to egotistical bloody-mindedness, we can only surmise.

Certainly, after he left Germany in 1933 his career went into nosedive. Only in the fifties, via the auspices of Walter Legge and a recording contract with the American company Vox, did Klemperer gradually come back to prominence. He recorded the “Missa solemnis” for Vox in 1951, and despite the sound and uneven soloists I have always preferred this to the later, more relaxed Philharmonia version.

In Cologne, for the version under review, he had a fine quartet of soloists and the advantage of two choirs. Thankfully, at that time, you didn’t have to put up with ‘period’ orchestras and choirs of chamber or ‘authentic’ ilk, trying, and failing, to convey the transcendental, blazing, spiritual majesty of late Beethoven.

The performance itself is deeply felt. The soloists blend well, but have considerable individuality. Indeed, their animated intensity is quite exceptional. Inevitably, being live, there are occasional problems with intonation, particularly from Sieglinde Wagner. Josef Greindl’s Latin pronunciation, too, is dubious at the start of the ‘Agnus Dei’. Both orchestra and the choruses are excellent, conveying enormous conviction. But there are occasional ragged edges and lapses in ensemble, particularly in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, where the choral singers are severely strained.

Klemperer’s approach to the ‘Kyrie’ is rhapsodic, with plangent woodwind, richly expressive strings and a fluid yet controlled bass line. Above this, the chorus and soloists weave a beautifully integrated, nuanced, pastoral prayer. Few accounts equal this. In the ‘Gloria’ there is enormous attack, at speed, combined with triumphant brass, powerful woodwinds cutting through the texture and a clearly audible organ. But there is a problem. From the opening bars there is a suspicion of time-beating, which grows as the movement continues. As a result, in the final paean, Klemperer can’t quite convey a sense of ecstatic exaltation. Reason triumphs over emotion.

The ‘Credo’ begins well, but when the tempo slows the tension is allowed to drop and the phrasing becomes pedestrian. When the opening tempo returns, the performance once again seems to be caught in a rhythmic straightjacket. Every beat is exact and unrelenting. There is no true rapture. The soloists superbly voice the agitato section, but the overly sweet and sentimental playing of violinist Helmut Zernick compromises the hushed prayer of the ‘Sanctus’ that follows.

The tempo for the ‘Agnus Dei’ is flowing. However when the trumpets and drums of war make their appearance, there is no sense of threat or terror and their reappearance is underwhelming. The whole movement is slightly matter-of-fact. It lacks true conviction.

In total, though, this is a superb account. But when there are the likes of Horenstein (BBC Legends) Kleiber and Toscanini’s 1939 account (both Music & Arts) around, it falls slightly short of the most exalted standards. The sound is very good, It is not too forwardly balanced – although the soloists are marginally so – and there is weight, clarity and a reasonably wide dynamic range. Given the date, there is some mild pitch fluctuation, but nothing intrusive. The booklet, unfortunately, provides no text.

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