Medici Masters – Otto Klemperer [Beethoven’s Choral Symphony]

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Beethoven
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Maria Stader (soprano)
Grace Hoffman (mezzo-soprano)
Waldemar Kmentt (tenor)
Hans Hotter (bass)

North German Radio Choir
Cologne Radio Choir

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

Recorded on 6 January 1958 in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: March 2009
CD No: MEDICI MASTERS
MM031-2
Duration: 73 minutes [including rehearsal sequence]

rubato sometimes making a noticeable preparation for a vital chord yet he does not interrupt the forward momentum. Naturally the question arises: how does Klemperer approach that most emphatic of all moments in the whole work – Beethoven’s extraordinary return to the recapitulation section? In the event it is immensely powerful – this is a towering reading of this amazing passage played with measured strength. The timpani are fully unleashed and the remainder of the orchestra attacks the jagged phrases with fierce vehemence. Klemperer creates a feeling of anger in this movement, which is greater than anything I have heard in his other performances.

The craggy scherzo retains the gripping sense of drama. The conductor always saw this movement in broad terms and within this measured tempo he sometimes allows slight increases in tempo in order to make the build-up to climaxes even more tense. In his hands this becomes gigantic music. We call it a scherzo but Beethoven does not use the term and simply marks it Molto vivace. In this performance it is not notable for an atmosphere of scherzo-like jollity, rather it has much of the darkness of the equivalent movement in Bruckner’s Ninth. The Cologne recording is exceptionally well balanced here and, as always, Klemperer gets those upward sweeping woodwind phrases to sound absolutely clear without resort to the inauthentic doubling by horns – an idea once very popular with conductors of the early- and mid-20th-century. Klemperer underlines the firm changes of orchestral texture and the powerful forte entries are brought in with stern forcefulness.

This is serious music and Klemperer treats it as such but this does not prevent his being sympathetic to the beauty of the slow movement – taken here a little faster than was sometimes the case with many of his contemporaries. The second subject has a delightfully calm forward flow, figuratively casting a sunny glow over the unfolding drama. When after the famous horn solo, Beethoven brings all the themes together at once a conductor will often clarify matters by emphasising one or other of them. Since Klemperer is a master of detailed inner balance, the listener may have wondered which melody he would favour. The answer is none. He allows all the themes to be played at similar volume – this makes Beethoven’s writing seem extremely complex and underlines how far away from the sanity of the 18th-century Beethoven now was.

Klemperer further reminds us of this by hurling the discordant opening of the finale at the listener with barely a pause. Full marks for the excellent articulation of the bass strings in their important recitatives and for the refreshing simplicity with which they enunciate the great ‘Ode to Joy’ theme. By refusing to be sluggish here, Klemperer evokes a sense of anticipation: the music is moving eagerly towards a great event.

We have here a star-studded group of singers. How good to hear Hans Hotter in this role – now is the time to forget the fierce denigration of his earlier performance of this part under Karajan, for with Klemperer he is overwhelmingly commanding. He is matched by the truly heroic singing of Waldemar Kmentt. A good forward balance helps the enunciation of the chorus to come through with admirable clarity. When the solo quartet sings together the sound is forceful and uncompromising – no operatic flexing of individual voices here, just a firm announcement of the serious matters that Beethoven wishes to present.

There are many interpretative highlights in this remarkable movement – not least the thrilling power of the return of the great melody sung in unison by the choir and the absolute security of the choral sopranos in their fiendish high-held notes – but above all there is the gripping all-through drive that Klemperer brings to the music. He takes the coda a touch faster than I recall in his other performances – hardly surprising because the sweep of this masterly performance could not possibly have accommodated anything other than a continuous drive to the very end.

Mercifully there is no applause to undermine the elation of the inspiringly powerful close and the producer has wisely left a long gap before the brief supplementary track of Klemperer rehearsing the chorus. This is less than two minutes long but within that short period we hear a strange combination of skills wherein the conductor sings wildly and with no great vocal ability yet he contrives to convey to the singers exactly what he requires. The listener can be amused by hearing that track in isolation but it would be very unwise to let the disc run on from the end of the symphony to the rehearsal because this is a performance great enough to merit a few moments of quiet refection after it has reached its triumphant end.

I realise that a mono recording more than 50 years old cannot replace the thrill of a live Klemperer performance but if my long-term memory is to be trusted, this is the finest interpretation of Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony that I have heard from him.

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