Medici Masters – Otto Klemperer Conducts Bruckner 8

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Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 Version: Leopold Nowak Edition]

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

Recorded 7 June 1957 in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: March 2008
Duration: 72 minutes



Although Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) recorded the Adagio of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony as long ago as 1924, it took until 1970 for him make a commercial recording of the full symphony. The 1970 performance, recorded by EMI, did not find the then 85-year-old conductor at his best, not least because of his decision to cut some 240 bars of music from the finale. This Medici Masters issue from 13 years earlier is welcome in that it provides a Klemperer performance of the symphony which is not only complete but goes some way to demonstrating why he is considered one of the great conductors of the last century.

Klemperer’s interpretation of the symphony’s first half is as fine as any available. From the outset, he brings to the music a sense of forward momentum and tension. The climaxes of the first movement have an intensity and grandeur which is engulfing, but Klemperer also finds mystery when instruments such as oboe, horns and Wagner tubas are heard against tremolando strings. The scherzo is even better, if perhaps faster than the composer intended (the marking is Allegro moderato) but nevertheless electrifying, and with the trio slow, intense and beautiful. The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1947, seems more polished here than when recording the symphony under Günter Wand in 1979.

1894 photograph of BrucknerThe performance of the second half of the symphony is not quite on the same level. The Adagio starts well, the phrasing of the strings in the opening paragraphs being slow and expressive. However, the underlying tension occasionally lapses after this, and from 9’00” the flow is subject to a series of tempo changes – mainly accelerandos – which undermine the movement’s sense of inevitability. Although Klemperer takes his time for the wonderful coda, the Adagio as a whole takes just over 22 minutes, one of the quicker traversals.

Similar tempo fluctuations affect the finale. Unlike Furtwängler’s organic approach to tempo in this work, Klemperer’s gear-changes seem mechanical and arbitrary. An example is at bar 183 (6’05”) and subsequent slowing for the flute chords at bar 221. None of these changes are marked in the Nowak edition of the score that Klemperer is annotated as using. They can, however, be traced back to the discredited first edition of the symphony, prepared by Franz Schalk and published by Haslinger-Schlesinger-Lienau in 1892. In this publication, the same passage is marked with instructions such as “Erstes Zeitmass”, “poco acel.”, “rit.”, “a tempo” and “etwas zurückhaltend”. Due to the lack of evidence that these indications were authorised by Bruckner, they were expunged from both the Haas and Nowak editions of the symphony.

It would be interesting to know whether Klemperer carried over the ‘suspect’ instructions to Nowak’s edition or whether they were irrevocably absorbed into his conception of the symphony from the decades when it was the only score available. Either way, this volatile approach to tempo-management is at odds with Klemperer’s usual objective style, and ultimately he seems less involved in the finale than the earlier movements.

The mono sound (not designated as such in the presentation) has considerable presence, a wide dynamic range and a relatively low level of tape hiss. The lack of audience noise suggests a closed recording session. Had the performance maintained the level of the first two movements, this would have been something special, but it nonetheless represents a fascinating snapshot of Klemperer conducting Bruckner on this particular day in 1957.

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