Medici Masters – Otto Klemperer

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [Edition by Leopold Nowak]
Don Juan, Op.20

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

Recorded in the Funkhaus, Saal 1, WDR Cologne – on 5 April 1954 (Bruckner) & 27 February 1956

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: May 2007
Duration: 72 minutes

When considering Bruckner’s symphonies, it is difficult to avoid the problem of the various editions and their presentation of the composer’s habit of revising his music at a later stage. Fortunately, Symphony No.4 has few problems in this respect. Bruckner revised his original conception of this work in 1878 and much altered the finale in 1880. This combination was the basis of Robert Haas’s excellent Edition. Leopold Nowak also published a very similar Edition taking into account Bruckner’s 1886 tidying up of the 1878/80 version.

It interesting that for his Vox recording in 1951 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Klemperer used the 1936 Haas edition whereas in this 1954 Cologne reading he chose the 1953 Nowak which he was also to use in his later recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra for EMI. One advantage of the Haas Edition is the use of solo viola for the subsidiary theme of the slow movement – this gives a magical effect: so magical in fact that discussion as to whether the later Edition using all the violas in this passage is more authentic can be by-passed. Another minor difference is to be found at the coda of the finale where in Nowak the horn theme from the start of the symphony is woven into the full orchestral texture. Apparently this emendation was found in New York in the mid-20th-century and musicologists believe it to be authentic. From Haas, the rhythm of the theme is there but not the notes.

So much for the subject of editions – but overall tempo is also an important factor and I am convinced that this music works at any speed provided the conductor remains consistent in approach. Klemperer’s 1951 version is the fastest on record – less than 52 minutes. In 1954 he was still very fast but in neither case is there a feeling of haste. It is perhaps relevant to mention Konwitschny’s Supraphon recording of 1953: a different view of tempo – he takes 70 minutes, yet if the recordings are not actually compared side by side, the sturdy flow of the interpretations of both conductors gives a similar impression of grandeur. In 1961, however, Konwitschny recorded the work again and took only 61 minutes. For those fascinated by differences of interpretation it is worth mentioning that Sergiu Celibidache took just under 80 minutes in performances with the Munich Philharmonic in 1988 and 1989 (including the performance issued on EMI recording) but in 1993 they went to Osaka and in the April of that year gave a performance lasting 86 minutes.

Klemperer’s approach to Bruckner tended to be one of moderation. A slight lingering in mid-scherzo is probably the only really noticeable moment of subjectivity. It is by no means a contradiction in terms to refer to this rapid 1954 performance as ‘unhurried’. The orchestra is committed, the playing stylish and a sense of power seems to increase as the movements progress. In the slow movement Klemperer seems perhaps a little cool but he is very successful in making the finale coherent. There are many different elements to this movement and an over-expressive approach could make it fall apart. Klemperer is far too wise to fall into this trap.

Regarding the recorded sound, the clarity is admirable and inner details are remarkably well defined – only at major climaxes does the upper brass overpower (a familiar experience in the concert hall, too). The big question is: will the listener find the dryness of this acoustic disturbing? Compare the opening for example; in the old Vox recording, despite the severe lack of bass, the distant horn calls have far more mystery and atmosphere. Of course the magnificence of the lower brass throughout the 1954 performance is very gratifying, yet I am always disturbed when the grand noise that they achieve stops abruptly at the close of each towering tutti. Had I been refurbishing this tape I should have been hard put to it not be tempted to add reverberation. It is all a matter of opinion as to what extent an engineer should intervene in order to improve an old recording.

In Don Juan (recorded in 1956), the sound is rather different if from the same venue – more set back from the microphone(s) but still quite detailed. The acoustic is a touch warmer but still insufficiently resonant and the impression is that the orchestra is playing in a limited space. On the other hand, the loud passages do not verge on distortion, as was the case in parts of the Bruckner. Full marks to the leader for some splendid violin solos but a pity the glorious horn sequences could not have been given a more distant perspective. The percussion seems to improve as the work progresses.

I suspect that if stereo had been utilised, this whole disc would have sounded more gracious but this example of ‘earlier Klemperer’ (he was though at the time of these recordings hovering around the age of 70!) reveals a great deal of his remarkable skill and makes an interesting contrast with the conductor with whom we were familiar in London towards the end of his life.

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