Sunday, June 9, 2013

Our Beethoven Seventh performances are connected the most obvious way -- they're by the same conductor

Otto Klemperer

BEETHOVEN: The Creatures of Prometheus (ballet), Op. 43: Overture

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Nov. 25, 1957
New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded June 17-18, 1969

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we heard two extremely lovely performances of the haunting and powerful slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, and I invited readers to identify the connection between them.

As our friend me noted in a comment, performance A is older and quicker than performance B. I'm not sure that the Internet-transmitted mp3 sound does full justice to B, and the sound really does matter, because the wealth of sonic color and texture our conductor is coaxing from his players becomes part of the expressive structure of the performance. It is, as it happens, a performance that's some 45 years old but that I don't think I've ever heard, for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

Let's listen again to performances A and B, with a performance X thrown in between them.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92:
ii. Allegretto


Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 4-6, 1955 (mono)
[X (not heard in the preview)]

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct.-Dec. 1960

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 12-14, 1968

Now it's true that Beethoven's tempo markings throughout the Seventh Symphony skew quick: Presto for the main section of the first movement, Allegretto for the slow movement, Presto for the scherzo, and Allegro con brio for the finale. But that still doesn't tell you how to play the piece, which can only come from close communion with the music itself.

So, if you want to play the Allegretto of the Seventh like this, I have no problem. Because you're Pierre Monteux, bringing to bear your full rich musical sensibilities:

London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux, cond. Decca, recorded 1961

But it seems to me that there's no excuse, no resort to "authenticity," to justify this:

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan, cond. Philharmonia Baroque Productions, recorded live, September 2009

It's not horrible; believe me, I've heard worse -- I just happen not to have ready access to worse, since I don't actively collect musical horror shows. The music is recognizable here, and is on the whole rather pleasant. But "rather pleasant" represents a huge sacrifice in music of such vast expressive content; at least 50 percent of the music's potential has been casually tossed overboard. It turns out that many listeners prefer the content of their music stripped to a bare minimum, trivialized to the maximum extent possible. I guess they're entitled to their preferences.


I also mentioned that it achieved a certain infamy. It was, in fact, so roundly scorned in its European release that Angel Records, EMI's U.S. classical label, declined even to release it here. The impression conveyed was that poor doddering old Klemperer, beset by his famously myriad physical ailments, had lost it, and was just shambling along.

I don't doubt that the performance subsequently circulated here in various forms, on LP and CD, but I've only just caught up with it, in the Beethoven Orchestral Recordings box in EMI's new Klemperer Edition, which I gather is to gather together all of the conductor's EMI recordings. And listening to the 1969 Beethoven Seventh, I've been bowled over. I don't say that it's the "correct" way to play the piece, but then, I don't believe in a single "correct" way to play any piece. What's more, I doubt that many (any?) other conductors could pull this off. But my goodness, what momentum, what flow, what songfulness, what uplift!

You can hear the difference from the sonic richness of the opening chord of the haunting introduction to the first movement, and then in the purposefulness, even soul, of the interlaced woodwind interjections. Here are all three Klemperer EMI recordings of the movement.

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92:
i. Poco sostenuto; Vivace

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 4-6, 1955 (mono)

Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct.-Dec. 1960

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded Oct. 12-14, 1968

From the negative reviews, I had assumed that the orchestral playing was less than ideally controlled; in fact, I've rarely heard orchestral playing of such unflagging concentration and purpose. The New Philharmonia players are said to have loved Klemperer, and for all the grumbling from all quarters concerning his fading powers in those last years, I don't hear any such thing -- the tempos of this Seventh are harder to sustain than more normal ones.

For how many years now have we been hearing how Maestro Jimmy Levine has "transformed" the Met orchestra into one of the world's greatest orchestras, and yet it has seemed to me arguably the world's least expressive orchestra, all expressivity having been drained from the strings and the winds having been reined in correspondingly. Yes, we get a certain measure of accuracy, but beyond that, for decades now what I've gotten is almost entirely a musical void. And yet commentators -- possibly even many of the same commentators -- routinely disparage genuinely musical, expressive playing like what we hear in the 1968 Klemperer Beethoven Seventh.

(It may be worth remembering that in those late years of Klemperer, when EMI was being as accommodating as possible to get him into the recording studio as often as possible, he did cancel a number of sessions for health reasons. I would like to submit the possibility that when he did make those late recordings, he felt physically and mentally up to it.)

Again, it's not the only way to play the music. Here, for example, is a performance we've already heard:

Marlboro Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1969

But I am, again, bowled over by the expressive dimensions Klemperer heard in this problematic symphony -- problematic, at least for me, in that performances tend to fall in the same rut of peppy note-churning. I think an accurate estimate of the music's true greatness is expanded more by this performance than by any other I've heard. (And trust me, I've heard a lot of them.)


As a footnote, I would point out that according to the recordings appendix in Peter Heyworth's biography of Klemperer, the BBC has a complete Klemperer Beethoven symphony cycle, in color and in stereo, but according to the author there was no consideration of commercial release because the performances are so slow and lifeless. Maybe so, but I wonder.


. . . when the "early" EMI Beethoven Seventh was recorded. And the 1955 performance clearly reflects a lifetime's worth of experience of the piece. But clearly it continued to percolate in his imagination, and he still had more to say about it.

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