ClassicsOnline Home » BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 / WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll (Klemperer) (1927-28)
If ‘slow tempos’ were a significant characteristic of Klemperer's final years as a conductor, in his earlier days, as demonstrated on these 1927-1928 recordings, he could set fizzing tempos, galvanising his performers with electric gestures. Above all, however, Klemperer was a master structuralist, always focused on the music, its construction and direction. His recording of the Brahms Symphony No. 1, made over seven months, is notable not only for athletic vitality but for ecstatic singing lines and subtle integration of light and shade. The account of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan und Isolde is remarkable rapt while that of Siegfried Idyll is intimate and gentle.
By David Denton
Great Conductors: Otto Klemperer (1885-1973)
Historical Recordings • 1927 – 1928
The German conductor and composer Otto Klemperer, whose wish was to be remembered more for the latter of those musical activities, was born in Breslau on 14 May 1885. He studied in Frankfurt and Berlin. Amongst those who encouraged him was Gustav Mahler, whom Klemperer had met in 1905 when conducting the off-stage band in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. In 1907 Klemperer became conductor of the German Opera in Prague thanks to Mahler's recommendation. During his early career he undertook numerous appointments and it was in 1927, the year in which most of the recordings on this disc were made, that Klemperer's activities peaked when he became conductor of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. There he performed then-new pieces by Hindemith, Janáček, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. In 1933, when the Nazi Party was gathering pace, Klemperer, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and then returned to Judaism, went to the United States: in that year, until 1939, he was appointed to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Maybe the picture of Klemperer (who died on 6 July 1973, at the age of 88) that most easily comes to mind is of the geriatric man sitting to conduct and appearing vague in gesture and even uncertain as to his rôle – such images being captured on film towards the end of his life when he was conducting Beethoven symphonies with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in London and adopting slower-than-usual tempos.
'Slow tempos' is a significant characteristic of Klemperer's final years, as heard in some recordings – Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Bruckner's No. 8, for example, and, perhaps most notoriously, in his slow-motion version of Mahler's Symphony No. 7, which lasts all of 100 minutes, the average for this work being around the 75-minute mark). Yet 'stoical' perhaps best sums up Klemperer's attitude to life, both as a man and as a musician. He was both accident-prone (such as when setting-fire to the bed that he was smoking in) and was enduring of numerous illnesses (not least partial paralysis), yet he reached a ripe old age and conducted until more or less the end of his life. Such an unflinching attitude also informs Klemperer's 'style' as a conductor. He was a master structuralist, seeing a work's end in its beginning, and while it is reported that the younger Klemperer could be a firebrand and a towering figure on the podium (as well as being erratic away from it), galvanising his performers with electric gestures, he was always focussed on the music, its construction and direction, and not interested, indeed antipathetic to, creating a particular sound – with Klemperer what you hear is what is written on the page, an unvarnished recreation of a composer's notation. In his earlier days Klemperer could set fizzing tempos, but the logic of his music-making was always a given, a sense of proportion and consistency being omnipresent in Klemperer's conducting, something which allows this recording of Brahms's Symphony No. 1, begun in December 1927 and completed in June 1928, to appear as if made on a through-play rather than on five different days over a period of seven months.
Not that Klemperer's was the first recording of this mighty dark-to-light symphony - that honour falling to Felix Weingartner's acoustic recording - but he makes much of the intensity and tragedy of the opening Un poco sostenuto as well as being very expressive without disrupting the line of the music before plunging into the main Allegro with athletic vitality; light and shade and consolatory asides also inform Klemperer's approach: flexible without being wayward. Note, too, the 'modern' orchestral sound at a time when expressive devices such as portamento (sliding from one note to another and sounding the pitches in between) were prevalent. How different Klemperer was in this regard from, say, Willem Mengelberg, the conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1895 to 1945. The second movement of Brahms's First Symphony, Andante sostenuto, is treated by Klemperer as more Adagio espressivo - an eloquent outpouring richly moulded in expression, an ecstatic singing line, loved but not sentimentalised, with much rubato from the woodwind soloists - and he adopts an unhurried tempo for the intermezzo-like third movement, heightening its sweet declaration. For the great finale, in which Brahms finally triumphs over his severe doubts regarding his ability to be a symphonist and follow in the shadow of Beethoven – this First Symphony was many years in the making – Klemperer does not set-up a theatrical cauldron (as Wilhelm Furtwängler could do so palpably at this point of the work) but instead integrates the ominous pizzicatos, 'sunrise' horn solo and the trombone-led 'motto' into musical substance before the glorious optimistic theme is given with dignity, Klemperer aware of remaining shadows while setting a hot pace en route to the blazing affirmation of the coda.
Klemperer went on to consolidate his reputation as an uncompromising conductor of the German repertoire (both symphonic and operatic) and he placated his postwar dissatisfaction at being something of a nomadic musician by accepting, in 1959, the position of Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, with which he had worked many times prior to this appointment. An 'Indian Summer' of concerts and recordings ensued, a period that also found Klemperer composing symphonies and string quartets. At this time, his son Werner found fame as Colonel Klink in the TV series, Hogan's Heroes.
The other recordings on this release include a spirited Academic Festival Overture, a mix of stealthy tread and shapely melodies, with some village-band brass solos to enliven the expression. Very different is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which is full of concentrated longing. Rather than complete the circle of the opera by including the Liebestod, Klemperer plays 'just' the Prelude to Act I and does so in one long line, charting the climax with fervent sureness and ending the excerpt in a state of wonderfully rapt playing (the music here in fact anticipating the Liebestod). One wants the opera's action to begin (although it has been superbly encapsulated over the eleven-minute course of the Prelude) and, instead, we are offered an intimate and gentle account of Siegfried Idyll, a gift from Wagner to his wife Cosima, Liszt's daughter, that was first heard at the Wagners' villa, Tribschen, on the shore of Lake Lucerne, on Christmas morning 1870, Siegfried being the Wagners' son (1869-1930) who was also a composer. Klemperer and his orchestra conjure a tender performance that transcends the decades with ease.
The Brahms symphony was transferred from Okeh Odeon label discs made by American Columbia using the same high-quality shellac they employed for their contemporaneous “Viva-Tonal” pressings. It was recorded during five sessions stretched over seven months; and although there are some differences in sound over the twelve sides, the performance itself is remarkably consistent in conception.
By contrast, the Academic Festival Overture and the Tristan Prelude (with its rarely-heard concert ending) were recorded at the same single session. They have been transferred from British HMV shellacs, with German Electrola 78s also used in the Brahms. The transfer of the Siegfried Idyll utilized German Polydor and laminated American Brunswick discs.
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Recorded 15 and 20 December 1927 and 3 February and 26-27 June 1928 in Berlin
Matrices: 2-20511-1, 2-20512-2, 2-20528-1, 2-20529-1, 2-20530-1, 2-20531-2, 2-20590-2, 2-20591-4, 2-20858-1, 2-20859-2, 2-20860-1, 2-20861-2
First issued on Parlophon P 9615 through 9620
BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Recorded 23 June 1927 in the Singakademie, Berlin
Matrices: CDR 4713-2, 4714-1 and 4715-2
First issued on Electrola EJ 152 and 153
R. WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde – Prelude to Act 1 (1859 version)
Recorded 23 June 1927 in the Singakademie, Berlin
Matrices: BDR 4716-1, 4717-1, 4718-1 and 4719-1
First issued on Electrola EW 27 and 28
R. WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll
Recorded 1927 in Berlin
Matrices: 394 bi, 395 bi, 396 bi and 397 bi
First issued on Grammophon 66604 and 66605