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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" / Leonore Overtures Nos. 1, 3 (Philharmonia Orchestra, Klemperer) (1954-1955)
Otto Klemperer’s complex artistry combined a remarkable understanding of architectural structure, a loving attention to detail and immense subtlety. Nowhere was this more evident than in his authoritative and compellingly lucid readings of Beethoven’s music. This 1955 Eroica is a notable example, the young but fully seasoned Philharmonia Orchestra responding superbly to Klemperer’s weighty and deliberate conception, which is yet rhythmically buoyant and filled with dynamic contrast. The highlight of this recording is the second movement Funeral March, solemn, tender and noble, whose universal pathos never lapses into sentimentality.
By Brian Wilson
By David Denton
Recorded by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia at the peak of their combined power, their 1955 performance remains my unqualified recommendation as the finest and most logically conceived account of the ‘Eroica’ on disc. The pure drama—that almost overloaded the original Columbia LP pressing—came from his wide dynamic range and tempos that were urgent but never rushed. Throughout there is that craggy feel you have when Klemperer was at his most inspired, as if he were fashioning the work from rough hewn granite. The second movement Funeral March moves at a pace of dignity and avoids sentimentality, while the spacious scherzo has the benefit of gorgeous horn playing, presumable lead by the legendary Dennis Brain. There is the questionable decision to omit the first movement repeat that today is taken for granted, but at the time was often ignored. The interpretations of two Leonora overtures, which featured on an LP recorded in 1954, are at times rather hard driven, though the spacious introduction to the third overture sets the scene for the lyric aspects that are to follow. By comparison with the symphony, the orchestral playing is at times a little rough around the edges, though exciting at the appropriate moments. The disc’s information would suggest that the symphony was taken from 1956 pressings, though on checking my pressings it sounds more akin to the subsequent reissue when some of the ‘bite’ in the original release had been smoothed. It is an immaculate transfer, the two Leonore overtures a distinct improvement on my LP.
Great Conductors: Otto Klemperer (1885–1973)
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 • Leonore Overtures Nos. 1 and 3
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 offstage band in the former’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 (some recordings from this period are available on 8.111274) that his 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 he became conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an appointment he held until 1939.
Klemperer died on 6 July 1973 at the age of 88 and perhaps the picture of him that most easily comes to mind is of an old man sitting to conduct and appearing uncertain of gesture and even of the occasion—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 tempos that were slower than usual. Recorded fifteen or so years earlier, the Beethoven performances on this release find Klemperer at his powerful best; spacious, yes, but with a purpose and thrust that not only give the music its own space but also propose a clear sense of objective and absolute architectural surety.
Although ‘slow tempos’ were a significant characteristic of Klemperer’s final years, as heard in some recordings, for example in his final recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, and, perhaps most notoriously, in his slow-motion version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, which lasts all of a hundred minutes, compared with a usual average duration of about 75, the word ‘stoical’ perhaps best sums up Klemperer’s attitude to life—both as a man and as a musician—and there are few works more indomitable in spirit than Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Further evidence of Klemperer’s steadfastness was that he seemed ‘charmed’ against his penchant for being accident-prone (on one occasion he set fire to the bed that he was smoking in) and endured numerous illnesses (not least part-paralysis) until he reached a ripe old age and remained conducting 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 off 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 his conducting, whether in Brahms’s First Symphony, recorded in 1927 and 1928, yet appearing made as a one-off performance rather than recorded on five different days over a period of six months, or in the unswerving logic of his conducting of this Eroica.
Klemperer was closely associated with the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, first conducting it in 1951, becoming Principal Conductor in 1959 and retaining ties until shortly before his death. A large catalogue of recordings ensued for EMI, mostly produced by Walter Legge, the impresario who had formed the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1945, and inevitably of the Austro-German classics that Klemperer was particularly associated with. The Eroica is a notable example of Klemperer conducting Beethoven, the then-juvenile but fully seasoned Philharmonia Orchestra responding with a European sensibility to the gravitas of Beethoven’s music in what might now be considered a pre-authentic style, but then Klemperer’s weighty and deliberate conception is now light-years away from those conductors who regularly conduct Beethoven’s music as fast as possible and throw many possibilities away in the back-to-basics process.
Klemperer has his own way, a rhythmically buoyant approach that is not without its human and tender side, nor is there a lack of dynamic contrast, in a reading that gets inside the music without dogma: the score is the stronger for it, not rushed off its feet or approximating to the sort of performance prevalent in Beethoven’s own day. In this particular recording, the Scherzo’s rhythmic pin-pointing is a delight and the finale is no throw-away ending; it is the gathering of a resolution rather than the stampeding of one, and whether in the country-dance episodes or the grand apotheosis, Beethoven’s boundary-breaking music here unfolds as integrated and arrives with a real sense of homecoming. In many ways the highlight of this recording is the second movement Funeral March, of solemn tread and noble expression; one is aware of the marching strides and also universal pathos that never falls into sentimentality. Preceding this, the first movement convinces in its leaning to expression rather than velocity and with an overall shape and growth enhanced by Klemperer not observing the exposition repeat.
Of course, on this particular aspect, Beethoven, formally speaking anyway, did seek repetition at this point, and although an historically informed conductor would presumably have no option but to acknowledge this request, Klemperer, like so many conductors of his era, insists on going forward rather than going back—to advantage (it should be noted that Klemperer could otherwise be very generous with repeats in other Beethoven symphonies). Not that this was quite the norm for the Eroica’s first movement, for, as recorded, Erich Kleiber (in Vienna) and Willem Mengelberg (New York) both observed the repeat (but not in their alternative recordings of this work); reminders of the importance of independence in the interpretation of great musical literature.
The two (of three) Leonore Overtures are both associated with the opera of that name that was revised into Fidelio. Klemperer keeps the opening of the (underrated) Overture No. 1 on the move, with real theatrical impetus, and drives further when the main Allegro arrives, to leave surely no doubt that this is theatrical music. With Leonore No. 3 the approach is different; more a symphonic poem (before Liszt had coined the term) than an overture, Klemperer’s taut yet vividly narrated account testifies to the music’s capability to be, thrice, a concert overture, a dramatic musical statement and an encapsulation of one of Klemperer’s operatic specialities.
Great Conductors: Otto Klemperer
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55, ‘Eroica’
Recorded on 5–6 October and 17 December 1955 in Kingsway Hall, London
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1346
Leonore Overture No. 1 in C major, Op. 138
Recorded on 17 November 1954 in Kingsway Hall, London
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1270
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a
Recorded on 18 November 1954 in Kingsway Hall, London
First issued on Columbia 33CX 1270
Philharmonia Orchestra • Otto Klemperer
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
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BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphony No. 3, "Eroica" / Leon...