Beethoven By Otto Klemperer

Conductor Otto Klemperer’s career as a recording artist did not begin in earnest until he was in his sixties. Forced to leave Germany ‘for racial reasons’ (the Nazis insisted they only wanted him to give up his job), his mental and physical health suffered in America and it was only after he had returned to Europe after the war that his career enjoyed an Indian summer in the studio.

His reputation was as the leading interpreter of monumental works by Mahler (whom he had known) and Beethoven. He was associated chiefly with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which had been set up in the 1950s as a recording orchestra, becoming principal conductor from 1959 and conductor for life from 1964. He died in Zurich in 1973 aged 88. 

The present reissues don’t feature the Philharmonia but do showcase Klemperer’s Beethoven. Once one has attuned one’s ears to the contemporary crackle, the romantic portamento and the huge amount of audience coughing (these are actually live radio broadcasts), one becomes swept along by the power and majesty of the interpretations. 

Especially impressive is the clarity of detail not least in the characterful woodwind. Klemperer’s 1955 account of the mighty Missa Solemnis (MM015-2) with the choir and orchestra of Cologne radio seems to grow in strength as the work progresses. One senses in the urgent, passionate voices an almost wailing confession for the recent past and a plea for forgiveness. Solo bass Josef Greindl delivers the Agnus Dei with deep emotive resonance and caps a performance that seems to summon history with every bar. 

A similar atmosphere pervades the 1958 account of the Ninth Symphony (MM031-2), though here solo bass Hans Hotter throws out the interrupting call “not for these tones, but for new ones” and the pleading choir now has optimism in its statuesque delivery. 

An immense 1958 performance of the Eroica Symphony (MM037-2) with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra has a gripping solemnity to its funeral march and only Klemperer’s slightly plump way with Mozart, as he leads the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 1956, suggests that we know better now.


On the Web
The comprehensive Klemperer portal.
The design might be creepy but the information is useful and varied. 

Hear and see Klemperer in action conducting the Philharmonia and soloists including Agnes Giebel in Beethoven’s Ninth.
EMI Classics 599 0349 

The Book
Shavings from a Musician’s Workshop: Klemperer on Music Selected Musings translated in 1986.
ISBN 978 0 907 68913 3