on 30 July 2014
"Romantic Symphonies" is here simply a marketing category - Mahler, Bruckner, and Wagner being marketing categories in themselves, so not "Romantic". If you check dates, the scope of this box runs from just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars (Schubert 5) to the mid 1890s (Tchaikowsky, Dvorak). In fact the symphony was born at just about the time Romanticism was first turning its own cradle over, in the 1750s, and there are folk who would argue that the symphony is the quintessential Romantic art form - not just musical form - because it accommodates and if you are lucky resolves conflicting ideas. Isaiah Berlin suggested that the symphony was the model against which both Hegel and Marx understood historical development - a progression by"thesis - antithesis- synthesis" towards an ever closer potential perfection. After all most symphonies end optimistically. The default case for this collection, if anyone has bothered to make it, might be that theorists - a little later than Hegel, but never mind - defined sonata form and first outlined what it does with its themes in the mid 1820s. Or it might be that these are Klemperer recordings which did not fit into LP marketing boxes in the 1960s and 70s,,,,,,
I started with the last item in the box, the Tchaikowsky Fifth, partly because I'd never heard this performance, and partly because Richard Osborne's booklet quotes Walter Legge, who launched Klemperer's second career by making him free of the Philharmonia, and was his recording producer until the two fell out, as finding the results of the sessions for it "hair-raising". The scale of climax is certainly very impressive, and Klemperer very interestingly, as he often did, aims for a single consistent pulse as a unifying device across the movements. As the stereotype might lead you to expect, it's not a very rapid pulse - which helps the climaxes, and as a result the third, waltz, movement is fascinating to listen to since for once most of the detail is clear and in focus. but the converse is that the development section of the finale has to be heard as though it were a Prokofiev ostinato (a style it certainly anticipates) but even then it tends to plod. It's a controversial passage, of course - Mengelberg cut the entire section and stuck to the march - and at least Klemperer sticks to his guns. But the hair certainly does rise a bit in the first two movements, which are Klemperer at his best and most concentrated, with an unerring focus on the line. Wagner once said that the conductor's job is to know where the melody is. Klemperer knows, all right. Osborne suggests he was converted to the Fifth by a Furtwangler performance in the early 1930s, and I'll come back to that antithesis in another context.
Starting where I did, I convinced myself that the first item in this allegedly "Romantic" box would have to be the Symphonie Fantastique" but it turned out to be on disc 7 (there are 10). That position turns out to have been allotted to it not on grounds of Romantic narrative but language - it goes francophonically with Cesar Franck, with which it has very little else in common - Franck is for chorales, Berlioz for plainsong, Franck is almost gothically a Durchkomponist, Berlioz presents himself as an opera composer manque and disciple of Gluck, though both use a cor anglais. But the Franck has to be split, and its second and third movements land on the same disc as the Dvorak New World Symphony, of all things. Never mind - he's a nationalist, so he can sit with Berlioz and that Belgian chappie. The Cesar Franck is certainly optimistic, and Klemperer responds to its inherent grandiosity. Dvorak built the full romantic-nationalist agenda into his symphony, (excellently played and unsentimentally paced) asserting that it was, as an exemplar for American composers, grounded in genuine native and African-American idioms, which he intended to use again (he didn't) in a setting of stories of the alternative American past provided by Longfellow's Hiawatha (Romanticism is full of instant mythology and imaginary pasts - Longfellow's model had been the Kalevala, so we are perhaps unfortunate to have been deprived of Klemperer's Sibelius). A later American songwriter paid Dvorak the ultimate compliment of adapting the famous slow movement as a fake spiritual, which inevitably became ( and for some still is) the regularly cited 'Afro-American' source for the movement. Romanticism valued authenticity and feeling very highly, and also embraced fraud and fabrication with unbridled enthusiasm.
It could therefore land you in court, unless you were very careful. Imagine the Daily Mail front page after Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique artist had come before the Old Bailey. Banner headlines and a verbatim report of the judge's sermon, followed by minatory articles retrieved from their files by ageing columnists claiming to know all about narcotics, or obsession, or guilt. Klemperer's performance doesn't invite you to live the artist's life here and now, as the 1960s Stokowski on BBC Legends, where you can almost smell the opium, does. It's bleak. He places you in Berlioz's shoes after the break with Harriet Smithson and makes you contemplate reality. Nothing is forgotten and nothing is forgiven. The March to the Scaffold and the dream will recur, nightly, for the rest of your life. This is a perfectly valid conception and it isn't outside the bounds of Romanticism, but it's also fairly contemporary. Klemperer seems never to have been completely taken in by Romanticism.
It's useful to have this box enlivened with three works by the younger Johann Strauss - none of them symphonies, but, as Wagner and Brahms both recognised, he had all the skills, - in fact he was probably better at thematic metamorphosis than either of them. The Fledermaus overture, though more Hamburg than Vienna, is infectiously done, and Wiener Blut is fascinating. Shortly after the war, Furtwangler recorded the Kaiserwalzer, almost as a elegy to past glories - the coda, with the pizzicato clock ticking before it, as time recedes, is an evocation of old aristocratic days as poignant as anything on record. The subliminal thematic structure of the waltz happens to be the intervals of Haydn's Kaiser's hymn, and, without drawing attention in any way to them, Strauss and Furtwangler leave you in no doubt. Klemperer, face turned from Romanticism, sets out to democratise the piece, and puts you in a holiday twentieth century mid-Atlantic audience completely unaware of the K und K and all it meant. The brass has a field day. If there's any reminiscence here it might just be Klemperer's mentor, Mahler himself, who wouldn't allow any other conductor to touch Fledermaus. You're not all that far away from parts of the Mahler Fourth, or from Klemperer's own Merry Waltz, originally issued with the Strauss, but obviously not deemed appropriate for this box.
Legge regarded the Schumann symphonies as overblown piano suites, and Klemperer recorded only no 4 with him - a very important performance, as it happens. The Spring Symphony followed the breach with Legge in the early 1960s, and is clear-eyed and cogent, staying remarkably close to Schumann's metronome marks. It was supported on LP by the Manfred overture, an essay in obsession and guilt reflecting Schumann's interest, among other things, in the Symphonie Fantastique, which he admired and wrote about very perceptively. There is a comparably obsessive waltz in his Dichterliebe, which covers much the same ground as the Symphonie. Klemperer later followed this theme with recordings of Schumann's Faust Overture, and celebrated restored virtue at the end of an excellently judged Genoveva overture by strengthening the horn parts in the coda, producing an effect unheard in any other performance of the piece. The Second Symphony, not quite so well played, but very perceptively conducted, and at credible speeds - notalways what passes for the "tradition", illuminates the same territory to great effect, using another interesting tag, a theme from Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte' a source which also turns up in his Fantasy in C. The Third Symphony is a more debatable performance, in which the finale is very obviously slow. Many listeners can't quite get over this, since the impact at first hearing is inescapable. It could be argued that he thinks the tourists (Schumann began the work on a visit, though by the time of the premiere he had a none-too- happy conducting appointment in Dusseldorf) are reluctant to leave, thought Schumann didn't impose any such notion in his tempo for the score, or that Klemperer was once again trying to find a feasible common pulse, though the whole point of the finale might have been to depict the celebrations after a Cardinal's consecration in the then still unfinished Cologne Cathedral which seems to have inspired the fourth movement. The rest of the work is less controversial, but a little too grandiose in approach.
The Weber overtures don't go for brilliance, and are not that well recorded - the string parts in Freischutz are not as well defined as they can be and some of the subtleties in Oberon are not that easy to hear. With the Mendeslssohn works we come agin into disputed territory. There were earlier Vox recordings, for George de Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of both symphonies. The italian was in the way of the forties and early fifties fast, and not too well played, but took the repeat in the first movement, still rarely heard. Its second, Philharmonia, version was without the repeat, but completely rethought, resulting in a very original and effective andante which removes any suspicion that Mendelssohn's harmonies were easily chromatic - here they are pungent and pointed. The Scottish occasioned Klemperer's breach with Vox. He had recorded the first two movements. In his absence afterwards, Vox, withut consulting him, called in the very competent Herbert Haefner, who died young, to complete the recording - it may well be that he used Klemperer's performance materials. What Klemperer had left him is alive and individual, and the completion is a pity, but it's not without merit. But issuing the disc behind Klemperer's back was not very tactful. The Philharmonia version is weighty, serious and slower. Klemperer had no confidence in Mendelssohn's finale coda, which is chorale-like and staples optimism on to the end of a piece which is anything but forward-looking. Like its supporter on the original LP, the Overture to the Hebrides, also known by the fraudulent quasi-Gaelic title, Fingal's Cave, the work, apart from its coda, evokes the mythical alternative Scotland of James Macpherson's Ossian prose poems, which ironically had been turned into current reality over most of the Highlands by the introduction of large-scale sheep farming in the half-century or so after they had been written, and the consequent clearance of the tenant cattle farmers to make room for the sheep. It's not necessarily Mendelssohn's fault that he provided a musical legitimisation of all this, but it is one of the reasons for the poor effect of his attempt at an optimistic coda. Klemperer had composed an alternative, which Legge would not allow him to record. So the alternative past came trhough unscathed, and 'Romanticism' defeated Klemperer here. But we are always told that if marketing doesn't win, good musicians will starve in their old age.
The recordings and for the most part the playing are excellent. In my view, with one exception, the marvellous performance of the Midsummer Night's Dream music, the peaks of the box are the Symphonie Fantastique and the Schubert synphonies, which I haven't so far mentioned. The Great C Major's wanderer was familiar in the German landscape of travelling journeymen millers and well-heeled younger sons long before Schubert was born, and in the finale he reaches, for some reason, the point Don Giovanni gets to when he takes the statue's hand - Schubert's repeated C's are less than a stride from Mozart's D minor octaves. Klemperer pulls no punches - his own Don Giovanni was among the most powerful of his day, and the Schubert was a great success when it came out. It hasn't lost any of its power. The Unfinished is also excellent. And the warmly played Fifth symphony, the earliest work, but not the first in the box, is, like Beecham's, an ageing man's reflection on youth. All the concerns of guilt, obsession, ruin and lost opportunity that inform the rest of the box are yet to come. But Klemperer was not a Romantic, rather a realist seeking order and sense from the wildness of the Romantic movement. He doesn't always get it, but another Legge claim in Osborne's booklet comes to mind. Klemperer, he asserted, was a seeker after musical truth. This amounts to a charge of High Romanticism in itself. The man who conducted this Emperor Waltz could lead the recording in support of a not-guilty plea. And perhaps put the marketing claim in its place.
There's always a "but" with this great individualist, however. In this case, it's not a symphony, but it is one of Mendelssohn's greatest masterpieces, free of all his faults as a composer and exquisitely adapted to its purpose. Klemperer doesn't see it as an occasion for a virtuoso orchestra, so the scherzo is a little rustic, and perhaps it should be. But as a whole, and he had conducted it in the theatre, in a longish run, it is far and away the best performance recording has given us of the music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream". The humour and the poetry are all there, and so is, if not a "Romantic Symphony", the romance. It would swing any doubter towards buying the box.