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Big Orchestra Mozart: The Klemperer Sound
on 7 January 2013
Mozart played by a full symphony orchestra has fallen out of fashion.
The last two conductors to give us Big Orchestra Mozart were Bernstein and Karajan, and both have been gone for over 20 years (hard to believe).
In the mono era, Beecham, Walter, Toscanini and Furtwangler had no qualms about playing Haydn or Mozart with a full complement of strings.
By the 1960s, chamber orchestras were the fashion, and big orchestra Mozart became suspect.
Neville Marriner was the new darling of the critics. His Mozart performances were tasteful and stylish.
[Period instrument Mozart didn't get really popular until Christopher Hogwood in the '70s].
Nowadays when a symphony orchestra plays Mozart, it is with greatly reduced numbers: Most of the musicians are taking a cigarette break.
A full symphony orchestra numbers 90-100 players, but that reflects the late Nineteenth Century need for augmented wind and brass.
Big orchestra Mozart requires about 60-70 players.
Chamber Orchestras average 30 players; period instrument orchestras 20 (or fewer).
In my opinion, Haydn and Mozart benefit from the sound of a modern orchestra with full complement of strings.
Anyway, the purpose of this review is to distinguish Klemperer from the other practitioners of Big Orchestra Mozart.
The danger with Big Orchestra Mozart is that the large number of strings can overpower and drown out the woodwinds and brass (Karajan was the worst offender).
A skilled recording engineer can compensate, but there are also things the conducter can do.
When I was a teenager, the conductors l listened to on my new stereo were Bernstein, Karajan and Ormandy.
I was new to classical music, but I figured out that a symphony orchestra consisted of two major string groups: Violins on the left; Lower Strings on the right.
A few years later, I bought my first Klemperer LP because it had a pretty cover.
I was surprised to find out that a symphony orchestra actually had five string groups:
Klemperer's strings were seated in an arc: First Violins, Basses, Cellos, Violas, Second Violins.
The blended 20th Century string sound has become almost universal, but Klemperer's antiphonal string sound is the orchestra that Mozart was familiar with.
You could hear a lot of unexpected detail - especially with headphones.
Not just highs on the left and lows on the right.
Lots of contrapuntal dialogue among the five groups. A revelation.
I was surprised that no one else had thought of it.
Some time later, I discovered that this was, in fact, the accepted seating arrangement for 200 years.
Mozart took it as a given when composing his symphonies.
Leopold Stokowski is credited with devising the modern seating plan with massed violins on the left.
Stokowski liked the richer string sound that resulted when the f-holes of both violin sections were facing the audience.*
Sacrificing clarity for fullness of tone: the "Philadelphia Sound."
This new system also made it easier for musicians to stay together, and Twentieth century conductors came increasingly to adopt it
(bot not Toscanini or Furtwangler, both of whom passed away before stereo could document their divided violins).
Contemporaries of Klemperer who remained loyal to divided violins in the stereo age included Monteux, Boult, Bohm, Kubelik and Bruno Walter.
[Fritz Reiner's earliest Chicago Symphony stereo recordings had divided violins, but by 1957 he had given up and adopted massed violins on the left].
Karl Bohm and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded the Mozart Symphonies with divided strings, but his recordings do not have the same sort of impact that Klemperer's do. I am tempted to blame the DG engineers.
Karl Bohm always reminded me of Otto Klemperer without all the personal baggage.
But I also think it was the baggage, the mental and physical challenges Klemperer had to overcome, that made him great.
I'm afraid this is a hopelessly romantic view of life, but it is mine own.
[I'm actually rather fond of Karl Bohm].
Listen to these CDs while seated directly between two high quality speakers. Better yet, use headphones.
Not only did Klemperer have the best-sounding recordings, I soon came to realize that he was a very great conductor.
To my mind, the greatest of them all, certainly in the modern stereo era.
THE PERFORMANCES: Back in the 60s, hostile critics accused Klemperer of playing Haydn and Mozart like Beethoven.
Supposedly he didn't understand stylistic differences.
They may have had a point - Klemperer's Mozart is not graceful or stylish, two adjectives frequently applied to Mozart.
Klemperer conducted Mozart (and everything else) with his fists and a scowl on his face.
He stood an intimidating 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and had a reputation (deserved) for mental instability and irrational behavior (nowadays he would be called bi-polar).
His intimidating appearance was the result of surgery to remove a brain tumor, which left him partially paralyzed for the last 30 years of his life.
The irrational behavior was with him all his life.
Intentional or not, this had an effect on orchestra players.
These are tough, unyielding performances - try the Adagio & Fugue K 546 on CD 1 - not at all graceful or stylish.
But he can also be surprisingly tender - listen to the first two movements of Symphony 29 (CD 1) - this is the recording that sold me on Klemperer in the first place.
The box includes two different stereo performances each of Symphonies 38, 39, 40 and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
Klemperer's first Philharmonia recordings of each date from 1956 and were released on mono LPs, but EMI has found the early stereo master tapes;
Symphony 38 (CD 7) is issued here for the first time in stereo.
Its a scandal that we had to wait 57 years to hear it in its full glory.
The 1954 Symphonies 29 and 41 are still mono only.
Faster than usual tempos in these early recordings.
This was still Karajan's Philharmonia Orchestra (Dennis Brain led the horn section).
Klemperer re-recorded them in stereo in 1965 and 1962.
There is a repeat in the first movement of Symphony 38 in 1956 = 13:20 (it would have been 10:37 without the repeat) vs. 10:53 in 1962.
There is a repeat in the first movement of Symphony 40 in 1956 = 8:36 (it would have been 6:26 withoput the repeat) vs. 6:38 in 1962.
There is a repeat in the finale of Symphony 41 in 1954 = 8:28 (it would have been 6:16 without the repeat) vs. 6:48 in 1962.
Klemperer had a reputation for slow tempos, but don't worry.
10 of the 30 recordings were made in 1954-56, a time when Klemperer still had a reputation as a "fast" conductor (see his early '50s Vox recordings).
None of these is excessively fast (OK, maybe the 1954 Jupiter Symphony); more like "normal" to slightly fast tempos.
18 recordings date from 1960-65; Klemperer had slowed down noticeably. Six of these were remakes of earlier recordings.
Allowing for missing repeats, the new recordings were 2% to 7% slower, but the new Jupiter was 13% slower.
In my subjective judgement, only it and Symphony 31 could be categorized as "sluggish."
The rest are slightly slower than the norm, but not outrageously so.
Klemperer's slow tempos don't strike me as ponderous. I think its his sense of rhythm that keeps the forward motion going.
He leans heavily into the downbeat. Not subtle, but effective nonetheless.
The Serenades 11 and 12 date from 1967-71, a time when Klemperer was notorious for alarmingly slow tempos.
These are not so afflicted, possibly because they are wind octets, and Klemperer wasn't required to do much in the way of conducting.
REMASTERINGS: Of the 30 recordings in this box, 22 were remastered in 24-bit resolution by Abbey Road Technology (ART) between 2000 and 2006.
Only one recording was newly remastered in 2013: Symphony 38 (1956), issued in stereo for the first time.
Earlier remasterings: 1996 = Symphonies 29 & 41 (1954) - Testament remastering
1990 = Three Wind Serenades + Clemenza di Tito Overture
1987 = Symphony 40 (1956)
Recommended. Especially at the ridiculously low price.
* Not as lewd as it sounds.
The f-holes are two f-shaped holes on the top of the violin.
They serve to focus and project the sound coming from the interior of the instrument.
Violinists seated to the left of the conductor hold their instruments at a 45 degree angle toward the audience.
Those to the right hold their instruments at a 45 degree angle away from the audience (unless they're left-handed, then no problem).
P.S. Toward the end of his life, Klemperer sometimes took up the baton again, but he just just stuck it in his fist. Not a baton technician.