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Beethoven As It Should Be........... With One Exception.
on 7 June 2015
Otto Klemperer was one of the great conductors of the twentieth century: furthermore, he had both an interesting and difficult life. Forced to flee Europe when the Nazis came to power (Klemperer was born Jewish), he made his way to the USA where he was passed over for appointments he probably should've had. Removal of a brain tumour in 1939 left him partially paralysed: he also suffered recurring bouts of mental illness at a time when a correct diagnosis and suitable treatment were impossible.
So, as a proud Englishman, I found it immensely satisfying to learn that his career was resurrected in London in the 1950s. Walter Legge, a record producer for EMI and founder of the Philharmonia Orchestra, appointed Klemperer to the position of principal conductor and oversaw some of the greatest recordings in history.
Which brings me to this wonderful boxed set. Anyone who loves the music of Beethoven (if you don't, why are you reading this? And what's wrong with you?!) MUST buy it: I can't put it much more forcefully than that. These recordings are essential - and don't worry about the fact that they were recorded in the late 'fifties: apart from some barely noticeable tape hiss, the sound quality is phenomenally good.
Being more familiar with symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9, I listened to the Eroica first. Klemperer was known for his slow tempi and yes, compared to Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein (hitherto my "go to" conductors when I want to listen to Beethoven - though I own recordings by many others.) it seemed a little slow. However, by the time I got to the finale, my ears and brain had recalibrated themselves to the extent that I now believe that Klemperer was absolutely right: this is how the Eroica should sound.
As with the 3rd, so with the 5th and 7th: slower than I was used to, but "right". The first movement of the 5th (possibly the most well-known beginning of any piece of music, ever) in particular has so much more meaning, nuance and gravitas when played at a more relaxed tempo: Leonard Bernstein came to a similar conclusion, most other conductors sound like they've a train to catch!
The word "slow" has some unattractive meanings: sluggish, lazy, boring. It also has some positive meanings: stately, solemn, measured, serene and majestic. Being a republican (UK meaning!) I want to find another word, but I can't think of a better one: Klemperer's Beethoven is exalted, sublime, deeply satisfying but, above all, majestic.
The "one exception" referred to in my headline is the second movement of the 9th. This is not just a little slower than other conductors take it, it's half as long again and, to my ears and brain, it just doesn't work. I've persevered but, several listenings later, sorry Herr Klemperer, it's far too slow. This is a great shame, because the first, third and fourth movements are as close to perfect as I've heard.
But I've saved the best 'til last. Maybe it's just me (I've noticed that other reviewers haven't mentioned it) but Klemperer's recording of the Pastoral......... well, words are failing me. Whatever it is in the human psyche that music touches, whatever buttons it presses........ it has touched and pressed mine to an extent that I didn't think was possible. It's not the first time that listening to music has reduced me to tears; and it's not the first time that listening to music has left me awestruck: but it's the first time that both have happened simultaneously. I hope - given that I'm trying to describe something essentially indescribable - that makes some sort of sense.
Anyway, returning to Earth, if you're new to Beethoven, this probably isn't the place to start. With a few misgivings, I'd probably go for von Karajan's 1977 cycle and take it from there. If, however, you consider yourself to be an aficionado and don't own these recordings, you MUST buy them. I can guarantee - for the Pastoral alone - it'll be the best £20 you'll ever spend.