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A giant of the concert-hall in the 1950s and 1960s
on 5 February 2013
Klemperer arguably made his greatest recordings in the decade between 1955 and 1965. In his final years the Philharmonia (then renamed the NPO) no longer had the cream of London's string players within its ranks - and this can clearly be heard in his performances of symphonies 5, 8 and 9 - and Klemperer's increasingly slow pulse and lack of firm direction of his players meant that results were much less convincing. Why he made two substantial and disfiguring cuts in the finale of No. 8, we will probably never really know, but these alone put him out of contention with the great interpreters of this colossal work: Karajan, Giulini and Wand. Even so, there are moments of pure grandeur, as in the opening pages of the finale to No.9, when one is conscious of the ultimate triumph of a physically weakened 85 year-old man - mind over matter.
The earliest of the recordings in this set, that of No. 7, dates from 1960. It has all the hallmarks of most of Klemperer's Indian summer recordings: a firm grasp of the architectural design, transparency of texture, an absolutely rigid avoidance of anything approaching indulgence and a recording quality that placed the wind far forward. This occasionally leads to unnatural balances: in No. 7 the first flute is often as loud as the first violins. Yet one seeks in vain any of the mystic inwardness that others like Celibidache have found in this symphony. The absolute winner in this set is No. 4, made in 1963, when Klemperer produced more great recordings than at any other time in his career (Schubert 8, Dvorak 9, Tchaikovsky 5 - available with other works of the Romantic period in another EMI boxed set). It is surprisingly fast, but not as swift as the 1954 recording he made with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, in which he takes a little over 55 minutes. The whole performance is thought-through with a commanding sense of purpose, with electrifying moments such as the passage seven minutes into the opening movement when Klemperer unleashes the full power of the Philharmonia in peak form. The slow movement has grace and elegance; the scherzo crackles along and the trio oozes rustic charm. The fleet-footed finale knows exactly where it is going. The recording of No. 6, made a year later, is not as well engineered as No. 4, with some clouding of the textures especially in climaxes, but it is still one of the few great recordings of this work in the catalogue.
Those who experienced Klemperer in the concert-hall, as I did, will know that he was capable of moments of unquestionable greatness. He was a giant amongst his contemporaries. However, we will never know with absolute certainty how far his bipolar disorder prevented him from achieving with a greater consistency the insights he occasionally reveals in this set of recordings.