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Otto Klemperer

(EMI, Music & Arts, and Testament)

By Lee Sandlin

Otto Klemperer was one of the strongest and most individual of orchestra conductors. From the middle 1950s until his death in 1973, he led the Philharmonia Orchestra in dozens of recordings for EMI, working his way through most of the standard repertoire from Bach to Mahler. All of it came out sounding exactly alike: slow, stately, majestic. I don't know of another conductor whose great performances are so much like his bad ones. He made the best recording of Brahms's German Requiem I've ever heard, and the worst of Schumann's Rhenish Symphony. They have the same pace, the same balance, the same mood--but one has the dignity and grandeur of an antique marble bust of a Roman emperor, the other just sounds like he's turning the music to stone.

I always figured that this style was something you had to take or leave, that Klemperer was born wanting to conduct everything this way, and sometimes he picked appropriate music and sometimes he didn't. I didn't know for sure though, because for me--as for most classical fans--Klemperer's career before the EMI contract was one big blank.

He'd been conducting professionally since the 1920s, but he'd never held a long-term job with any orchestra, and he hadn't made many records. Now some of his earlier performances are coming out on CD, and they're a genuine shock. This Klemperer sounds nothing like the Klemperer of the EMI recordings. The EMI style seems to have emerged out of nowhere--fully formed and massively imposing, as though a mountain range had sprung up like a mushroom after a night of heavy rain.

The independent label Music & Arts, for instance, has a disc called Otto Klemperer at the Concertgebouw, which contains a couple of concerts he gave in Amsterdam in the early 1950s. You can barely believe it's him. The style is quicksilver brilliant and shot through with exactly the sort of flaky effects and eccentric tempo changes the EMI recordings so rigorously eschew. He's caressingly lyrical with the faux exoticism of de Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, drivingly tough with the Bartok Violin Concerto, and exquisitely slow with the Janacek Sinfonietta--delicately unfolding the cascading fanfares of the allegro as though he were lingering over the details of an ancient tapestry. It's all witty, impassioned, and odd.

An even bigger surprise is a two-CD set on Testament of Mozart symphonies and serenades. It happens that these were the first recordings Klemperer and the Philharmonia made for EMI. They were withdrawn because they were recorded in mono just as EMI was changing over to stereo; Klemperer redid them in stereo a couple of years later, and it's those performances--which were in his grandest manner, as slow and ornate as a Mississippi steamboat--that most of his admirers are familiar with.

The earlier performances are not perfect; the sound is sometimes thin, and the engineers made an elementary mistake in placing the microphone--during the allegros the first flute is so shrill it comes off like a police whistle at a riot. But maybe that just adds to the effect, because the dominant mood of the set is frantic urgency. Klemperer's goal here appears to be to make Mozart sound as much like Beethoven as possible. He takes every crescendo at a furious clip, as though he's casting the stragglers in the orchestra to the wolves; while the adagios and andantes are so melodramatic they're like scenes in Victorian plays where orphans are ordered out into the snow. Even the minuets brim over with nameless yearning, as though the Regency aristocrats were turning in the ballroom with tears streaming down their cheeks. It's actually a relief when Eine Kleine Nachtmusik comes off as unfelt and dull--the first moment on the set that sounds like the familiar Klemperer.

How could he have had this kind of fire and lost it? Or did he deliberately stamp it out? I'm just guessing, but I think it was the latter. It was only a few months after the Mozart sessions that his later style jelled and he began making his classic Beethoven recordings--which have no fire at all, but loads and loads of balance, grace, and beauty. So whatever happened to him happened to him right around here. I had the feeling listening to the Mozart set that this was the exact breaking point--that Klemperer decided to change his whole approach to conducting the moment he heard the playback.

What jumps out at you when you sit through the earlier Mozart performances more than once is that they don't work. They're wonderfully entertaining the first time through, but they're completely wrongheaded. Mozart isn't supposed to sound like a proto-Beethoven; his music was never designed to carry that kind of complex psychological and dramatic weight. Mozart was writing in a different age, making different assumptions about what music was for: his orchestral works are rooted in the long tradition of dance and public performance. If his ornaments and tricks are cranked up full blast and played as a kind of interior portraiture--which is how Klemperer plays them here--the result is momentarily dazzling but ultimately empty, because the music doesn't build to any deep emotional payoff. You can't get to the end of the Jupiter Symphony feeling as you do at the end of the Eroica, that you've climbed the Matterhorn; you're supposed to have something more like the satisfaction of finishing a particularly exuberant night of dancing.

Conductors in Klemperer's day thought of themselves as psychoanalysts probing the depths of the composer's soul. Mozart doesn't respond well to that approach. It's not that he doesn't reveal himself in his music; it's that what he reveals isn't necessarily very appealing. The personality that comes through his music isn't friendly or approachable or even interestingly dark. Mozart's soul was dominated by a horizonless sense of mastery. There was no musical form, from the serenade to the opera seria, that took him more than a moment's work to conquer--he composed as effortlessly as he breathed. The few other composers in his league of technical virtuosity tended to push themselves to the limits of musical form in order to find difficulties worthy of their craft: Bach, for instance, was forever devising fantastically challenging formal problems so he could show off the coruscating brilliance of his solutions. Mozart never went in for such games. I don't think he found any musical problem difficult enough. Even his most ambitious operas and symphonies give off the eerie sense that he's slumming.

Sometimes people blame this inhuman disengagement on Mozart's youth. He died before his emotions had a chance to mature, they say, and this is why the darker passages in his music have such an irritating air of mockery. He wasn't old enough to find tragedy genuinely tragic, he still had that adolescent impulse to sneer at the mushy stuff. Maybe so, but I'm not sure how impossibly aged and Yoda-like he would have had to become before his wisdom could have caught up with his transcendent skill. I think the real issue is that he pushed to the limit a certain tendency found in almost any music--to be beautiful at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons. He had a hyperdeveloped gift for enshrining emotions in musical forms so gorgeous you can't make out what the emotions are any longer. This is true of a lot of composers: they take such pleasure in making an elegy beautiful that they forget it's supposed to be about mourning. But Mozart carried this to the extreme. Tragedy is impossible for him because in his musical world there's no death or suffering, only the miracle of grace; and his comedy isn't funny because it's like a comic strip done in stained glass.

This is the quality that Klemperer's early Mozart set misses--the very quality his later performances were obsessed with finding. In the torrent of recordings he began churning out for EMI he spent no time whatever wading through the murkiness of any composer's soul; he wrote all that off as irrelevant. In his liner notes for his great Beethoven cycle (unfortunately not included in the CD release), he even argued that most of Beethoven's symphonies were cheerful pieces, with none of the darkness wrongheaded psychologizers had sought to find in them. What he saw in Beethoven--and in every composer he conducted from then on--was a strong and harmonious formal beauty.

No conductor is more brilliantly aware of how a piece should be proportioned than Klemperer. His later recordings are alive to the exact weight of every note, and they detail with exquisite thoroughness the spiderweb of the notes' interconnections. There are no surprises in the EMI recordings, only a kind of mounting inexorability; the suspense is in how every irrelevant flourish and digression will be dovetailed into the engulfing design. Sometimes the result is revelatory but disconcerting, as in his Bruckner recordings, where the strange trailing swoops and swirls are woven into a tightly structured internal dynamic; it's a bit like getting close to a fata morgana and finding a real estate agent waiting to show off the plumbing. At other times the result is just flat-out wrong; his Symphonie fantastique is so rational and earthbound it should have been rebilled the Symphonie Mundane. But when the style and the composition melt together, the results can be astonishing; it's as though all the passionate Romantic urgency of his old style had been sublimated into a fierce classicism.

I can't help feeling that the relentlessness with which he made his dozens of EMI recordings flowed directly out of the strange circumstances of his own life. He became transfixed by the abstract beauty of music because his nonmusical existence was a nightmare. According to Peter Heyworth's recent meticulous two-volume biography Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times, the reason he'd never accumulated any kind of reputation before the EMI contract is that he'd spent most of his adulthood ricocheting from doctor to doctor, mental hospital to mental hospital all through Europe and America. As early as the 1920s he was recognized as a conductor of exceptional abilities, but he'd been routinely prevented from assuming a regular post by a series of bizarre mental and physical breakdowns. He'd been left paralyzed on one side by an operation for a brain tumor; he was racked by decade-long storms of mania and frozen into listlessness by abyssal depressions; around the time he got the EMI contract he was badly burned over most of his body when he set fire to himself smoking and tried to douse the flames with camphor. By the time he took over the Philharmonia he could barely conduct at all in the traditional sense. Sometimes he had to be carried on and off the podium in intense pain. His crippled movements were often so vague and impressionistic the orchestra could follow him only through a form of intuition.

But they did learn to follow him. Maybe Klemperer's late style coalesced so quickly because he finally felt he had an orchestra that trusted his vision. After all, they had to have known--particularly in the late 50s and early 60s--that they were making some astonishing records: a noble Saint Matthew Passion, two spectacular Beethoven cycles (the studio version is on EMI, and the live set was recently reissued on Music & Arts), a Das Lied von der Erde of Olympian grandeur. And then there was Klemperer's triumphant rematch with Mozart.

His stereo versions of the Mozart symphonies sound wonderfully articulate--or they would if you could hear them; EMI has banished them back into the vaults after a brief appearance on CD (sometimes I long for Judgment Day because record company executives will be forced to account for their inventory decisions). But an even better Mozart set is available right now: his 1964 recording of The Magic Flute. This is one of the most exquisite opera recordings ever made, up there with (to pick two celestial jewels) Rafael Kubelik's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and John Barbirolli's Madame Butterfly. It's a luminous, intricate, and profoundly meditated performance, where every nuance receives just the right shade of emphasis. One of the deepest pleasures of classical music is studying Mozart's opera scores, because there are so many felicities of ornamentation that get blurred in performance--but here that's superfluous, for every little curlicue is illuminated by Klemperer's loving care. There are no melodramatics, no shock tactics--just the most inventive music in the world unfolding into flower after flower of kaleidoscopic perfection.

I do have to say that I've always had deeply mixed feelings about Klemperer's late style, and listening to The Magic Flute again for this review did nothing to resolve them. There's a big problem with this recording: it's undramatic and cumulatively monotonous. Deliberately so--Klemperer decided to leave out all the spoken passages and record only the music, which makes the story impossible to follow (without some frantic skimming of the libretto) and drains many big moments of their intended effect. The Queen of the Night normally arrives on a grand roll of thunder, but here there's no thunder--Lucia Popp just launches into her first aria out of nowhere. This decision might have been made so that the recording would fit on the right number of discs, but I think these cuts reflect a deeper indifference. Klemperer doesn't conduct with any particular urgency because (and here he parts company with conductors like Kubelik and Barbirolli) he doesn't give a damn about the drama. All that matters are the filaments of the music making their dizzying cat's cradle; the subject matter that generated them is a meaningless contrivance.

Of course he wouldn't be the only person to dismiss The Magic F lute as a hodgepodge of arbitrary and garbled symbolism, to which Mozart's most astonishing music has granted an undeserved impression of profundity. I can't claim to have heard a performance of it that really makes any sense. But I persist in the feeling that it ought to make sense--like a dream whose memory you can't shake off even though you know the details are absurd. Klemperer's refusal to go searching for significance, however sound as a short-term tactic, ultimately closes off too many of the wilder possibilities the music opens up. If I don't know of a better performance of this opera I can point to a couple of Mozart recordings that hint at something else, at some unexplored zone of strangeness behind the mask of absolute accomplishment: Erich Kleiber's classic recording of The Marriage of Figaro, made in the 1950s, where the comedy seems to be spilling over from an otherworldly fountain of joy, and Wilhelm FurtwŠngler's Don Giovanni, from the 1953 Salzburg Festspiele, where the tragedy and mockery dissolve together in a dance of demonic fire.

Klemperer's recordings never reach those sorts of feverish and exalted heights--they never try to. They're secular, earthbound, and human. Does Romantic music work without its spirituality? Is it enough to celebrate the strictly nonmagical beauties of The Magic Flute? I still can't decide. But I am sure that Klemperer, as much as any performer who ever lived, earned the right to believe that the beauty of this world was enough.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.

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