Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral" (CD review)

Also, "Creatures of Prometheus" and "Coriolan" Overtures; "Egmont" Overture and Incidental Music. Otto Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI 7243 5 67966-2.

It's been over a decade now since EMI (now Warner Classics) last reissued Maestro Otto Klemperer's 1957 performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 on CD, and it was appropriate that they released it in their "Great Recordings of the Century" line. Certainly, it's one of the great performances of the twentieth century.

I believe this was the recording's third, fourth, or fifth CD incarnation (depending on how you count the complete Beethoven sets), my reservations about its earlier CD rendering being in regard to its sound. It was somewhat thin, harsh, and noisy. By comparison, the 20-bit remastering released in 1998 as part of EMI's "Klemperer Legacy" series was smoother, fuller, and relatively quieter. Nonetheless, it retained a good deal of the original disc's clarity, sounding more transparent than most new releases. This 2003 remastering appears to me the same as the "Klemperer Legacy" one, so I can recommend it without hesitation.

The earlier disc's coupling, the conductor's reading of the Beethoven First Symphony, was not nearly so characterful as his Sixth, being a bit too massive for my taste to convey all of the work's good cheer, so it's good to see that EMI replaced it here with several overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus and the Coriolan, plus the overture and some incidental music to Egmont, all recorded the same year as the Sixth, 1957, a very good year, indeed.

But it's for the Sixth that people will probably want to buy this disc. I remember reading somewhere that when Klemperer's producer, Walter Legge, asked Klemperer if he didn't think he was taking the Scherzo a little too slowly, Klemperer replied, "Don't worry, Walter; you will get used to it." Well, we've had over fifty years to get used to it, and I suspect by now it has pretty much grown on us. Steady but firm is the key here.

Klemperer's performance continues to be one of the most relaxed, leisurely, bucolic, and wholly charming interpretations ever put to disc, which may seem a contradiction of everything we've come to think about the conductor, largely known for his monumental, granitelike readings. The performance of the Sixth has not and will doubtless never find favor among the Toscanini crowd, but it has delighted most everyone else since Klemperer recorded it.

In the first movement, "The Arrival in the Country," Klemperer takes things very deliberately, very purposefully, its repetitions made more weighty through its unhurried pace, yet never dragging, never feeling lugubrious. The second movement, "The Scene at the Brook," flows naturally and smoothly, maintaining the easygoing nature of the setting. Then comes Klemperer's famous third movement, usually a quick and boisterous Allegro representing peasant merrymaking, but here taken as though the peasants were more than tipsy when the Scherzo starts, rather lumbering stably along. The storm that follows is weightily structured in big, bold outlines, flowing effortlessly into the highlight of the piece, one of the most joyous "Shepherd's Hymn" in any Sixth around.

This is no namby-pamby performance but one with a clear and assertive vision of pastoral life. Along with three or four other conductors, Klemperer leads the field in Beethoven Sixths. For the curious, the other recordings I would place on my list of outstanding Sixths are those of Karl Bohm (DG), Fritz Reiner (especially in its JVC and HDTT remasterings), Eugen Jochum (EMI), and, of course, Bruno Walter (Sony). This is an old, exclusive, and distinguished group of master musicians, among whom Klemperer still stands tall.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

1 comment:

  1. Please may I share some thoughts about the varying approaches to the Pastoral?

    I've sensed that many people are fonder of the slower Pastorals. However, are there brisker Pastoral recordings that work (not counting the historically sensitive versions)? I know that the slower approach favoured by Böhm, Klemperer, Walter, Giulini and the like better brings out the character of the music. I know it's not right to vouch for hurry-sick renditions of any music and I know these may make us feel like rush-hour and force us to life life in fast-forward when listening to this music. I am aware that conductors who adopt this approach are better able to make the moment last and apply a "long now" perspective on this symphony where it is needed. As such it's easier for listeners to embrace this approach and savour every moment, which is harder to do with the brisk-tempo versions. However it may be oblivious to other fast recordings that pre-date Norrington, Gardiner and their historically sensitive buddies. I know that people have mentioned that this was one of the weaknesses in the various Karajan cycles, but then it was only because people were used to the slower approach. Are there some faster, spirited approaches that work and pre-date the historically sensitive versions? I wish to cite the examples of JEG (Gardiner), Mackerras, Abbado (with the Berliners) and Giovanni Antonini and the Basel Chamber Orchestra. They have offered up spirited Pastorals at close to Beethoven's fast speeds, and they don't sound hurry-sick either.


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Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

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