Originality, singularity, and individuality are elements key to prominence in any field. No one aspiring to greatness can do so through imitation alone. Otto Klemperer was a great conductor because he dared to be different. Unlike many of today's homogeneous conductors, Klemperer was unafraid to impose his personality on his interpretations. Not that all of his performances attained greatness, of course, as the following examples testify, but those that were on target will remain with us for as long as people enjoy music.
Yes, Klemperer's tempos were slow. The man's constant insistence on structural integrity and strong symphonic design often left his music sounding merely slower than that of his rivals. But listen again. Listen to the Schumann First "Spring" Symphony, for instance--the highlight of his Schumann set. The music sings. There is not a trace of the ponderous heaviness of which Klemperer is sometimes accused. There is, instead, a light-footed sureness that creates a totally delightful Spring. It is the best, most thoroughly convincing rendering of this score available. His version of the Fourth is almost equally fetching, but in a different way. It combines a deftness of touch with a powerful, yet well-balanced, rhythmical proposition that produces a performance of towering proportions. Where the First possesses an appropriate spirit of benign vitality, the Fourth has an apt sense of grandiloquence.
Unfortunately, Klemperer's Second and Third Schumann symphonies don't fare as well. No. 3 begins sluggishly and never attains the grandeur for which the conductor was evidently striving. It's a good, if flawed, effort, which is more than can be said about No. 2, which I find simply boring. Nevertheless, with two symphonies that are treasures (Nos. 1 and 4) and one so-so (No. 3), the set is a bargain at mid price. And one can have a little fun with the sound as well. The two earliest symphonies Schumann wrote, Nos. 1 and 4, were also the earliest of this set recorded, in 1966 and 1961 respectively, and the sound is typical of the time: close-up, with a good deal of highlighting of individual instruments and compartmentalizing of orchestral sections. The sonics are stunningly vivid and dynamic in a hi-fi sense, if not too genuine from a concert hall perspective. Nos. 2 and 3, on the other hand, are more realistically recorded. They were made in 1970 and incorporate EMI's later views on natural sound. Miked at a moderate distance, they are not as lucid as the earlier efforts, but the orchestral image is more of a whole, the sounds of the hall and individual instruments blending to produce greater unity and cohesion. Both recording techniques are valid, to be sure, and both methods have their adherents. It's a bonus to hear them in the same set where the differences are so clearly revealed.
Outstanding among the eight symphonies presented in the set are Nos. 88, 101, 102, and 104, with No. 101 "Clock" a good example of the best of the Klemperer style. It is an enchantingly beautiful performance, the argument strong and the rhythms feather light. This Clock is no modern digital affair, moving without heart or soul, nor is it an old grandfather snoozing laboriously in a corner (although for some listeners, it may come close). This Clock is graceful and ornate, all filigree and glass, inviting us to relax and take our time. (Compare the tempo of the second movement, for instance, to a clock your own with a second hand; the beats tick off almost exactly with the movement of the seconds. Still, too slow for you? Well, as Klemperer might say, "You will get used to it.")
Likewise do the three other Haydn symphonies I enjoyed combine refinement and reason in perfect eighteenth-century order. Regarding the symphonies I enjoyed less well, they are perhaps too much of a good thing, the conductor trying too hard to make every piece sound like a precursor to Beethoven. But when Klemperer is off, it isn't for lack of trying.
These performances are for people seeking something out of the ordinary. The interpretations are uniquely personal and, as such, variable; but when the music is good, it's worth a hundred of anything else.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: