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Otto Klemperer (1885-1973) and the Philharmonia Orchestra

My thanks to Richard Todd who has written this interesting and thought provoking article

Walter Legge, chief recording producer at EMI Columbia Records, founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1945. It had started life as the Philharmonia Quartet (the ‘Philharmonia’ came from the edition of the score used for the Mozart quartet which it recorded first). As it grew its personnel came mainly from the wartime BBC Salon and RAF orchestras. Legge’s original aim was to direct Covent Garden with Thomas Beecham and he felt it necessary to create a first-class orchestra for opera, concerts and recording. Beecham conducted the orchestra’s first public performance in October 1945. But Legge wanted it to work with all the best conductors and one of those he brought to London in the 1950’s was Otto Klemperer.

Born into a highly musical Jewish merchant family in Breslau in 1885, Klemperer had been taught by Gustav Mahler, and he became Mahler’s apprentice and disciple. He built up his conducting career in Prague, then in various German cities, eventually becoming director of Berlin’s Kroll Opera in 1927. As a non-Arian he had to leave Germany with the rise of Hitler and like many other European artists, settled in America, having been invited to take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1933. He went on to direct the New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestras. A brain tumour halted his career in 1939 but he survived the operation to remove it and, returning to Europe after the war, he took over the Budapest Opera in 1947. He was engaged by Legge to direct the Philharmonia in 2 concerts for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the success of those concerts marked the start of Klemperer’s long association with that orchestra until his retirement in 1972 at the age of 87.

Klemperer was no great orchestra trainer; he would bellow at his players when they didn’t do as he wanted until they complied. The training was left to other conductors Legge engaged: Cantelli, Kletzki and notably Karajan who were all forging their careers in the 1950’s. But the Philharmonia consisted of some of the finest musicians in the land including Alan Civil, horn and Legge’s ‘Royal Flush’ in the woodwind players Sidney Sutcliffe, Reginald Kell, Gareth Morris and Gwydion Brooke.

Klemperer was to specialise in recording the central Germanic classics from Bach to Richard Strauss, and particularly Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. In performance, he was concerned with orchestral clarity and balance, and the clean articulation of the notes. But above all he gave prominence to the structure of the piece being performed.

He usually sought a big sound with the orchestral sonority spread very deliberately across the sound-stage. His layout of the instruments was untypical at that period- with 1st and 2nd violins at either side of the conductor, double basses on the left, and violas and cellos to the right. As Klemperer was recording right at the start of the stereo era such instrumental deployment came across to his audience with striking immediacy. The word stereo derives from the Greek for solid and one can readily appreciate that meaning when listening to a Klemperer record. This solidity of sound was his hallmark and it remained evident despite changes in recording producers and engineers.

Klemperer’s concern for a clear musical structure meant that he often revealed much detail in a score but he had no interest in beauty of tone for its own sake. And according to Hugh Bean, the Philharmonia’s leader in the 1960’s, precision was left to the orchestra, and as a result the playing is not always perfect. But a Klemperer performance is invariably plain and without sentiment: he came to be regarded as a prophet of the absolute.

Klemperer was criticised for his measured tempi in certain works. When Walter Legge told him that the ‘Peasant’s Merrymaking’ 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was too slow, he responded typically by telling Legge not to worry as he would soon get used to it! A few minutes later Klemperer enquired of Legge as to whether he had got used to it yet! There may be less vitality here than in other interpretations. Yet elsewhere in the Pastoral there is an unhurried steadiness imparting an appropriate breadth and calm.

Although poor health forced him to be seated when conducting, Klemperer had a huge presence in front of the orchestra and a compelling power of communication of his musical intentions. He was gradually adopted into the Philharmonia family, becoming affectionately known as ‘the old man’. The players enjoyed his mocking and cruel wit - in response to the news of the death of an eminent conductor colleague he would invariably say ‘so, we are having a good year, yes? He told a television interviewer bluntly that whereas Bruno Walter was very romantic and conciliatory, he was not. ‘He is a moralist, I am an immoralist’. He was also incredibly accident prone, causing Legge to run around frantically rearranging his schedules. When laid up once, he set his bedclothes on fire (against doctor’s orders he had been secretly smoking in bed). In desperation he reached out for the nearest liquid to douse the flames, which turned out to be spirits of camphor!

The perception that Klemperer was an absolutist and had no truck with tradition in musical pacing or phrasing gained him some detractors. It is also surprising that of Mahler’s symphonic works only No’s 2, 4, 7, 9 and Das Lied von der Erde were recorded (but his three separate recorded performances of No 2 were available at one time). And he refused to record either the First (the most popular on record) or the Sixth, which many Mahler admirers claim to be the greatest, dismissing it as ‘not one of his best’.

Some idea of Klemperer’s individual approach can be gained from listening to his recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which is in many ways the composer’s most difficult to appreciate. Klemperer’s straightforward phrasing may put off those who expect the dazzling, even kaleidoscopic effects many other conductors strive for in this work. In its high-spirited finale, the ideas almost fall over themselves in a bid to be heard. But Klemperer gives us a clear, measured reading which brings its own rewards and the work’s structure emerges the more impressively as a result.

The individuality of Klemperer’s readings should not blind us to their very real merits. When getting to know Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony in the 1970’s through the Klemperer recording, it impressed me by its presentation of the work, with an unhurried ruthlessness, as a monumental masterpiece. After listening to this and many other symphonic works under Klemperer, they can seem almost inconsequential in other hands. Even though it was said he viewed a work with the eye of a surveyor rather than that of a poet, anyone listening to his Eroica, Fifth or Ninth must also be aware of the rugged grandeur of Beethoven’s conception. His portrayal of the last judgement in Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony is truly awe-inspiring. But Brahms’ First, Bruckner’s Ninth and Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration are each presented as a unified statement: the end implicit in the beginning and the experience real and immediate.

Nowadays Klemperer is still thought of a Beethoven specialist, which label he resented as if the term had been hung around his neck like a dog collar. Yet he could be surprisingly adaptable when recording pieces some thought could not be in his line. The Mendelssohn of fairies and evocative landscapes is alive and well in his readings of ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ and ‘Scotch’ and ‘Italian’ Symphonies. There are vivid recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz, Franck’s D Minor Symphony and Dvorak’s ‘New World’ Symphony along with late Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky symphonies. And apart from orchestral works there are his recordings of operatic and choral works by Handel, Mozart, Bach and Wagner to enjoy.

The quality of sound on a Klemperer record is crystal clear and distinct from that of other conductors. One might have expected this from Karajan, that most hi-fi conscious of conductors, but instead only Klemperer obtained this uniquely pure recorded sound. The LP record market places a very high value on all Klemperer’s original Columbia, Angel and HMV issues with the Philharmonia and New Philharmonia Orchestras. Listening again one has to say that is so for very good reasons.