Otto Klemperer (1885-1973)

Klemperer recordings have been at the heart of our sound archive and of our archiphon catalogue from the very beginning. Main impetus thereby formed the numerous surviving but unpublished live recordings most connoisseurs and music lovers were as yet unfamiliar with. We received invaluable support and encouragement from the conductor’s daughter, Lotte Klemperer (1923-2003, see obituaries by N. Lebrecht and M. Anderson), who, together with many other documents, bequeathed to us a large collection of photographs that now adorn the covers of our ARC-WU series. Our main target has been to create as complete an archive as possible of Klemperer’s sound recordings and to make these available to the wider public via download.

Otto Klemperer was one of the great conductors of the twentieth century. Like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Carl Schuricht, Bruno Walter and other “grand old men” whose careers flourished in the inter-war years, Klemperer’s roots lay still very much in the Kapellmeister tradition. Since there is ample and comprehensive written documentation about both his life and his work, we suffice here with providing a:

The enormous extent of the total number of Klemperer’s recordings, both live and studio, can easily be gauged from the discography we have compiled: ranging from 1924 to 1971, it features performances from all his creative periods, significantly including the years 1934-1950 when, except for a brief spell with Vox in 1946, Klemperer was bereft of opportunities to make commercial recordings. Thus our archive serves as the ideal basis for anyone wanting to form a comprehensive “sonic” idea of all facets that make up the musicianship of this extraordinary conductor, revealing at the same time the particular features of Klemperer’s unique interpretative style.

Klemperer's Recordings and his Interpretative Style

In what follows we will try to articulate in what way Klemperer’s musicianship makes him stand apart from other conductors and more specifically what features in his interpretations make his performances typically different.

Klemperer made his first recordings between 1924 and 1931 in Berlin for the labels Polydor, Parlophone and Electrola/HMV. He then returned to the recording studio only after the Second World War, following his period of exile in the USA, initially for Vox (1946 Paris and 1951 Vienna). Before long, however, he moved to EMI/Columbia and between 1954 and 1971 he set down for them an enormously varied repertoire ranging from Bach to Stravinsky. It is in particular the stereo recordings he made during his Indian summer with EMI that have defined Klemperer’s image for the wider musical public.

Klemperer counts as the antipode of such “romantic” interpreters as Furtwängler and Bruno Walter (in a 1960 BBC interview he (in)famously called Walter a moralist while claiming himself to be animmoralist, and emphatically so: “absolutely!”). Main features typical of his musicianship throughout his long career are clarity of structure and a steadily maintained rhythmic pulse. He eschewed the frequent, strong rubati and cared little for the beauty of sound that others saw as the embodiment of “expressive” musical phrasing and tone forming. Disregarding smoothness of surface, Klemperer instead turns the angularities and dissonances he finds in the works he performs into an integral part of their overall impact. Similarly, voices are always clearly separated, but remain part of the structural whole. 

The inner tension this simultaneous experience of detail and totality evokes in the listener, creates an emotional quality that is wholly Klemperer’s own. It also helps to explain why even with the at times slow tempi of certain of his later recordings, the performances themselves never drag or fail to inspire. The often mercilessly maintained steady pulse and the never abating clarity of detail betray the undeniably spiritual force that drives his music making.

Thus, Klemperer performances tend to crystallize into a quest for the essential elements that bind the music together. Nothing illustrates this better than the Beethoven cycle the then 85-year old conductor gave in London in 1970 and which was filmed by the BBC. By the same token, when after their break-up Walter Legge once critically described such performances as “musical X-rays,” nothing compels us to accept this in the negative way he had in mind.

When critics nevertheless continue to reproach Klemperer for the slow tempi his late performances on EMI exhibit, tending to discard those recordings, one should bear in mind that Klemperer, as we know, did not much like making studio recordings, more or less regarding them as welcome rehearsal time for subsequent concert performances. The numerous recordings of live concerts we have often show us a totally different Klemperer, i.e., one of musical extremes. Of Mahler Second Symphony, for example, he has left us the fastest performance on record (1950, Sydney) and the slowest (1970, London). In certain ways this reflects the manic-depressive fluctuations that plagued him throughout his personal life which also tended to behavioural extremes. Unlike with his EMI studio recordings, we discover especially in the live concert recordings that survive from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s an unbridled firebrand searching as possessed for the fields of highest tension the score may contain and often pushing his musicians to the limits of their abilities.

No one recognized this dialectical tension between structural severity and emotional ardor more clearly than his friend, the philosopher Ernst Bloch, when he wrote of the performances Klemperer gave of Beethoven’s Fidelio at Berlin’s Krolloper November 1927: “Nirgends brennen wir genauer!”, an untranslatable expression best rendered by Peter Heyworth's 'Nowhere is passion so closely allied with precision'."

Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra

In 1945 EMI producer Walter Legge founded the  Philharmonia Orchestra, which he envisaged in the first place as a studio recording orchestra for EMI. He put the orchestra’s musical direction in the hands of Herbert von Karajan. When Karajan left in 1954 to become Furtwängler’s successor at the head of the Berlin Philaharmoniker, Legge decided to engage Klemperer as the Philharmonia Orchestra’s chief conductor. For both conductor and orchestra this ushered in a period of collaboration that proved as long and enduring as it was successful.

For Klemperer the appointment clearly spelled rescue from difficult times. After leaving Budapest in 1950 he had had trouble re-establishing himself in Europe. Albeit worldwide, his conducting activities had been reduced to a number of guest appearances and a small series of recordings for Vox in Paris and Vienna. Not only did Legge provide him with a regular orchestra but he also offered him an exclusive long-term recording contract. The ensuing material security enabled Klemperer to re-settle in Europe. He again became a German citizen and gave up his American passport.

For the orchestra Klemperer proved a genuine stroke of luck because, unlike Karajan and other famous colleagues, he had no binding commitments elsewhere and thus was able to fully dedicate himself to working with them in London.

Between October 1954 and September 1971 Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra set down close to 200 hundred individual works for EMI, some of them twice, in a repertoire that ranged from Bach to Stravinsky. From the start their LPs made recording history and were quick to help re-establish Klemperer‘s international reputation. Throughout the 1960s Klemperer ranked as EMI’s most profitable classical recording artist. In addition, approximately 80 live concert recordings have survived from Klemperer’s years with the orchestra.

The year1964 brought a sudden crisis that proved decisive for both the Philharmonia and its principal conductor. On 10 March, without prior warning, Walter Legge announced he had decided to dissolve the orchestra.

Until then Legge had held a nearly unassailable monopoly position: as producer for EMI he could decide matters of repertoire virtually on his own, the Philhamonia Orchestra belonged to him (and thus also the royalties from record sales), and as main shareholder of the Philharmonia Concert Society he also had at his disposal revenues from live concerts.

However, the huge investments EMI had had to make in the development of stereo technology had led to budget difficulties. This in turn undermined Legge’s position of power within the company and reduced the profits he was reaping from the orchestra. In June 1963 he decided to leave EMI the following year, fully trusting that he would easily find a new position with one of the other major record companies and expecting to employ the orchestra even more profitably than he had so far. He was proved wrong on both accounts.

The Philharmonia countered Legge’s unilateral step with their decision to re-group as a cooperative under their own management and calling themselves the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Klemperer immediately supported them in the endeavour, agreeing to become the orchestra’s president, and committed himself to doing ten concerts with them the following season. At the opening concert on 27 October 1964 he conducted Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 9 and donated his fees to the orchestra. The Ninth was filmed by the BBC (EMI Classics DVD, 2004).

Fortunately, the sudden transition did not impact the orchestra’s collaboration with EMI. As before Klemperer and the New Philharmonia proved profitable partners as their many recordings remained momentously successful. After Legge’s departure and till the end of their collaboration, it was on the whole Suvi Raj Grubb who was in charge of Klemperer’s record productions, including the 1971 Così fan tutte and Mozart’s Serenade for Winds, K 375, the last work Klemperer completed in the studio (28 September 1971).

Klemperer gave his final concert with the New Philharmonia Orchestra on 26 September 1971 in the Royal Festival Hall. He was 86. Part of the rehearsals and of the concert (the first movement of Brahms’s Third Symphony) were recorded on film, while Testament published the entire concert on CD. The maker of the film, Philo Bregstein, two years later directed a comprehensive documentary of Klemperer’s life and work (Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey through his Times). Both films are expected to be brought back into circulation within the near future through the Otto Klemperer Film Foundation.

Klemperer’s collaboration with the Philharmonia and EMI began in 1954. In 2014 the orchestra celebrated their 50th anniversary as the New Philharmonia (1964), and in 2015 will celebrate three score and ten years of existence (since 1945). As part of the occasion the Philharmonia Orchestra (so named again since 1972), together with archiphon, will create their own Klemperer Archive (LINK follows) which will make available as free downloads a number of as yet unpublished recordings of Klemperer and the Philharmonia.

Klemperer on Film

The most comprehensive biographical film about Klemperer is "Otto Klemperer's Long Journey through his Time" by the Dutch filmmaker Philo Bregstein who also filmed Klemperer at rehearsals and (partly) at concert in September 1971. This happened to be the conductor's last concert. After decades both films will  be published by the recently established Otto Klemperer Film Foundation (OKFF).

For more film material with and about Klemperer see a Complete List of Klemperer on Film.



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