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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Missa Solemnis, op.123

Elisabeth Söderström (Soprano), Marga Höffgen (Contralto),
Waldemar Kmentt (Tenor), Martti Talvela (Bass)
New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
EMI Great Recordings of The Century CDM5 67546 2 [79.31]
Crotchet   £8.50 Amazon UK  £8.99  Amazon US

This was Otto Klemperer's second recording of the Missa Solemnis. He had made a grave and imposing mono version for Vox in 1951 that may have prevented a stereo recording for EMI until the years after his long relationship at that company with Walter Legge had ended. For his admirers it was certainly worth waiting for and hasn't been out of the catalogue since it first appeared in 1965. In fact so commanding and distinctive a version is it that I'm surprised EMI has taken so long to re-issue it under this livery. However this is not to say it would top my list of recommendations for this work.

The glory of the recording has always been the singing of the New Philharmonia Chorus, still trained at that time by the legendary Wilhelm Pitz and what a memorial to their old chorus master their contribution is. Their concentration, accuracy and fervour still blazes at us down the years, especially as they are balanced quite close. Lesser choruses would suffer from such microphone exposure but a great chorus like this thrives on it and we can hear every word they sing. This as a recording from a time when producers recognised that listening at home is a different experience from listening in a concert hall and hearing this kind of balance again is a reminder of times past. Lesser choruses would also be exposed by some of Klemperer's measured tempi but these don't bother this group of singers one bit and they seem to thrive in spite of the obstacles Klemperer is placing in their way. If the chorus deserves superlatives the orchestra is not far behind. By then they were completely Klemperer's orchestra producing the kind of sound he demanded as second nature. It's a very unalloyed sound palette with broadly defined colours absolutely characteristic of this conductor. But it's one that in the end I don't feel suits the devotional aspects of this work very well, superbly though the orchestra realises it for their old chief. It tends particularly to stress strength at the expense of feeling . I am much less happy with the soloists too. On paper they look an excellent group, yet in performance they sound semi-detached from what is going on. Neither Kmentt nor Söderström are at their best and, though he is the star of the group on this occasion, Talvela sounds unsuited to some passages, notably the Benedictus.

However, the real problem in being able to recommend this recording to anyone other than Klemperer collectors is Klemperer himself. What in the Kyrie comes over as a tempo and sound to convey granite-like strength and sense of travail at the start of our journey in the Gloria just turns to dull plodding in music capable of so much more energy and rapture. Likewise in the Credo fugues Klemperer doesn't manage to energise, rather he seems to believe the God he is telling us to worship is a stern-faced headmaster with chalk in his veins. That clearly is Klemperer's particular vision for this work and there is no doubt he delivers this unerringly no matter how ultimately inappropriate it seems overall.

Klemperer admirers will need this recording for reference. It is central to his legacy and thoroughly characteristic. Those who want a more central and approachable version of this work should consider recordings by Levine (DG), Shaw (Teldec) and Harnoncourt (Telarc).

Tony Duggan

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