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Otto Klemperer - Sacred Music
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [135.45]
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [223.52]
George Frederick HANDEL (1684-1759)
Messiah, HMV 56 [141.39]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis, Op.123 [79.29]
Performance details at end of review
rec. 1960-67
WARNER CLASSICS 9935602 [7 CDs: 580:45]

This box from Warner is a further instalment in the repackaging of Klemperer’s complete recordings from his Indian summer in the studios during the last twenty years of his life. The Warner logo replaces that of EMI Classics but otherwise it’s the same cover designs and presentation. It provides an interesting conspectus on his changing views of the interpretation of baroque choral music. Actually, as Richard Osborne’s informative booklet notes tell us, Klemperer had been quite a pioneering advocate of the idea of performing Bach and Handel with smaller forces than usual during his earlier years, a first tentative step towards the authentic movement that was beginning to gather real momentum during the period when the recordings in this box were made. At the same time it must be acknowledged that Klemperer’s notion of authenticity was extremely tenuous, and the influence of the more traditionally romantic style of interpretation lies heavy on his performances.
 
Nowhere is this truer than of his famous reading of Bach’s St Matthew Passion made in 1960, the earliest recording in this collection. In the first place, it is often very slow indeed, sometimes half the speed to which we have become accustomed in later years. The chorales are paced very deliberately, with pauses at the end of each line which sometimes fly in the face of the sense of the words, and with expressive overlays which hearken back to the days of Mengelberg and beyond. In other words, this is a ‘period performance’ with a vengeance, by which I mean a performance that is of the early 1960s rather than of Bach’s own era. As such it could quite reasonably be consigned to perdition as a travesty of Bach’s intentions; but at the same time it lies firmly in a performing tradition that stems from the Bach revival of the eighteenth century, after the music had been almost totally neglected for a century or so. It has a real grandeur of its own which defies musicological criticism; if you are going to have Bach performed in this romantic style, it would be hard to imagine it better done. The full forces of the Philharmonia chorus and orchestra sing and play as if their lives depended on it, and there are many touches which go right to the heart of the music. Bach would have been very surprised by the sounds that resulted, but I cannot think that he would have been totally displeased.
 
It comes as something of a shock to learn from Richard Osborne’s notes that Klemperer and Pears disagreed about the treatment of the gospel narratives, and that Klemperer effectively abdicated responsibility for the supervision of these passages to Pears - one wonders what happened to the choral and orchestral interpolations in the narrations. It is a shock because the performance as a whole seems to be driven by a unified vision, and indeed no critics at the time even suspected the division of the direction of the whole work. Sir Peter Pears was one of the great Evangelists of his day - he recorded the part several times - and his delivery of the text has plenty of fire and expression. He is well matched by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - an echo of their collaboration during the same period in the première of Britten’s War Requiem - whose every utterance, but in particular his Eli, Eli, lama sabbachtani, breaks the heart; Pears takes up the following translation with even greater pathos. The halo of strings around the voice of Christ surely displays the touch of Klemperer rather than Pears. Fischer-Dieskau also recorded this part several times, but this performance is the only one that brings these two great lieder singers together. The results are superlative.
 
Nor does the rest of the solo singing let the side down, with even the tiny parts of the two Witnesses taken by soloists of the calibre of Helen Watts and Wilfred Brown; and Sir Geraint Evans takes the even less significant role of one of the Priests. The four soloists in the arias are a quite unmatched team: Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda and Walter Berry constitute a collection of singers whom it would be heard to imagine bettered anywhere. The recording sessions were spread over an unprecedentedly lengthy period of over a year, presumably to accommodate the schedules of this starry line-up; but the sense of unity remains strong throughout. Despite being totally inauthentic, this is quite simply a marvellous performance.
 
Unfortunately when he came to record Handel’s Messiah three years later Klemperer was let down badly by the team of soloists he was given to work with. None of them sound remotely comfortable with the English language. Some ten years earlier Schwarzkopf had declined to sing the role of Cressida in Walton’s Troilus and Cressida which the composer had specifically written for her on stage - although she did manage to record excerpts in the studio - because she felt that her English was not good enough. Here her pronunciation never sounds in the slightest degree idiomatic, as is shown most vividly by her treatment of the “ing” syllable in a line such as “glad tidings of good things” in How beautiful are the feet. When, a few minutes later, the American bass Jerome Hines delivers the line “why do the nations imagine a vain thing?” his treatment of the same syllable sounds hardly any more authentic, with the vowel sounds altered in a plummy manner which suggests strongly that he is trying to cover his natural accent. Nicolai Gedda comes closer to a natural English pronunciation, but he improved in later years when he recorded the tenor roles in Elijah and Gerontius. He still does not sound idiomatic at this stage of his career as can be heard also in his recording of Anatol in the première of Barber’s Vanessa recorded a few years earlier. Best of all surprisingly is Grace Hoffman - who I do not think ever recorded anything else in English - but her super-refined accent sounds as though it has been learnt by rote. Her delivery is sadly lacking in any sense of expression even in Klemperer’s slow and heartfelt He was despised.
 
There is nothing here that is quite as objectionable as the weird contributions of Huguette Tourangeau and Werner Krenn to Bonynge’s 1970 recording of Messiah, whose delivery of the duet O death, where is thy sting? is one of the great unintentionally comic turns of all time; but then we don’t get the duet at all in this recording, since it is one of several items that Klemperer cuts from the score in the bad old tradition. Middle sections of da capo arias go missing as well. The Philharmonia chorus, slimmed down for the occasion, give nicely crisp performances, but the lack of any ornamentation is a serious drawback even in a reading that makes no claims to authenticity. One particularly misses any elaboration of the bald timpani strokes at the end of movements such as Worthy is the Lamb. Klemperer’s surprisingly fleet-footed treatment of the final Amen chorus brings the performance to an exciting conclusion but it does little to make up for the often pedestrian and unyielding nature of the reading earlier. For a full-scale romantic version of Messiah, and one that is also complete, Beecham’s uproarious set from a couple of years earlier certainly consigns this offering to the rank of also-rans.
 
Richard Osborne tells us in his booklet note that Walter Legge tried to persuade Klemperer to make a recording of the Bach Mass in B minor in 1962 using the full Philharmonia forces. Klemperer abandoned the attempt after a number of pilot sessions; it might have been interesting in this context to have heard some of these. When Klemperer finally did get round to making a recording of the work five years later, Legge had severed his connections with the Philharmonia and Klemperer jettisoned the chorus - surely one of the best amateur choirs of all time - in favour of the smaller BBC Chorus, while retaining a section of the Philharmonia orchestral players under their new title. The result is decidedly unbalanced; while the choir sound fine and crisp in the lighter passages of the score, they recede behind the orchestra during the more grandiose sections. In the Sanctus, for example, the floating sopranos lines are unclear and indeed close to the threshold of inaudibility behind the orchestra. The roles of the soloists in the Mass are less prominent than in Messiah, but Klemperer’s often plodding speeds do none of them any favours. Only Dame Janet Baker sounds at all comfortable, and even she has to wait for a slow and heartfelt Agnus Dei to demonstrate her voice at its best. It all sounds rather as though Klemperer has made a conscious attempt to conform to more modern ideas of Bach style, without any real sense of what that actually means. Certainly any more revolutionary idea of Bach with one-to-a-part is very far distant indeed.
 
In the context of the mixed success of these baroque performances, the recording of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis - squeezed onto one very full disc - stands rather apart. Here Klemperer is in his full Beethovenian element, bringing out both the excitement and grandeur of the score in the best possible tradition. He is helped by the glorious singing of the Philharmonia chorus at full strength, managing to deliver their almost unsingable extended high-flying lines with total certainty and poise. There are one or two oddities. During the excited ‘battle sequence’ of the Dona nobis pacem, Klemperer makes a totally unauthorised and massive ritardando in the final bars which is so unexpected that it sounds like a completely different take has been substituted. Oddly enough the effect is dramatically convincing, and the re-entry of the chorus is a thrilling moment. More serious is his assignment in the Sanctus of the fugal passages at Pleni sunt caeli and afterwards to the soloists rather than chorus. Beethoven’s original score is apparently ambiguous here; but the vocal score I own specifically marks these sections “Coro” and the nature of the music surely demands the fuller sound of the choir. At no other point in the score does Beethoven assign contrapuntal music to the soloists in this manner. 
 
This rather perverse decision also serves to highlight the main problems with this recording, which as in the Messiah come in the shape of the soloists. The young Elisabeth Söderström is fine and indeed thrilling in places, but the rest are a mixed bunch. The deep contralto Marga Höffgen shows decided signs of strain in some of her higher-lying passages. Waldemar Kmentt is strenuous rather than lyrical. Only the resonant Martti Talvela sounds really at home in the music. When one compares this recording to the near-contemporaneous Karajan recording with its superb roster of Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Fritz Wunderlich and Walter Berry one realises immediately what a difference a really top-flight line-up of soloists can make. The first interruption of the distant sounds of war in the Agnus Dei¸ with Ludwig and Wunderlich sounding terrified with a quivering nervousness that chills the blood, is simply streets ahead of the effect that Höffgen and Kmentt produce here. Karajan also scores in correctly assigning the fugal passages of Pleni sunt caeli to the chorus, but his recording is severely compromised by the singing of the Vienna Singverein which here and elsewhere is simply not in the same league as the Philharmonia. One’s ideal performance would combine Karajan’s soloists with Klemperer’s chorus and orchestra, but that, of course, is not an option. In the end it all comes down to the fact that Beethoven’s final choral masterpiece is one of those works which can never be satisfactorily encompassed in a single performance or recording. Klemperer, despite the manifest drawbacks, is still up there among the best.
 
It does not appear that these discs have been subjected to any further re-mastering since their original CD reissues. I would suspect that only Klemperer completists - in particular those interested in his evolving response to the challenge of period performances, which were only just beginning to gain momentum at that era - will want to invest in all of these discs. The box as a whole contains two indubitably great recordings, those of the St Matthew Passion and the Missa Solemnis, one interesting if controversial one in the shape of the B minor Mass and an abridged reading of Messiah which I am afraid is not a serious contender in any shape or form.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey 





Masterwork Index: Messiah  


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 [135.45]
Agnes Giebel (soprano), Dame Janet Baker (mezzo), Nicolai Gedda (tenor), Hermann Prey (baritone), Franz Crass (bass), BBC Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 18-20, 23-26 and 30-31 October, 6-7 and 9-10 November 1967
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 [223.52]
Peter Pears (tenor) - Evangelist), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) - Christ, Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano arias, Pilate’s wife and Maid), Christa Ludwig (mezzo-soprano arias), Nicolai Gedda (tenor arias), Walter Berry (bass arias and Peter), John Carol Case (baritone) - Judas), Otakar Kraus (baritone) - Pontius Pilate, High Priest and Priest), Helen Watts (alto) - Maid and Witness, Wilfred Brown (tenor) - Witness, Sir Geraint Evans (baritone) - Priest, Boys of Hampstead Parish Church, Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 21, 25-26 November 1960, 3-4 January, 14-15 April, 10-12 May and 28 November 1961
George Frederick HANDEL (1684-1759)
Messiah, HMV 56 [141.39]
Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Grace Hoffman (mezzo), Nicolai Gedda (tenor), Jerome Hines (bass), Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, February and November 1964 (exact dates not given)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Missa Solemnis, Op.123 [79.29]
Elisabeth Söderström (soprano), Marga Höffgen (alto), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor), Martti Talvela (bass), New Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra/Otto Klemperer
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 30 September and 1, 4-6 and 11-13 October 1965



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