Vintage Klemperer and Schuricht

Dan Davis

[June 2002.]

Do we really need recordings of “live” performances issued on small independent labels by artists who have recorded the same repertory in superior sound for easily available large labels? After one hearing of this three-disc set of Hamburg concerts given by Otto Klemperer in 1955 and 1966 (Music and Arts 1088), the only possible answer is “Of course we do!” That’s because Klemperer, like many others, was a different animal in the recording studio, where caution and technical perfection replaced spontaneity and instant communication as the guiding values. Many of the recordings he made for EMI in the Indian summer of his career are extraordinarily fine but they are often superseded by his contemporaneous concert performances, which exhibit greater drive and emotional power. In the studio, Klemperer had the great Philharmonia Orchestra. Here he conducts the NDR Symphony, a distinctly lesser group which, nevertheless, plays its collective heart out for him.

The difference can be heard in Beethoven’s Seventh. His 1955 EMI recording was his finest commercial version of the work, beautifully played, with pacing that made it superior to his relatively stodgy stereo remakes. The concert performance on this set, made a few weeks before that Philharmonia recording, exhibits most of its virtues, and adds sharper accents, springier rhythms, and more impactful phrasing. The same concert features a Bach Suite No. 3 that’s much closer to his first EMI recording, big but not excessively swollen, and, within the limits of the tradition Klemperer embodied, graceful. Not for period-performance buffs, but enjoyable nonetheless. The other work on that September 28, 1955 program was Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, a Klemperer favorite; it’s done with warm phrasing and rhythmic flexibility that can’t fail to please. His opening statement of the first theme is irresistible in its open-hearted elegance and only the churlish will fail to respond to Klemperer’s discreet legato phrasing, whatever the authenticity police may mandate.

The May 3, 1966 concert opened with Mozart’s G major Symphony, done with compellingly dark intensity, and then moved on to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Klemperer’s 1960 studio recording of the work is generally considered among his least attractive recordings, notable only as an exercise in stodginess. Although the timings of each movement are similar, this Hamburg performance is a very different affair, weighty, but with masterly control of the work’s long lines and a rhythmic spring that gives even the slowest passages a note-to-note continuity that maintains intensity. Maggi Payne’s sound restoration of these monophonic radio broadcast tapes is excellent — there’s no distortion or excessive noise, details are not obscured, and orchestral balances are true, although the latter can be credited to Klemperer, whose forward winds and firm bass foundation were hallmarks of his conducting style. This set is urgently recommended to all and it’s a necessity for Klemperer’s admirers.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for another great conductor, albeit one who’s fallen into undeserved obscurity, for Carl Schuricht conducted the first concert of the Vienna Philharmonic I ever saw. Whether that mid-1950s Carnegie Hall concert was a revelation because of the brilliant playing or because of my green youth, I can’t honestly say. But the more I hear of Schuricht’s few available recordings, the more I suspect I’d have been moved by that concert even if I’d been a veteran concertgoer. On Music and Arts 1094, a four-disc set, he conducts several different orchestras in a varied selection of live performances ranging from a 1937 Berlin Beethoven Seventh to a 1952 Schubert “Unfinished.”

That Schubert is the best performance in the set — large-scaled, intense, packing a tremendous emotional wallop. It’s cast in a Brucknerian mold, no surprise since Schuricht was one of the great Bruckner conductors, too. His Bruckner Ninth in this set (from 1951) demonstrates that, even if it can’t equal his later EMI recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. Here, as in the Schubert, the orchestra is the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, hardly one of the world’s premiere bands. But Schuricht had a long association with them and they respond well to his leadership, even if one wishes for a bigger, more virtuosic ensemble. At first, it appears that Schuricht’s Bruckner is a straight-ahead, no-dawdling objective interpretation. To an extent it is, but there are numerous individual touches throughout and none of the swooning and stretching that infect many of our contemporary Bruckner recordings.

There’s more of unusual worth, such as the Reger Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, where Schuricht’s control of line and refusal to give in to either the audience noises at the start or the overblown ways of other interpreters make the best case for music that doesn’t travel well. There’s also some dispensable music here, like the overly Romantic arrangement of the Haydn D major Cello Concerto played by Enrico Mainardi in a way that makes you pine for Janos Starker. But the interest level is quite high, especially on the final disc that includes that 1937 Beethoven Seventh, a dynamic interpretation worth knowing despite some imperfections in the playing.

Like the Klemperer set, the Schuricht has been transferred by Maggi Payne, albeit with usually less vivid originals. It’s all quite listenable, however, even the older broadcast materials. But if you’re allergic to monophonic recordings and especially to those made outside controlled studio conditions, don’t say you weren’t warned. For those made of sturdier stuff, there’s tremendous pleasure and enlightenment awaiting you on these two sets.


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