When I first encountered Otto Klemperer he conducted with a baton. His hands were very shaky, and, although his interpretation of the music was grand, if not superb, he nevertheless had to rely on the orchestra to pull him through. Things became worse later on when he used only his hands and had to sit on a fancy plush velvet stool. However, later on again he managed to stand whilst conducting and again used a baton.
He was best in Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler and Bruckner. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was a revelation. His tempi were always very slow, and he remarked once to us that a slow 2/4 could be heard as a quick 4/4. I was never sure what he meant by this.
His Mozart was clumsy (probably due to his physical condition) and reminded me of a Dutch peasant walking through a field of tulips. This became very apparent with his accompaniment to Dennis Brain’s playing of the four Mozart Horn Concerti. At the end of the sessions Dennis was in tears and Legge got von Karajan to re-record them with Dennis and also Wolfgang Sawallisch to accompany him in the two Richard Strauss Concerti.
In Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the slow movement, “By the Brook” was taken so slowly (with all the repeats I might add!) that it sounded to me like a turgid slough of water. Compared with Toscanini’s tempi his are indeed slow, but listening to his recordings again I can discern a certain grandeur in his interpretations that Toscanini never achieved.
During one particularly dreary recording session some wag quipped that we ought to put on a Beethoven Festival with Klemperer conducting. It got back to Walter Legge, the Founder and Artistic Director of the Philharmonia and he put on several Beethoven Festivals. There were all the symphonies, the piano concerti, the violin concerto, sometimes the triple concerto and, of course there was also a diva decked out in a tiara complete with boa constrictor feather wearing a long gown with a train, carrying all before her, singing “O Monstrous Fiend” from Fidelio.
But he was a giant of a figure amongst all of the conductors I met, and there were many. His performances gave an overall view, and were indeed monumental.