Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth Dr. Otto Klemperer #3

I performed this several times including a recording with Dr. Klemperer and the Philharmonia in the 1950’s.  He often conducted  with no baton as I believe he had problems with his hands, but although his directions were sometimes not very clear he obtained some remarkable performances

His tempi were interminably slow. One could nod off in the slow movement and in what is really the scherzo which to my mind should be light and joyful, sounded to me like a bum-slapping, clod-hopping ländler, but that being said the recitatives and the Ode to Joy leading up to a triumphal ending were truly great.

It must be remembered that Dr. Klemperer was struggling with his health, and, looking back, he had a grand overview of the work. Going back to the “scherzo” he insisted that we repeated Klem-perer  Klem- perer Klem-perer to ourselves so that we played the dotted quarters, eighths, and quarters correctly.  Of course I suppose he could have reminded us to think of Beet-hoven  Beet -hoven  Beet-hoven, but conductors are sometimes egotistical.

I mentioned in a previous blogpost that nowadays music tends to be taken faster, probably a sign of my old age and certainly if you listen to Toscanini then indeed Klemperer is slow and stately, but lately, after listening to many of his recordings a certain grandeur comes out which will make him remembered to posterity.

Video Reminiscences: On Conductors

In these brief videos I discuss some of my memories of working with the great conductors.

On Conductors: Part 1 What Makes a Good Conductor – Sir Thomas Beecham, Dr. Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Victor de Sabata, and others.

On Conductors: Part 2 Walter Legge’s Conductor Competition – “The best of a bad lot.”

On Conductors: Part 3 The Truly Great – What sets the truly great conductors apart from the also-rans.

Klemperer the Man

As time went on, Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra developed a bond that withstood his irascibility because we knew that it was caused mainly by his inability to convey to us by his gestures what he wanted He, in turn, was grateful for the orchestra’s friendliness and co-operation.

His daughter, Lotte, followed him everywhere, acting as his personal assistant. He was on tour, and in the middle of the night Lotte sensed that he was in trouble so she left her room, rushed down the hotel corridor to his room where she saw smoke coming from under the door. Firemen were called and the fire was put out and Klemperer sent to hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered some bad burns. According to Lotte he had been smoking in bed and had dozed off.

The Philharmonia Orchestra got together and sent him a card and some flowers which touched him very much, and after that incident he was noticeably friendlier, and demonstrated it later on when Walter Legge disbanded the orchestra. He ever afterwards referred to Legge as “That man” and helped greatly in getting the orchestra going again as the “New Philharmonia Orchestra”. Work was a bit thin, so I left when I was invited to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra, known in the profession as the”Lifeboat”, because although it was like being in the Civil Service, at least you had a guaranteed weekly income.

The orchestra formed a committee headed by Bernard Walton, the first clarinet, and they appointed Klemperer as their Chief Conductor, later on naming him “Conductor for Life”, then they reverted to the old name “The Philharmonia Orchestra”.

Klemperer always had an eye for the ladies. In 1912 he was forced to quit his job in Hamburg because of a liaison with the newly married Elisabeth Schumann and even in his seventies he started philandering. It came about like this: There was a beautiful ‘cellist named Dorothy B. She had lovely auburn hair, a fine figure and her face could have launched a thousand ships. I know that is being poetical, but every man in the orchestra admired her and they were like the proverbial bees round a honey pot Along comes Klemperer, and during a recording intermission goes up to Dorothy and says “I will buy you a fur coat if you come to bed with me”. Really! I don’t know what she replied but, of course, it was all round the orchestra, and the women, particularly, talked about it incessantly.

There is a violinist, Lorraine du Val, who was in the Philharmonia at the time and who now lives in Canada. She told me that on one occasion she was in the washroom at the Kingsway hall and Dorothy came rushing in. On being asked whatever was the matter, Dorothy blurted out “Klemperer is chasing me!”

Sometimes he would sit at the back of the Kingsway Hall ogling Dorothy when von Karajan was conducting. Eventually von K complained and Klemperer ceased.

His sexual proclivities aside, I think he should forever be in that exclusive hall of fame not only as a great conductor but also as a great humanist.

For a more in depth account of Legge’s disbandment of the Philharmonia, read my blog on Herbert von Karajan.

Otto Klemperer as a conductor

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.

Dr. Otto Klemperer, conductor

I first came across Otto Klemperer in the mid ‘fifties.  As a conductor he had a great reputation, and, although he was in his early seventies at the time he certainly lived up to it.  He had been director of the Kroll Opera House, Berlin,  the Cologne Opera, the Budapest Opera as well as having conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and many more.  He also directed many first performances including Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, Zemlinsky’s Der Schweig and Schreker’s Irrelohe.

He was a good looking man, slightly bent, tall with a full head of black hair turning grey and wore large horn-rimmed glasses. He had had a stroke, which affected his speech and also his conducting ability.  A manic depressive, he had gone through a lobotomy, which in those days was a grisly procedure.  The surgeon made a hole in the skull, inserted a scalpel and then destroyed part of the brain which was deemed to be responsible for the patient’s actions. It never quite succeeded in Klemperer’s case; one day he asked a prominent woodwind player to play in a certain way.  Because his speech was so slurred the player couldn’t understand him and didn’t reply:  Klemperer shouted “Sind sie stumm?” (are you dumb).  There could have been an ugly scene but the player didn’t answer him.  It was our mute understanding that he was letting out his own frustration for not being able to speak clearly.  He was well versed in musicians’ ways too, because one day the second bassoon was missing and he said in his mixed German and English   “Wo ist mein second fagott?”  Somebody told him that he was ill, but Klemperer replied “No, I don’t think he is ill, I think he has another job.”  And he was right!  When he laughed it sounded maniacal.

Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 3:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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