(AUSTRALIA OUT) Conductor Otto Klemperer with Sydney Orchestra on 11 August 1949 SUN NEWS Picture by STAFF (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
On Music

We are indebted to Otto Klemperer

On the extraordinary talent of a troubled composer

Sitting at an awards dinner next to the leader of a period-instruments orchestra, we fell to talking about conductors whom she generally disparaged. I asked what she remembered of her early years in the Philharmonia Orchestra. Suddenly, her eyes glistened. “We had Otto Klemperer,” she said. “Nobody ever made us sound like that.” I heard a similar appreciation from Sir Simon Rattle, no respecter of old lions. “Try as I might,” said Rattle when conducting the Philharmonia, “I could not get that Klemperer sound out of their fingers.”

Klemperer died 50 years ago this July, aged 88, cared for by his daughter Lotte at their Swiss home. Lotte, a captivating character in her own right, died there 20 years ago this month. A Warner Classics box of Klemperer orchestral recordings has been issued on 95 CDs. It is by no means comprehensive. A further box of opera and oratorio discs, including the electrifying Covent Garden Fidelio, will follow in October.

From the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s, Klemperer was among the most prolific conductors on record. Yet around 1950 everyone thought he was finished. His story, thanks to Lotte, is one of the most remarkable music resurrections.

Raised in Hamburg, aged 20, Klemperer conducted the offstage band in Oskar Fried’s performance of Mahler’s second symphony. Mahler gave him tips on interpretation — “if it doesn’t sound right, change it” — and a note saying he was “predestined for a conductor’s career”.

Klemperer turned the Kroll Oper into the maternity ward of modern opera, with all-white backdrops and daring atonalities

Although never as close to Mahler as the fawning Bruno Walter, Klemperer was truer to him in spirit — impassioned, impulsive and high-principled to the point of self-harm. “Dr Walter is a moralist,” said Klemperer on British TV. “I am an immoralist.”

As music director in Cologne, he conducted the second run of Pfitzner’s Palestrina in 1917, months after Walter gave the world premiere in Munich. The composer Berthold Goldschmidt who saw both, said it was like hearing two different operas, conjoined only by the notes.

In Berlin, from 1927 to 1931, Klemperer turned the Kroll Oper into the maternity ward of modern opera, with all-white backdrops and daring atonalities. Exiled by Hitler, he secured a concert with the New York Philharmonic, only to perform Mahler’s Resurrection symphony to a half-empty Carnegie Hall.

Klemperer slunk off to Los Angeles. “We’re getting on so well,” gushed a musical administrator, “from today you can call me Sandra and I shall call you Otto.” “You may call,” said Klemperer, “but I will not come.” (Or so Lotte told me.) Life-saving surgery for a brain tumour left him with a speech defect and paralysed down one side. Eruptions of manic depression put him in a mental home, where he vaulted the wall and went on the run.

No maestro ever reimagined music in Klemperer’s way

He was a menace to women. Anna Mahler told me he chased her round a table until, asking him about a score marking in a Bach cantata, she stopped him in his tracks and obtained a lucid answer. Lotte, when she brought him breakfast in bed, would be introduced to his previous night’s companion, whose name he had forgotten. Once, dousing a cigarette in a bedside whisky glass, he set fire to himself. He was a regular visitor to emergency departments.

After the war he conducted three seasons at Budapest Opera only to be branded a Communist and have his US passport confiscated. At 60, he was a write-off. Three saviours came forward. A smart agent, Ronald Wilford, sent him to conduct in Portland, Oregon, to recover confidence away from the hubbub (I heard Wilford had a fling with Lotte, but she refused to confirm).

The EMI producer Walter Legge summoned him to London, desperately needing to replace Herbert von Karajan with his all-star Philharmonia. Conductor and orchestra clicked on first sight. A legend was born. Only Thomas Beecham is the subject of more musical anecdotes.

Lotte was there, protecting him from shysters, time-wasters and manipulators. She wrote me three closely-spaced pages of factual corrections to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s doting memoir of the duplicitous Legge.

Exasperated at a recording session he shouted, “Lotte, ein Schwindel!” (a swindle). Lotte stood up to him when required, displaying something of her father’s rigour, laced with a caustic humour. She sits with him unflinching on a wall at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In Warner’s catafalque of nearly a hundred CDs, the musical highlights are legion, the low points infrequent.

A set of Beethoven overtures is almost as thrilling as the complete symphonies. Menuhin’s recording of the Beethoven violin concerto encapsulates both men’s quirks, their common belief in a higher purpose. Klemperer conveyed the unconscious in music.

Musicians will argue forever whether Klemperer’s Bruckner is more important than his Brahms. He gave London its first immersion in Bruckner’s last symphonies, a baptismal experience. His Haydn and Mozart are alternately frisky and lugubrious, never predictable. Richard Strauss is made to sound quasi-modern. Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky are Siamese twins, separated at birth. No maestro ever reimagined music in Klemperer’s way.

He recorded just four Mahler symphonies — 2,4, 7 and 9 — rejecting the rest as unworthy. Berthold Goldschmidt persuaded him to sit through his recording of the third symphony. Klemperer listened intently then, like Atlas, shrugged. His piecemeal performance in this box of “Das Lied von der Erde”, with Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich who never met in studio, has no equal on record.

In his last years he dragged Daniel Barenboim to a Yom Kippur service at Marble Arch synagogue. Belief, he insisted, was essential to an interpreter of great mysteries. Klemperer’s Hebrew birth-name was Nathan, the giver. We remain forever in his debt.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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