Otto Klemperer talks to Alan Blyth (Gramophone, May 1970)
Klemperer is 85 on May 14. Already part of musical history he remains very much a man of today, willing to attend a performance of Stockhausen’s Gruppen – and enjoy it. Indeed, when he gave me one of his very rare interviews he was as eager to discuss the future as the past, Boulez as much as Mahler. He has known vicissitudes – and not merely the physical ones of recent years – and lived to laugh at them and to bask in a well-deserved Indian Summer of reputation.
His career began at the German National Theatre in Prague, where he became a conductor on Mahler’s recommendation and his first recollection was of performances of Pelleas there under Angelo Neumann and the quite extraordinary impression Debussy’s new sounds had made on him then. Mahler himself was, it almost goes without saying, another seminal influence both as a man and as a musician. ‘He was so kind and helpful to young people, although to the older generation he often seemed bad-tempered, and that’s why they hated him. He was strong and upright in his convictions – perhaps the only man in Vienna at that time who couldn’t be bribed. It was absolutely the fashion at that time to send a critic a few hundred marks in order to get a good review’.
Mahler, like Klemperer, always had his ears open to new music. ‘You know, it’s no use saying this or that piece is a bad noise, firstly because it is untrue, secondly because the young are always right as Mahler said. He acknowledged this grudgingly when he heard what Schoenberg was writing. He said, “Why shall I go on composing if this is the future of music – I cannot understand it” – yet he helped Schoenberg financially’.
After Prague, Klemperer spent his ‘galley’ years at Hamburg (where he attended the first performance of Pierrot Lunaire), Strasbourg, Cologne and Wiesbaden conducting repertory opera and he has a healthy disrespect for the system, at any rate as it was then practised. ‘How can performances be of a high standard if you give every day another opera, without proper rehearsal, without serious meaning’. That’s why he still cherishes the memory of his next period, spent at the legendary Kroll Theatre in Berlin. ‘My hatred of the repertory system was an urgent reason for me to go to the Kroll. There, we gave only ten operas in nine months, repeating the performances very often. Here opera and drama were truly united.
‘We were supported, you see, by what was called the Freie Volksbühne. This workers’ organisation took seats for about 120 performances in the year and gave us a guaranteed income. These block bookings meant that we could afford a good repertory and it included Hindemith’s Cardillac and Neues vom Tage, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Glückliche Hand, Janaček’s From the House of the Dead and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex – its first staging – and The Soldier’s Tale in a double bill. This last was like the old Greek theatre – first something serious, then something funny. Mind you, I think Erwartung played to the emptiest house I’ve ever seen. Of course, we did repertory works too – Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Holländer – but we did them as real music dramas.’
But this first great achievement of Klemperer’s life was destroyed by circumstances beyond his control. The reactionary climate in Berlin caused the closing of the Kroll in 1931 and with it the end of the adventurous symphonic concerts he was giving there too. He moved to the less congenial State Opera; then with the arrival of the Nazis in 1933, his contract was cancelled abruptly and this most European of men was forced to emigrate to America.
‘We could only be thankful to the Americans who gave us bread and work. And it was a country without concentration camps – that was enough. But I could not say I was really happy in a country where money played such an important part in the arts, where one had constantly to be conducting works like Scheherazade, where someone with some power and connections could suggest leaving out the last movement of the Pathétique, because the third movement made such a good ending! America has a different atmosphere musically speaking – or it did then – and the orchestras, good as they were technically speaking, did not play with the warmth I was accustomed to. I was born in Europe and I’m acclimatised to European culture. If you would ask me ‘would you go back ?’ I would answer ‘No’.
He and his daughter Lotte have a further – and very good – reason for bitterness over America in the way, as naturalised citizens, they were deprived of their passports for being abroad too much after the war. In 1947, they went to Budapest for three years where Klemperer war musical director of the opera. ‘That was a very good time. I was allowed to do exactly what I wanted without any interference from the Communist regime. It was only when they began to hinder me in 1950 that I left.’
During that time, he conducted as well in Australia and Canada before incurring the hip accident that kept him incapacitated for a year. I remember myself the London concerts promised that had to be cancelled then. I remember too – and how incredible it now seems – a Beethoven programme in 1954 at the Festival Hall when there were many empty seats. All that changed, as did his fortunes generally, when he became chief conductor, then president, of the Philharmonia. Their relationship has been a long and happy one. ‘They are all wonderful players and readers, and their good behaviour at rehearsals is always a pleasure. They are emphatically not slaves’.
I asked him why he so much prefers having his second violins on his right. ‘They play a big role in symphonic music. They are very seldom in unison with the firsts and therefore they must be independent. On the other hand, I think it is important for the cellos and basses to be together, rather than about as far separated as can be’.
Another unmistakable feature of a Klemperer performance is the clean articulation of the strings. ‘It is most important for a conductor to indicate the bowing and dynamic marks he wants in the parts. I do this in my score and then the Philharmonia librarian transfers these to all the parts. To conduct from old parts is really a punishment. For Figaro, if I’d used the Covent Garden ones, I would have had to sort out at least ten different sets of markings. Fortunately, I was able to get a new set from the publishers, Breitkopf, in Leipzig. My old friend, the composer Paul Dessau arranged this for me, so I was able to start from the beginning.’
He volunteered another crucial piece of information about his conducting habit. ‘It’s very important always to observe the pauses, to keep the precise measure of every phrase. This is like breath to a human being, and you must let the music breathe when it asks for it, not only when it is at its last gasp.’ He sang an example from Mozart to emphasise his meaning. And I heard further evidence of both these points by listening to the Figaro recording. Time and again – for instance in ‘Venite ingmocchiatevi’ and the Second Act Terzetto – there are instrumental figures often lost in other performances ‘I believe that all but the last articulation should be achieved at the final rehearsal, and that the conductor must exert his influence on the players without them noticing it. And I always say that it’s the orchestra that makes the music, not the conductor. The beat must be light and relaxed. Too much demonstration on the part of the conductor only gives hectic results. Of course, at the performance we are all on the sea in a little boat and the slightest accident can upset it. That’s why I often find the final rehearsal more interesting than the actual performance.’
These days, he finds the strain of recording very tiring, yet at 85 his enthusiasm to put on disc many more interpretations is only held in check by his daughter’s understandable concern for his continuing good health. Works he has in mind are Cosi fan tutte, Oedipus Rex, The Barber of Baghdad, Bruckner’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Sixth. He has only been restrained with difficulty from tackling the Eighth, and he bantered amiably with Lotte while I was there about whether or not he would conduct again in the opera house. He would like to direct Wozzeck in the theatre, for instance.
He was undoubtedly enlivened for his revival of Fidelio at Covent Garden last season by the presence of Anja Silja, and his concert performance and recording of Holländer with her as Senta was, he tells me, the first he had given of the work since 1928. ‘She is a great dramatic artist – her Leonore was quite free of the usual sentimentality.’
Perhaps that is why he is also such a great admirer of Pierre Boulez. He regularly goes to Boulez’s rehearsals and performances. ‘He’s an absolutely first-class conductor with an enormous talent in Haydn and Mozart as well as in Debussy and the modern repertory.’ Klemperer does not see himself conducting more of the Second Viennese School. ‘But remember that I conducted Webern before Stravinsky called him the greatest composer of the century.’ Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he adds ‘You know Stravinsky today is very old.’
He explains the popularity of Mahler thus: ‘I think after two world wars, one feels more the uncertainty, the questioning enshrined in his music. We understand its schizophrenia. I remember conducting a performance of the Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in 1936. At the performance, it was an enormous success with those few who attended, but next morning the critics attacked Mahler and the orchestra manager told me that he had lost 5000 dollars adding ‘You see I advised you not to conduct it’.
I saw Klemperer a couple of days after the showing of Ken Russell’s BBC TV film on Richard Strauss. His disdainful comment was to knock his head with his forefinger to indicate how crazy he thought it had been. ‘It was scandalous and by the end everyone must have been taking Strauss’s part.’ Not that Klemperer himself sees Strauss through rose-tinted glasses. He told me of an occasion in 1932 when his wife sang in Strauss’s Intermezzo at a small town near Garmisch. The composer attended and Klemperer asked Strauss if he could visit him to gain his advice about conducting Heldenleben and Rosenkavalier. ‘When I eventually went to see him, Strauss at one point asked me, “What will happen if all the Jewish conductors are dismissed?”. I replied: “Everything will go on as before”. Strauss’s wife interjected in anger: “I tell you, Dr Klemperer, if the Nazis try to do anything to you, I’ll show them”. To which the composer wryly added “That would be just the moment to take the part of a Jew”. I laughed off his remark.
‘I also remember the story of Klaus Mann, son of Thomas, who had the first interview with Strauss after the war but did not let on who he was. He asked the composer whether he had ever thought of leaving Germany. Back came the reply. “No, why should I? Here there are fifty opera houses, in most other countries only one or two. My income would be diminished.”
‘But these remarks didn’t annoy me nearly as much as something he said to me after the First World War when we met at Sils-Maria in the Engadine. We went for a walk together and he told me that he couldn’t conduct Beethoven unless he had a programme before him. “What programme?” I asked. “Well, the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony I think of as the Farewell to the Beloved. Then the trumpets call the man away to higher goals and the final phrase actually fits the word Lebewohl [Farewell]”’ – here Klemperer hummed the phrase – ‘That really offended me!’
As for Strauss’s music; ‘I like everything up to Salome. The rest I find impossible with the exception of Metamorphoses. When I was at Cologne, I had often to conduct Die Frau ohne Schatten, and I must say I found it a most ugly opera.’
In spite of his reputation as a rather austere conductor, he is a great admirer of much lighter music, especially the works of Offenbach. ‘At the Kroll we did La Périchole. That’s a really delightful score. So is Orpheus in the Underworld and Belle Helene. Those who called him “The Mozart of the Boulevards” were not much mistaken.’
Finally we discussed the re-touching of Beethoven’s and Schumann’s scoring. ‘This is a very personal question. I do today make very slight alterations. It’s my own responsibility and I do it because I feel it’s right for me. That was exactly how Mahler felt about his re-orchestrations, but now his versions of Schumann’s symphonies can be bought and are often given. That’s exactly what he didn’t want to happen.’
Klemperer’s work as a composer should not be forgotten as we celebrate his 85th birthday. EMI are bringing out a record this month of his Second Symphony and Seventh Quartet to mark the occasion, and simultaneously Peters are publishing the miniature scores of both works. The sessions for the Symphony, like all Klemperer’s recordings, were supervised by Mr Grubb, who is the veteran conductor’s dedicated right-hand man in the studio and who has also recently been concerned with the refurbishing of Klemperer’s recordings of the nine Beethoven Symphonies. Mr Grubb has a storehouse of Klemperer humour. He remembers during the sessions for Figaro wanting to make another ‘take’ of the opening Figaro-Susanna duet. Klemperer had been quite satisfied with it, but Grubb had his way – not, however, before Klemperer had addressed the singers and orchestra as follows: ‘I am delighted with the duet; you’re delighted too. So is Mr Grubb – in fact, he’s so delighted, he would like to hear it again!’
I went to a recording session at Kingsway Hall while Klemperer was last in London and Mr Grubb, as ever, was in charge, listening in a playback room with the conductor to the last movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony – a single ‘take’ as Klemperer always likes each movement to be. The magnificence of the performance, the stately, noble, inward quality of the interpretation were apparent in every bar of the composer’s final symphonic testament as interpreted by one of his greatest champions. There were some minute blemishes of ensemble; so Klemperer and the New Philharmonic played it through once again – this time with still more intensity.
Klemperer’s gestures were, as ever, few and far between but each one had its own special significance, such as the hand held vibrating to the heart at one of the most deeply felt climaxes, or the familiarly expressive arm and hand raised appealingly, urgently for still more warmth and richness from the strings. These are all that the orchestra needs from its President. The players – as Klemperer himself again insisted – produce the sound and by now they know almost by instinct what he wants from them. The results they produce between them are unique today in the world of recording.
His devoted daughter Lotte, his constant companion and helpmate, who relieves his life of petty burdens so he can concentrate entirely on his music, does not care as much as her father for Bruckner – and says as much. I comment ‘shame on you’. Klemperer in the mock-anger he loves to employ, says, ‘scandalous, I call it’, looking at her affectionately.
His other companion is his pipe. ‘Ernst Bloch – the philosopher, not the composer – advised me to take up pipe-smoking because of its relaxing qualities and I must say I find it my best medicament’. Lotte is less certain, commenting ‘It keeps the invisible menders in business’. Let’s hope it also keeps Klemperer in continuing good health for many years to come so that, among other things, he can add – as he so obviously wants to – to that treasure house of recordings we already have.