Classics Reconsidered: does Carlos Kleiber's recording of Beethoven's Seventh deserve its 'classic' status?

Gramophone Mon 14th May 2018

Andrew Farach-Colton and David Gutman lock horns over the pros and cons of Kleiber’s recording of Beethoven’s Seventh with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG

The original Gramophone review, from September 1976 ...

Beethoven Symphony No 7

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber (DG)

Kleiber’s Seventh Symphony is much more obviously controversial than his Fifth, destined, I suspect, to divide opinion on both sides of the Channel. As an interpretation it is closely modelled on his father’s fine reading. (There is even the same controversial pizzicato end to the Allegretto, rather limply done here.) In general style and voltage, though, the performance emulates the classic Toscanini set of 1936. Not an ounce of excess tone is left on the Vienna Philharmonic sound. Gone is the distinctive, middle-European texturing of Schmidt-Isserstedt’s beautifully played (and superbly grammatical) Decca reading. Even the recording seems self-consciously spare and monochromatic. The finale, admittedly, is a tour de force. Only one thing strikes me as being incongruous here and that is Kleiber’s odd slackening of the tension whenever the woodwinds pick up the skipping second subject. The Scherzo is also extremely compelling, the whole thing taken very quickly though with a slowish Trio, unnuanced in the violin line (as marked), which makes Kleiber’s reading considerably less expressive at this point than either Toscanini’s or Erich Kleiber’s. But then how lyrical should the Seventh be? It is, as Kleiber rightly divines, a spare, athletic work; but is it not vibrant too, a partially lyrical celebration of the spirit of Dionysus? … This is a Seventh to be acquired and argued over. You may not find it wholly agreeable, or wholly convincing, but it does at times bring us unnervingly close to the essential spirit of this great work, a rare enough phenomenon in all conscience. Richard Osborne


The recording, reconsidered ...

Andrew Farach-Colton Richard Osborne was quite bowled over by Carlos Kleiber’s DG recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (6/75) – and rightly so. Indeed, David, you and I defended RO’s assessment and the recording’s now-legendary status in this very magazine back in April 2005, while Rob Cowan voiced reservations. Now, sans Rob, we’re reappraising Kleiber’s account of the Seventh. RO was considerably less enthused with this recording, and again I find myself in agreement. I admire the energy and muscularity of Kleiber’s interpretation, certainly, but it’s oddly monumental. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s (referenced by RO) is slower and grander, while teeming with incident and character. The way Kleiber plays it, the first movement Vivace might as well be Allegro. Isn’t vivace as much an indication of mood as of tempo?

David Gutman Where to start? That’s not quite the opening salvo I expected, and I can’t go along with such a downbeat assessment. I sense the shock of the ‘new’ behind some of RO’s responses (period performance came later). I suspect too that some of his reservations – and maybe yours – derive from the oddly focused (multimiked but rather ‘dusty’) sonics of the original recording: RO seemed more enthusiastic about the CD release in tandem with that indubitably iconic Fifth (5/95). If I have problems marshalling my own thoughts, it’s because the waters have been muddied by the arrival of so many competing Kleiber versions, some ‘pirated’. The Seventh remained a speciality to the very end, the last work this reluctant maestro programmed officially – though not quite the last piece he conducted. Perhaps you prefer his Concertgebouw DVD?

AF-C Well, first off, I agree about the ‘dusty’ sound quality. I’ve been listening via the 1995 DG Originals remastering you just mentioned, and even that is strikingly colourless, as if the engineers intended it to be heard on AM radio.

DG More recent high-end revamps on SACD and Blu-ray have continued to freshen the sound. I’m guessing that the CD layer of my SACD sounds better than the incarnation you’ve got there, refining to some degree the ‘spare, athletic’ qualities RO talked about in 1976.

AF-C I’m sure you’re right, David. But does this sonic refinement significantly illuminate the interpretation? I rather doubt it. I’m also doubtful that RO’s reaction reflected a ‘shock of the new’. Even in 1976, Kleiber’s interpretation was not so unorthodox. RO notes that its streamlined athleticism is ‘closely modelled’ on the Decca recording by Kleiber’s father, Erich, as well as Toscanini’s magnificent 1936 account for RCA. And, of course, Toscanini’s recording was intended for AM broadcast, yet conveys abundant joy and wonder – so engineering isn’t the issue. The sound on Kleiber’s Concertgebouw DVD is also lacklustre, but that performance is more emotionally involving, and so is his performance with the Bavarian State Orchestra on Orfeo. I love how, with the Bavarians, Kleiber explodes out of that first fortissimo fermata in the Vivace, as if he’s impatient to dive back in; with the VPO it sounds routine.

DG I don’t hear the DG version as remotely routine but I can just about see what you’re getting at. Kleiber takes the long view. The main body of his first movement becomes an exercise in militantly maintained rhythm rather than Wagner’s dance apotheosis, so other readings may offer more incidental pleasures. And his not-so-slow slow movement (with elements plainly inherited from Erich Kleiber) feels deliberately bleak and abstracted. But doesn’t that throw the excitement of the scherzo and finale into greater relief? I haven’t heard anything from Erich that generates comparable momentum. I’d also contend that the combination of a stripped-down string sound with antiphonally placed violins was indeed unusual, possibly unique for the period. The recording is (just over) 40 years old now – as old as Toscanini’s would have been then. Taking the first movement exposition repeat was scarcely the norm either. The Amsterdam DVD makes compromises on all those points.

I sense he’s aiming for a kind of noble stoicism – acknowledging there’s pain in the music while keeping it at arm’s length

AF-C I’ll take emotional involvement over textual completeness, but I think I know what you mean when you say Kleiber takes ‘the long view’. In the Allegretto, for example, I sense he’s aiming for a kind of noble stoicism – acknowledging there’s pain in the music while keeping it at arm’s length. It still doesn’t move me. I rather like certain details: how he surreptitiously slips into the proto-Schubertian maggiore section at 2'56", for example. Even here, though, the dolce markings for the woodwind are paid short shrift, and there’s insufficient respite from the rhythmic and psychic relentlessness of the opening. I’d argue that the ‘militantly maintained rhythm’ you hear in the first movement is really an idée fixe throughout the entire work. Yes, the third movement is played as a true Presto, but it’s driven so hard that it’s not so much exciting as harrowing.

DG No performance is beyond criticism and Kleiber certainly doesn’t prioritise charm. Were you bothered by the scrunched treatment of the grace notes in the Allegretto? I would certainly query the final bars where, like his father before him, and like Klemperer, Kleiber insists on pizzicato strings to the very end. I’d have been happier with the traditional bowed reading plus apocryphal ritardando. But then Kleiber is not trying to make us comfortable, ending rather in mid-air. In the scherzo the quality of articulation and range of dynamic he gets from an ensemble inclined to coast seem to me pretty remarkable. I love that splenetic quality. If anything, it’s the old-fashioned breadth of the trio that has me puzzled. Toscanini was far more innovative and ‘modern’ in his refusal to linger. Kleiber’s DVD version is fleeter, too.

AF-C Those scrunched grace notes in the Allegretto do bother me, yes; they’re more twitches than lyrical emphases. And I also don’t care for the pizzicato ending with the strings tiptoeing off into the dark night. It’s so clearly not what Beethoven wanted or he wouldn’t have written forte in their last bar. I find Kleiber’s doggedness most convincing in the finale. Ideally, I’d like more chiaroscuro and playfulness, but it’s compelling nonetheless – and the coda’s euphonious roar is absolutely exhilarating.

DG I don’t think anyone since Toscanini has so successfully conveyed that sense of elation. Acceleration can come across as a loss of control but here nothing is gabbled, not even the horns. It’s this combination of control and abandon that works for so many. Maybe not for you, though?

AF-C Coming back to this performance after many years, I was surprised by how little it delighted me. It is a ‘classic’, but perhaps its reputation has been enhanced by its coupling? Kleiber’s performance of the Fifth is stupendous; talk about balancing control and abandon – his Fifth is at once thrilling and monumental. He takes a similar approach to the Seventh, but this work demands something different. Kleiber gets closer to the music’s essence in his concert recordings, despite the overlooked repeats and relative lack of orchestral polish.

DG Well, you’re not alone in having doubts. When in 1981 Kleiber led LSO renditions in London and Milan, British commentators were mostly hostile. Writing in The GuardianGramophone’s Edward Greenfield skewered the ‘aggressive exaggerations and idiosyncrasies’ of ‘a conductor determined at all costs to do things differently’. Kleiber, mortified, made the BBC wipe its tape and never directed another orchestral concert in the UK. Personally, I’d not want to be without Bernstein – repeat friendly as early as 1964. His New Yorkers are less poised and transparent than Kleiber’s Viennese, the tonal conflicts dramatised and humour broader as befits a performance cued from a score on which Bernstein had scrawled ‘The Surprise Symphony’. I’m sure we can agree that blandness is the enemy of great Beethoven. And Carlos Kleiber, differently egocentric, is certainly never that. For me, his DG Seventh is as ‘classic’ – and ‘Classical’ – as they come!

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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