Otto Klemperer remembered

Otto Klemperer remembered (Photo: Tully Potter Collection)Otto Klemperer remembered (Photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Otto Klemperer enjoyed a remarkable Indian Summer thanks to his work with the Philharmonia Orchestra – whose principal conductor he was from 1959 until his death in 1973 – and the numerous recordings they made together for EMI (including the Beethoven symphonies, piano concertos and Fidelio, Mozart and Wagner operas, and symphonies by the great composers including Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner and Schumann). This week marks the anniversary of his death (he died on July 6, 1973 aged 88). In the August 1973 issue, the EMI producer Peter Andry recalled his first encounter with the conductor anbd their subsequent working relationship.

I first met Otto Klemperer in Melbourne, some 22 years ago. He had come out there after repeated invitations from the Australian Broadcasting Commission; and, to complete the coup that year, they had managed to persuade Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to join their concert season. What a line-up of talent!

On a blazing hot morning we in the orchestra – I was a raw recruit to help to strengthen the large group of flute-players required for Mahler – waited with anticipation until the huge man, looking rather unfriendly and detached, lifted his gnarled hands to start the rehearsal.

What happened after that was an experience that no players who have worked under Klemperer will forget. It was rather like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and willed by that penetrating gaze to play, to act out a drama tightly controlled and led by that giant who, with no rostrum, stood there before us.

He never became any more friendly; rather it was the opposite – our meagre talents seemed increasingly to displease him. However, the concerts he gave were all a huge success, and somehow they managed to persuade him to unbend into a kind of quizzical acceptance of the adulation so eagerly given by audiences who had been transported by him into a new world of music hitherto unglirnpsed and even then hardly understood. But all who came to those concerts knew that they had been in the presence of a master of his craft who had given them great music-making.

And my last glimpse of Kleniperer after those concerts was on an occasion typical of him. At the end of the final performance, after four frenzied recalls to the platform, he simply put on his black overcoat, lit his pipe, and came back to dismiss not only the orchestra, but the wildly applauding audience.

Some 15 years later, when recording with him here in London, I was able to remind him of a little episode during rehearsals for those concerts. Knowing that a particularly difficult passage was looming ahead for the flutes, he sidled up to stand in front of us, stopped the orchestra, and looked quizzically at me. I froze with terror. He pointed at the reasonably good-looking lady flautist next to me, and asked, in that heavy accent that sounded like broken glass and which is so beloved of Klemperer imitators, "Is she your girl-friend?". "No, sir", I replied with some embarrassment. "No? Vy not, zen?", he demanded, and retreated to the front of the orchestra obviously disgusted with my lack of chivalry.

Little did I think, in those far-off days, that later, for ten long years, my work in the recording studio would bring me so very close to the thoughts, mannerisms and innermost core of the musician and human being Otto Kiemperer, until the day early in July when Suvi Grubb and I stood on the edge of that raw gash in the earth in the cemetery in Zurich where we said farewell to him.

As we stood there, many thoughts and memories and pictures swept through my mind. Foremost was the greatness that infused all his interpretations of music; but at the same time I realised how often it seemed impossible for him to draw out everything that he knew and felt, as, clawing at the air he tried to control ensemble that often would not be controlled because he simply lacked the physical means to hold it.

He seemed so often to be fighting his way out of that huge and, in his latter years, ungainly body. In order to make sure that he did not come to harm, we used literally to stuff him into the car after his recording sessions; and my task, at either Kingsway Hall or Abbey Road, would be to press his head down hard so that he would not be hurt as he struggled into the car. To me it seemed, somehow, irreverent. He accepted it as natural.

Physical disabilities he tended to ignore: he was concerned with other things, schedules for the Missa solemnis or Don Giovanni.

Implacable in his impatience with shoddy work, he was nevertheless mindful of little things. Many times, early in the morning, my telephone would shrill to startle our entire family awake. "Herr Andry?", "Guten morgen, Herr Doktor", I would mumble sleepily. "Thank you for the flowers – they were very nice. Goodbye".

All of us who value what Klemperer gave us must also value and be grateful for the love, care and attention in these last years of his daughter Lotte, who has devoted so much of her life to her father, preserving him for all of us where perhaps other children in the same circumstances might well have done less. She has a lot of her father's character, his sternness, intellect, humour and quick grasp of facts and ideas. She it was who, for year after year, coped with the organisation needed to transport and support Klemperer on his visits to London for concerts and recording sessions – the nurses, wheelchairs, attendants and aides galore needed just to get him into position to begin music-making.

And then Suvi Raj Grubb and I would be left with the old man, who in spite of everything insisted on himself turning every page of the score when listening to playbacks of sections of recorded tape. He sat there, impassive. Was he really listening, did something escape him? The answer is yes, because above all he was concentrating on the overall result, the total concept of the work as a whole.

Like so many other great musicians, the actual technicalities of recording were sometimes beyond his understanding. I have never ceased to be amazed at how many of the great musicians with whom I have worked, men of intellect with an immense grasp of things musical – and often financial as well! – either could not or would not understand the simplest request that would result in a better recording. Tape-editors, who have to cut and match tapes often at impossibly difficult points in the score, have had to spend hours trying to make a perfect 'join' for Beecham or Klemperer, when just a few seconds extra, played before or after the section to be repeated by the orchestra, would have made the job so much easier. But ask them to repeat a bar or two because of some fault or other which could be well covered by a few seconds of playing time, and immediately they would replay the entire movement. We in the control room often asked ourselves whether this was just perversity, or a greater insight into the music than our own. With Otto Klemperer one could not know. Things for him were never simple or direct, but always slow, painstaking and deliberate.

Among the happiest times I remember spending with him were in Paris, when after our recording sessions in London he conducted Mahler's Symphony No 9 to a typically smart and noisy Parisian audience. But as soon as this stark and deeply moving music took hold of them their chatter and rustling were quickly silenced, and Klemperer and the orchestra had a success with them such as I have rarely witnessed.

Klemperer was once more captivated by Paris. He could relax into a teasing jocularity, and at the age of 82 he had Lotte extremely worried by declaring that he had decided to come to Paris to live. Zurich, he declared, was by comparison dull and parochial.

For Klemperer's enjoyment of his stay, Peter de Jongh of Pathé-Marconi had managed to hire a large and comfortable limousine with an extrovert and loquacious driver who appeared to be one of the last of the White Russian emigres and a man of great personality and charm. Klemperer had a special affection for chauffeurs, and this one made his stay a complete success. In the car we all toured Paris in the spring sunlight, ending with a happy meal in a fine restaurant, happy in spite of Klemperer's often gloomy predictions of the coming of a new war or the resurgence of German militarism.

In his later days I noticed in him a growing asceticism, a kind of consolidation of all essential things and the discarding of the trivia of life. A picture I recall vividly is of his commanding presence in the simple drawing-room of his Zurich home, where for hours he would sit bolt upright either studying the Bible, composing, or listening with concentration to the broadcast news bulletins. Yet none of us who knew him closely will ever be able to forget his earlier flashes of dry wit, and the host of amusing tales both by him and about him which were a total contradiction of the immense seriousness of purpose which informed all his life and work. Perhaps in those very contradictions lay the secret of his greatness. He was a man and an artist who, larger both physically and mentally than most men, was able to draw into his earthly life a vast range of experiences.

When in 1967 we were 'reading through' the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the New Philharmonia Orchestra before starting to record, his daughter asked him to explain the meaning of the marking in the score "wie ein schwerer Kondukt", heavy and ponderous music which leads into that final section so reminiscent of the "Abschied" in Das Lied von der Erde. Slowly and carefully Klcmperer showed us the meaning, and gave a detailed comment on that point in the music used to depict a funeral cortege.

And it was that music which was in my mind when, following his coffin, we came to his last resting-place.

"Vale", dear Master. 

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