Once exiled from Germany, Klemperer conducted little opera apart from a fruitful spell in charge of the Budapest Opera (1947-49). Once rediscovered by EMI, he was eventually persuaded by Walter Legge to return to his old love, with interpretations of breadth and, for the most part, masterly control, three of which appear now in the Great Recordings series.
Hazy discs made during his often turbulent time in Budapest show him in more agile (indeed often electrifying) form than on EMI; for example, Pizarro’s aria in Hungary is so fast the singer can hardly cope with the pace, while with Walter Berry on EMI the tempo is more sober. This may not have anything to do with the ageing process: it is just as likely to be the result of the conductor’s notorious changes of mood caused by his manic-depressive condition.
Although the majority of speeds in the Mozart and Beethoven here are measured, they are not all slowly inclined. The Hollander, the last of the three to be recorded, is anything but a staid performance. Indeed, it is the most exciting and worthwhile of the three (although conventional opinion awards that accolade to Fidelio). I attended a Festival Hall performance at the time of the sessions for the Wagner opera in which Klemperer was undoubtedly rejuvenated by the presence of Anja Silja, and there is a lovely photo in this reissue of the young soprano beaming on the contented-looking, 82-year-old conductor.
As the composer would want, the sea springs out of every bar. Peter Heyworth, writing of the live event, commented: ‘From the opening bars of the Overture, one was plunged into a world where man was at the mercy of wind and water, and against this tumultuous background there unfolded a story, not of cosy sentimentality and true love, but of an obsessive and self-destructive passion that can only be consummated in annihilation.’ William Mann, writing about the discs in Opera on Record (Hutchinson: 1979), was equally enthusiastic – you’ll find his long, astute paean in the notes here. I have often seconded those views in these pages. Silja, Adam, Talvela et al make it one of two or three great readings of the score on CD.
If you accept Klemperer’s broad, metaphysical view of Fidelio, his account of Beethoven’s only opera is also a classic. On its own terms it is superb, as are the Philharmonia’s playing and the recording, but – as I wrote in my Collection article on the work (1/97) – it lacks the theatrical intensity of some other versions, notably Maazel’s (Decca, 11/96) and Halasz’s recent Naxos set (12/99). That kind of intensity is there in Klemperer’s own Budapest recording (in Hungarian on Hungaroton) and in an off-the-air recording of his 1961 Covent Garden production. Legge made the mistake of replacing Jurinac, in this 1962 set, with Ludwig, a wonderful singer but not as natural a Leonore as Jurinac. Similarly, Hotter’s raging Pizarro is not quite matched by Berry’s. Vickers’ searing, slightly sentimentalised Florestan is common to both. When Klemperer returned to Covent Garden in 1968, Silja was his Leonore, and no one who saw and heard those performances, the conductor’s operatic swan-song, will ever forget the occasion – as Richard Osborne says in his perceptive notes. He fails to point out, though – a small but important matter – that Schwarzkopf speaks Marzelline’s dialogue for Hallstein.
Returning to Klemperer’s Zauberflote a long time away from it, I found the conductor’s measured way with the score as impressive as ever. Gedda is a forthright Tamino, Popp a nonpareil of a Queen of Night, Berry an enchanting Papageno, and the small parts are admirably taken, but Janowitz, beautifully as she sings, is a detached Pamina. With the dialogue absent (Klemperer’s decision) this set gives points – and not only in that respect – to Bohm’s contemporaneous DG set, now on the company’s Originals series, although there the Pamina is again not ideal. Bohm seems just that much more of a natural Mozartian. So in this case, unlike the other two, not quite a ‘Great Recording’, but an important document for all that, and once again I noted the uniform excellence of EMI’s sound during this golden period when Suvi Raj Grubb was taking over from Legge.'