Beethoven Symphony No 5
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber
DG 447 4002
Selected comparisons :
Concertgebouw, E Kleiber (1/54) (10/69R)
Philharmonia, Klemperer (11/56) (6/74R)
BPO, Karajan (2/63)
VPO, Böhm (7/71)
Many years ago a member of the Vienna Philharmonic was asked how he rated certain celebrated conductors. He is said to have valued Bruno Walter at £500 a concert, Weingartner at £200, and a certain hapless Herr X at £50. Values have inflated since then, but using the old yardstick I would confidently guess that Carlos Kleiber is already in the £500 class, so memorably does the orchestra play for him. For this is one of the most glorious accounts of the Fifth Symphony I have ever had the pleasure of hearing; a version which is already vying in my affections with Klemperer's memorable Philharmonia recording of 1956 and Karajan's enduringly splendid 1963 Berlin version.
As a reading it is glorious on several counts. The orchestral playing is rich and glowing, catching in full measure the music's inborn splendour; yet it is a reading which is at all points superbly articulated and dynamically acute. The first movement is taken quickly. The tempo is as quick as Karajan's and almost as quick as Erich Kleiber's (Carlos's father) on his fine old Concertgebouw recording. Yet there is a tension and an elegance about the playing, matched with this masterly sweep of rhythm and tone, which gives one the clear feeling of the music being born anew. ('Klemperer treats the work as if he had just discovered its, greatness' is how the Record Guide characterised Klemperer's early Vox, recordingand one could equally apply the dictum to Carlos Kleiber.) And this is surely the crucial factor, the real touchstone of the performance's greatness.
As with Klemperer and Karajan it is the outer movements, and more especially the lead into the finale and the finale's exposition, which most immediately fire the imagination: rhythms, in the latter instance, proudly dotted, brass broad and imposing, strings racing and exultant. Differences, where they do exist, are primarily of emphasis. I think it is true to say that Klemperer and Karajan direct the span of the finale, from the first mighty crescendo down to the last C major chord, a shade more surely, a shade less excitably than Carlos Kleiber. In the latter part of the movement Carlos Kleiber does allow the music its head; there are marginal quickenings of pace and some marginal loss of real inevitability in the coda. (An inevitability which, in Klemperer's performance, also derives from the integration of the tempi – scherzo, trio and finale all taken within the compass of a single pulse.) But Carlos Kleiber's urgency as the music draws to its close is effectively a by-product of the extraordinary tension the performance has generated earlier on, a tension made the more imposing by his taking the exposition repeat. I always feel that the wonderful reach upwards into the development comes too early when we've heard the exposition through only once. Psychologically we are not ready; the affirmation has been barely absorbed. Certainly both Klemperer and Carlos Kleiber (but not Karajan) draw added grandeur and authority from observing the repeat. All three conductors make a lot of the great trombone-led passage which follows, but none is more powerful than Carlos Kleiber. And the climax before the Scherzo's ghostly return achieves here a molten intensity, the Vienna Philharmonic sound, hitherto golden and serene, now blazing, white with the heat.
The orchestral playing is as fine individually as it is corporately. The horns are superb throughout, especially thrilling in the first movement motto and in the Scherzo; but the bassoon entry at bar 303 of the first movement is vibrant and ripe-toned (a welcome contrast – pace Tovey – to the fanfaring horns usually substituted at this point); and the oboe, now less nasal than was once the case in Vienna, is sweet-toned and beautifully balanced. The 14-bar lead in to the pathetic solo cadenza in the first movement (something Kleiber père made much of) is perfectly judged. In the pizzicato transition to the finale, always a testing place for orchestral balances, the playing is eerie and exact: shades of Carlos Kleiber's fascinatingly earthy Der Freischütz (11/73). The drum taps are at once hushed and ominously 'there'. My only regret is that Carlos Kleiber, like most conductors (George Szell a noted exception) merely dabs in the little chromatic disturbances in the bass line at bars 342 ff. A pity, because they are all too easily missed.
That this young conductor has re-thought the Symphony in relation to his father's celebrated reading is evident throughout. In the slow movement Carlos Kleiber takes the steadier tempo. His is a flowing yet at the same time an expressive reading, melody liberated but never hustled. The ability of the Vienna Philharmonic to colour and shade the rarest pianissimo is a great asset, of course. By and large they play even more ravishingly for Kleiber than they do for Böhm in his DG recording (where the slow movement is the highlight of an otherwise slightly staid reading). The final joyful statement of the movement's principal theme is heartwarming indeed, and rarely have I noticed more delicate intimations of the mood of the Pastoral Symphony in the coda's variegated shiftings and musings.
The disc is expensive. Just the one symphony, though with all the repeats intact. Yet is this really a consideration in the face of so much glorious music-making? I don't think so. This is the finest Fifth we have had for at least a decade. It is a glorious achievement: Vienna's answer to earlier Fifths made in London with Klemperer, and in Berlin with Karajan; and a further feather in the cap of the celebrated family Kleiber.
Richard Osborne (Gramophone, June 1975)
It is interesting to reflect that in 1974 there was not a single entry under the name 'Kleiber, Carlos' in The Gramophone Classical Record Catalogue. 'Kleiber, Erich': certainly. Among other things, he had recorded a famous Beethoven Fifth in 1953 (Decca, 9/87—nla). I still remember the sinking feeling I experienced—a mere tiro reviewer on Gramophone—when I dropped into the post-box my 1, 000-word rave review (they had asked for 200) of what struck me as being one of the most articulate and incandescent Beethoven Fifths I had ever heard.
In Germany, they would probably have spiked the review. There is, after all, more than a hint of triplet-rhythm in Carlos Kleiber's conducting of the opening motto, a point—eagerly seized on by some German reviewers—which I had omitted to mention in my 1, 000-word encomium.
The performance doesn't stale, though it is the first movement that stays most vividly in the memory. I had forgotten, for instance, how steady—Klemperer-like, almost—the Scherzo and finale are. (Early Klemperer, that is: the Klemperer of the famous 1956 Philharmonia Fifth or his even earlier Vox recording—5/93, nla—of which The Record Guide—Collins: 1955—wrote, ''Klemperer treats the work as if he had just discovered its greatness''. )
The recording of the Fifth, always very fine, comes up superbly in the new transfer. What, though, of the Seventh Symphony, an equally distinguished performance though always perceptibly greyer-sounding on LP, and on CD? Well, it too is superb. What the Original-Image Bit-Processing has done to it, I wouldn't begin to know, but the result is a performance of genius that now speaks to us freely and openly for the first time.
In some ways this is a more important document than the famous Fifth. Great recordings of the Seventh, greatly played and greatly conducted, but with first and second violins divided left and right, are as rare as gold-dust. Freshly refurbished, this Kleiber Seventh would go right to the top of my short list of recommendable Sevenths.
It is wonderful to have these two legendary performances so expertly restored and placed together on one disc for the first time. '