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Monday, January 2, 2012

Recordings Review: Breakfast With Carlos

Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven Fifth and Seventh.
By Paul Pelkonen.
A rare conductor: the great Carlos Kleiber at work.
For me, 2012 began with the Vienna Philharmonic. Not at their annual concert in the Musikverein, but in my own Brooklyn living room through a nice pair of 40mm SkullCandy headphones. I've been in a long process of cleaning and organizing my CD collection, sorting through piles of discs that I hadn't had time (for whatever reason) to put back into their proper cases or envelopes.

The benefit of that admitted carelessness on my part was that I found my rarely played copy of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Carlos Kleiber. This is a legendary pair of recordings, made in 1974 (the Fifth) and 1976 (the Seventh.) My copy came in a boxed set with the rest of Mr. Kleiber's Deutsche Grammophon recordings, all of which fit on only 12 discs. (For the record, the set has three complete operas, a Brahms Fourth, and two Schubert symphonies. Not exactly prolific.)

Who was Carlos Kleiber? He was a German conductor of Austrian birth, and the son of another famous maestro, Erich Kleiber. (The elder Kleiber led the world premiere of Wozzeck. Although the second-generation conductor started strong, holding a post in Stuttgard and appearing frequently in Munich, he became a hushed, mysterious figure. After conducting at Bayreuth, the Vienna State Opera, and several times at the Met, he gradually withdrew from the spotlight. 

In 1989, Mr. Kleiber turned down the covered position of Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic after Herbert von Karajan died. In his later years, performances were less frequent, and he made only a handful of official recordings, all for Deutsche Grammophon. 

So is this Beethoven really that good? Does it deserve that legendary status?

Yes, it is, and it does. On these recordings, the sound qualities that have made the Vienna Philharmonic one of the world's greatest orchestra leap forth with great clarity and purpose, as the players respond willingly to his baton. The unique instruments of the VPO, particularly the oboes, horns and timpani have a more eloquent, conversational quality, giving a period-performance sheen to these readings long before conductors and record companies popularized the idea of using so-called "original instruments."

These qualities are best heard in the Viennese oboes, which are wider and have a slightly different, more conversational tone quality than the more commonly used French instruments. Conversely, the Viennese horns have a narrower bore and a unique valve system that makes these instruments sound with a dark, rich sonority that is this orchestra's trademark. This horn tone is especially clear in the finale to the Fifth, when the instruments lead the composer's triumph over adversity.

The strings seem to breathe the opening of the second movement, leading up to a huge series of repeated climaxes. The third movement, with its ostinato  and funeral march, builds up to hard timpani strikes and an exuberant celebration in sound from the brass choir, answered by the low strings. The whole ensemble joins in a hymn of man overcoming fate. 

The Seventh is equally powerful, its introduction gathering momentum, taking a huge breath before the orchestra starts what Wagner called the "apotheosis of the dance." These wild celebrations shimmer and whirl in a Dionysian frenzy, releasing pent-up tension in the strings and horns. The famous slow movement, with its insistent ostinato drives forward with inexorable power, building to further celebrations in the last two movements.

Mr. Kleiber's contribution is not any special trick of rubato or tempo changes. In fact his conducting  is fairly consistent with other maestros. But what he is skilled at is building, maintaining and releasing orchestral momentum, and forging the sections of the orchestra into cohesive units of sound. This quality comes out in the woodwind-playing and the strings. The conductor brings the flute, oboes and clarinets together to create a massive sound that recalls a fine pipe-organ in its simple majesty.

If you've never heard these recordings, do yourself a favor. Their reputation is deserved.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.