Entertainment Music

Saturday 10 December 2016

Classical: Mozart and the two careers of Klemperer

George Hamilton

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Otto Klemperer
Otto Klemperer

Long drives are a wonderful way to reacquaint yourself with much-loved music. These days, there are plenty of ways you can do that. Scan the listings and find the radio show that fits your bill. Plug in your phone, and rifle through your iTunes library. Or, as I did on my way a match not long back, grab a CD off the shelf and head for the highway.

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With over two hours ahead of me, and - typically - up against the clock without the five minutes to spare I'd have needed to browse, I snatched a fat-looking case that said Mozart on its spine.

I'd got lucky. What I had with me was a double-CD featuring six symphonies no less, under the direction of one of the supreme conductors, Otto Klemperer.

Symphony No 29 took me a good way down the road. The 40th, the Great G-minor, started me off on the journey home.

Klemperer is probably more associated with Mahler than Mozart. Born in what's now western Poland in 1885, he was making his way as a concert pianist.

Based in Berlin, he was the choice as second conductor on Mahler's Second Symphony. It employs a brass section that plays off stage, hence the need for two conductors.

The composer himself was in the audience and was most impressed. Between the jigs and the reels, Klemperer's calling as a concert pianist was overcome as the podium became an ever more important place of employment.

With a powerful recommendation from Mahler in his pocket, Klemperer secured a position in Prague, and one of the great conducting careers was under way.

He was firmly established when he performed Mozart for the first time. That was at a concert in Cologne in 1920, when he conducted the spellbinding Symphony No 40, one of only two of his forty-one in all that Mozart wrote in a minor key.

The performance drew the plaudits, one contemporary critic praising its "rhythmic and dynamic finesse", a description that perfectly fits the music itself.

The collection (Great Recordings of the Century - Mozart: Symphonies 29, 35 & 38-41 on EMI Classics - 0946 3 45810 2 8) features recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. This was the period of Klemperer's second coming.

The first part of his working life had been cut short by the rise of the Nazis, which had led him into exile in the United States.

He directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but lost the job after he'd needed surgery for a brain tumour. He suffered a stroke, depression, and drifted from the mainstream. He ended up having to promote his own concerts.

He came back to Europe after the end of World War II, but most of his work was in the Communist bloc, and that - thanks to the Cold War - effectively closed off the prospect of a successful return to the USA.

His exit route came courtesy of a British impresario and record producer called Walter Legge, the husband of the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Legge had set up the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in 1945, and had secured a succession of major names to work with it. When the latest of those, Herbert von Karajan, left for Berlin in 1954, it was to Klemperer that Legge turned.

It was one of music's most successful matches. The 2-CD set that came with me on my recent road trip is just one example of how successful it was.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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