Entertainment Music

Sunday 17 December 2017

Through a tumour, depression and war, Klemperer stood tall

George Hamilton

Among the giants of 20th-Century music, Otto Klemperer stands tall – in more ways than one. His name now conjures images of a stern-looking elderly gent, all horn-rimmed spectacles and hook nose, adorning CD cases containing some of the finest recordings of Beethoven and Mahler ever made.

At 6'5", he was a towering figure. A German, born in 1885 to a Jewish family in what is now western Poland, Otto Klemperer went as a teenager to study first in Frankfurt and then in Berlin.

He was good enough to be a concert pianist. His prowess at the keyboard earned him the position of accompanist at one of Berlin's leading choral societies. His boss there was Oskar Fried, a top conductor back then.

Fried was leading a performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony which features a brass section offstage. Being offstage, it needs a conductor of its own. Klemperer got the gig.

Mahler himself was in the audience and liked what he heard. When Klemperer decided conducting was the path he wanted to follow, it was on the strength of a recommendation from Mahler that he got his first position in Prague, and later a commission in Hamburg.

That led to two decades of increasing influence and popularity right across Germany, as an interpreter of the established and a champion of the new.

In tandem, he'd been composing as well. Most of this was music for voice – there'd been songs, three operas and a Mass that followed his conversion to Catholicism.

The rise of the Nazis led, in 1933, to his departure for the US. The best he could get there was music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an orchestra not yet 15 years old, in a city a world away from the cultural history and heritage he'd left behind in Berlin.

Klemperer spent six years in California, becoming a US citizen along the way, and steering the orchestra on a course that would establish it in the mainstream. But he left when he needed surgery for a brain tumour.

What followed was a dark period when his life seemed out of control. On top of everything, he was a manic depressive. He left his wife and took up with a woman who was married to another musician. He was briefly behind bars as a result of financial recklessness.

Years later, his career resumed in Budapest, but he didn't last long there, and because it was behind the Iron Curtain, he fell foul of the American authorities.

Oblivion beckoned, but talent would out. A Beethoven symphony in unlikely surroundings in America's Pacific Northwest reminded the musical world of Klemperer's awesome capabilities.

He resumed centre stage in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra which he led to greatness as EMI's principal recording ensemble.

The mishaps continued. He suffered severe burns when he tried to put out a fire he'd started smoking in bed with the whisky he'd taken as a nightcap.

He survived that too. He returned to Judaism, coaxed magnificent Mahler, beautiful Brahms and blazing Beethoven from the Philharmonia for over 17 years, and was active until not long before his death, at the age of 88, on this day in 1973.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

ghamilton@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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