Next month Deutsche Grammophon presents a new series, "The Originals," consisting of new remasters of several recordings from the DG archives. These reissues, enhanced by a process called original-image bit-processing, make some gains in sound quality over the real originals. But more importantly, they bring exceptional, often legendary performances back to the market at relatively low prices. An excellent place to start is the reissue of conductor Carlos Kleiber's recordings of Beethoven's Symphonies No. 5 in C minor and No. 7 in A major with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The modern recording era has spawned a curious new breed of conductor who feels compelled to commit anything and everything to disc, even if he has little to say. A highly unscientific survey of the current Schwann catalog highlights Herbert von Karajan, Neeme Jarvi, and Sir Neville Marriner as some of the more egregious offenders.
Enter the mercurial maestro Carlos Kleiber, with an official discography that can almost be counted on both hands and canceled projects numbering at least twice as many. One can only imagine what might have come of a recording of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with Kleiber and the late Arturo Michelangeli, had it not been aborted at the first rehearsal. Granted, bootleg recordings of his rare concert appearances have kept more than one Italian label busy, but his extreme reluctance to record has inevitably elicited comparisons with Sergiu Celibidache, well-known for his remark that listening to recordings is much like fornicating with a picture of Brigitte Bardot.
Kleiber's father was also a conductor, and Carlos apparently emulates him not only phenotypically, but in matters of repertoire and habit. Ever since resigning his post at the Wurttemburg State Opera in 1968, Carlos Kleiber has followed the example of his father, and led the life of a conductor-errant, though he has certainly been tempted by many an orchestra. Norman Lebrecht reports that Kleiber was tapped by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra after von Karajan's passing, but refused. Of all the major classical labels, only Deutsche Grammophon proved to have enough stomach and patience to deal with him more than once, and they have finally coupled two formerly premium-priced discs to produce what is arguably the best single disc of Beethoven symphonies on the market.
Though some of our colleagues at WHRB may suggest that these two symphonies are warhorses long overdue for the glue factory, Kleiber provides remarkably incisive and dramatic readings of both, perhaps even overshadowing his father's accounts on Decca. Although the German critical contingent criticized Kleiber's opening of the Fifth for its triplet tendencies, one can dismiss those caveats in light of the deliciously ferocious energy and forward momentum. An obsessive attention to detail is apparent, and the Vienna horns in particular have rarely sounded so resplendent. Remarkably, all of the repeats have been lovingly restored, and with great revelatory effect.
The Andante is near perfectly-paced, with none of the Bernsteinian leanings that plague most recordings of the Fifth, while the subsequent Allegro provides an appropriately misterioso segue into the finale. Here, as Beethoven intended, the brass are brought out in full force, and regardless of pedantic issues of whether they are reinforced or not, the ultimate effect is still spine-tingling. The remastering and refurbished sound are even better than the original transfer, as promised.
Beethoven's contemporaries declared that the Seventh Symphony could only have been composed by one who was drunk, perhaps alluding to Beethoven's unusual obsession with the rhythmic qualities of this composition. In that light, Kleiber presents a reading replete with charm and joyful abandon, tempered with sensitivity and intelligence.
The initial solo of the first movement may irritate those who swear undying allegiance to the French school of the oboe, but one must forgive the Vienna Philharmonic for playing on Mahlerian "period instruments".
Interestingly, Kleiber opts for the pizzicato ending of the second movement, like his father. Although scholarship more modern than Erich Kleiber's does not seem to support this novel gesture, it remains a provocative idea. Kleiber also manages to strike a balance between Beethoven's demands for an Allegretto in this movement and the correspondence other conductors note with the Eroica's funeral march.
The Allegro con brio is a brilliantly played, no-holds-barred affair, and a real lollipop occurs around 7:18 of the last track, when the separated violin sections compete for prominence on individual speakers -- absolutely sublime stuff. One only wishes that Deutsche Grammophon's tonmeisters would take a lesson from Mercury's recording team and dispense with the "forest of mikes" method, which often seems to obscure more than elucidate.
As a final note, it's near impossible to imagine, but for an even more exhilarating experience, try watching Kleiber on Philips video conducting the same symphony, only this time with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.