Otto Klemperer and slowness

I am listening to Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I think I just heard him cough. Someone coughed. Anyway, my main reason for writing is that for a while now I’ve been perplexed by Klemperer’s tempi. Klemperer is slow. What is it really a consequence of old age? Look at images of Klemperer: they show a gaunt someone hanging on until the bitter end. Klemperer is exactly the kind of musician who can only take it slow because life is slow for him. This is not ageism – I don’t think the same about Haitink or Blomstedt. Klemperer has the look of every emaciated, Giacometti-like grandfather who wore the kind of spectacles hipsters love wearing with either slicked-back hair or beards.

I mention all this because it builds an image of the artist that his recordings corroborate. Listening to his Beethoven I imagine this is where the reputation of the composer as a ponderous, stodgy, overly-portentous figure originates. Bad publicity for Beethoven as much as hose and doublet has been for Shakespeare in convincing their detractors that these artists are everyone’s contemporaries and always will be. By all accounts Klemperer was far from the kind of conservative figure most readily associate with the qualities of performance I highlight above. The story of his life intrigues me. But in a way his approach to speed, pace, and pulse intrigue me more: why so slow?

There are good reasons for taking things slowly in music. Tempi are relative. No two performances are ever the same. Slowness works best to accentuate transitional passages in order to give a bolder sense of the architecture. Slowness opens textures out, as if placing detail under the ear’s microscope all the better for us to hear things elided by swifter performances. The relation, for example, between the climaxes and intervening sections in the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony is crucial to making this 35-minute span coherent. It requires a certain kind of musical intelligence and an iron hand to navigate music whose tempo may sound right from the off to be fixed – a funereal tread, as always with Mahler, bound up in the image of nature –  but which soon confounds our expectations as its mood and language evolves. How conductors set the pace for the hectic central climax, for example, determines how we view Mahler’s architectural conception of the climax. Performances differ greatly in this regard, slowing the tempo down as the build-up begins or building up to its hectic polyphony by changing gear suddenly with a tempo that refuses to hold back from the brink.

You don’t have to listen to many of Klemperer’s performances to grasp his reputation for slowness. I’m listening to the final movement of Beethoven’s Seventh as I write: ‘an apotheosis of the dance’ as someone (Goethe?) described it, but Klemperer is so studied in his approach that there is little to which the body could take. Where most conductors – pointing towards a modern sensibility perhaps? – rev things up as if pushing the music over the edge, Klemperer pulls the brakes. Why? Surely his virtuosic players can articulate vividly at high speed? This is the Philharmonia after all…

Taking the music as slowly as he does seems to stifle the possibilities of attack that make a performance musical in the first place. Of course Klemperer’s music-making is of the highest order, but is it the most exciting – not on the surface level of speed and volume of sound but in terms of the necessity for differentiation within the overall sound world, to distinguish one iteration from another in order to prevent repetition of figures from sounding stock-in-trade or one-dimensional. Is consistency Klemperer’s virtue?

I’m not claiming this is the effect Klemperer’s interpretation of the text has on the performance. But his slowness is problematic for me. I’m surely not the only one to think so. Any help?

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