I haven’t been listening to all that much music lately — concert season over and all that — but I had an urge to slap something on the gramophone this evening so I thought I’d listen to something in my to-do stack, which by now probably amounts to several years’ worth of recordings. Specifically, I thought I’d listen to Otto Klemperer’s recording of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, which I had heard years ago and liked.
It turned out, though, that that recording wasn’t in my stack … instead, it was a Klemperer recording of “Petrushka” (1947 version), which a friend had bequeathed me, unopened.
If you only know Klemperer from his glacial and tectonic recordings of Beethoven and Brahms, it may surprise you that he recorded any Stravinsky, but he actually had a long relationship with the composer. Klemperer was a modernist to the core, when it came down to it.
Anyway, several things interested me in the recording. First, it was made in 1967 — when Klemperer was in his 80s — and was never published. The notes say that EMI felt “the performance was too flawed to be issued.” Testament, however, got hold of the original session tapes, and made the present recording mostly from the first day’s sessions, “when the orchestra and conductor were fresher and had a more spontaneous approach.”
True, there are some very minor flaws in the playing of the New Philharmonia Orchestra, but nothing untoward. The beautiful production makes them all but disappear in the listener’s consideration. The recording was made in Abbey Road Studios, and it has all the merits of a well done studio recording, namely clarity and highlighting. You hear what you need and want to hear, as if you were in the room, but also placed near the instruments with the important parts at any particular moment. It’s a recording that, to my ear at least, does not try to reproduce a naturalistic concert experience, but instead tries to lay the score in front of you. I heard many things I had never heard in the work before, particularly in the woodwinds.
As you might expect, Klemperer takes “Petrushka” pretty slowly. But I never felt it dragged. Rather, he makes sure that the rhythms are correct in relation to each other, gives each phrase its proper emphasis and due and never allows mere jumble to substitute for gesture. The result is a powerful forward momentum. Combine that with the recording — which gives a kind of microscopic look at the score — and you’ve got one impressive “Petrushka.”