Although neither man lived in the country at the time, there could be little doubt that Otto Klemperer and Yehudi Menuhin were regarded in the mid 1960s as the UK’s leading ‘resident’ Beethoven performers, even though Menuhin had not taken part in the widely applauded Beethoven cycles that Klemperer and the Philharmonia had initiated in 1957. Indeed it seems that the two artists had not worked together since collaborating on the Schumann Violin Concerto in Los Angeles in November 1938.
The collaboration was much anticipated. The Guardian wrote of ‘the unexpected conjunction of magician and monolith’ and warned that ‘a monolith can be severe to the point of dullness and a magician can sometimes seem to be using the wrong spell-book’.
Its review found, however, that ‘the conjunction began to find its form... the slow movement brought the most ethereal music-making of all, and the finale became a relaxed country dance, something that might almost have fitted in the Pastoral Symphony’.
Klemperer’s association with the Symphonie fantastique may have begun (during one of his periodic depressions) in Berlin in 1928 when, newly chosen as the Kroll Opera’s first music director, he was searching for more radical concert repertoire. The Fantastique did not appeal to him at the time (he probably just read the score without rehearsing or performing it) but he changed his mind rapidly after giving the work in concert in Los Angeles in December 1933 – ‘a work of a hyper-genius’ he told his wife.The Guardian’s 1966 concert review summed up Klemperer’s approach to the Fantastique in relation to the contemporary critical attitude to the work – ‘he pays Berlioz the very just compliment of treating him as a real symphonist and not merely as an atmospheric colorist’. But this is not the pure ‘classical’ interpretation of the score that it’s often portrayed as; rather is it a document of the fascination of one conductor (and a composer and an experienced leader of opera to boot) with radical music.