André Cluytens: In memoriam

We all know how unreliable childhood memories can be. Those remembered long hot summers when in fact it rained all the time; those happy family holidays when we have wiped from our memory the arguments and bickering. And the books, music and TV programmes of our youth? How often do they live up to our recollection of them? Hardly ever.

Starting to grow my record collection as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I was constrained by the limitations of pocket money that over a few years ranged from £1 per month to £3 – partly depending on a highly complex algorithm designed by my father that linked financial rewards to school grades. I used to get the money on a Friday evening, and then by Saturday lunchtime it had been spent in the local record shop (remember those?). This meant one LP a month that had to be chosen carefully to get the most out of my limited resources; make a bad choice and I was stuck with a lemon and a whole month to wait before I could buy anything else. And they weren’t cheap, not in real terms compared with today. With a new full-price LP costing around £2.99 – going up to £3.25 for a Deutsche Grammophon release (you had to pay extra for that smart yellow label with the tulip crown) – I needed really kind teachers to afford anything other than the budget labels such as EMI’s Classics for Pleasure, which is where I discovered André Cluytens’ Beethoven. Not that I knew or cared who André Cluytens was, I just wanted to buy some Beethoven symphonies.

With the original LPs long lost, I can’t say with certainty which I bought, but they definitely included the Eroica, Pastoral and the Seventh – all from his Berlin Philharmonic cycle recorded in the late 50s right at the beginning of the stereo era (and interestingly that means it’s the Berlin Phil pre-Karajan). A warm memory of those recordings has stayed with me over the last 40 years, recordings that first enabled me to really get to know Beethoven. So it was with a little trepidation that I recently bought the symphonies again on CD (about £10 for the set – how times have changed), and with no little joy to discover that in this case my memory was correct. They still give enormous pleasure all these years later, even with a CD collection that includes complete cycles by the likes of Furtwängler, Brüggen, Rattle, Gardiner, Abbado, and Böhm, as well as countless individual recordings. They are immensely civilised performances, no suggestion of a Cluytens style or sound, he simply lets the music be itself, and even the recorded sound is better than many later recordings.

André Cluytens died fifty years ago this month. The teenage me didn’t know him from Adam, and he’s still not really remembered in the same way as someone like, say, Fritz Reiner, but he should be.

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