Monday, September 10, 2012

Karajan Reappraised – the 1960s

Even though I’ve never been a particular “fan” of Karajan, I couldn’t pass up this box – all of HvK’s non-operatic DG recordings from the 1960s with the original LP jackets and labels, a generous booklet, and facsimiles of several recording session logs.

No surprise: The high point here is the proto-typical German repertoire. One can plainly hear why the 1961-1962 Beethoven Symphony cycle is legendary: I’ve never heard a more searing funeral march from the Eroica – and it’s nice to hear a chorus that can properly pronounce the German lyrics in the Ode to Joy. The Brahms Symphonies exude a dark luminosity, a contradiction that was central to Brahms’ composing. I must confess I’ve never been a great fan of Brahms’ First Symphony, where I feel the composer overreaches in his attempt to become the next Beethoven – but Karajan makes it all work, and the Fourth Symphony is in one continuous line – as it should be. The Wagner excerpts are appropriately epic, with no sense of these being bleeding chunks lifted from great operas – but fine works on their own merit.

It’s been noted by esteemed music historian Harvey Sachs that Karajan’s “performances had a prefabricated, artificial quality” resulting from “an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound that could be applied, with the stylistic modifications he deemed appropriate, to Bach and Puccini, Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner, Schumann and Stravinsky”. For the most part, the Karajan “style” worked for much of the core 19th Century romantic repertoire, from Beethoven (yes, Virginia, Beethoven was a Romantic composer) through Richard Strauss. But when HvK strays from the 19th Century, prefabrication becomes a limitation. Much of the Mozart is in the thick, syrupy style that was losing favor even by the 1960s, and the Haydn is utterly lacking in the wit and verve associated with this composer. Worst of all is Bach which becomes the ultimate wallpaper music under HVK’s baton – recordings to own for the purpose of showing how cultured one is, rather than for listening. At the other end of the temporal spectrum, HvK is clueless in anything post-Richard Strauss. Stravinsky once lambasted HvK’s recording of The Rite of Spring, describing one part as “tempo di hoochie-koochie”, and concluding that HvK’s way with this seminal work makes it sound like “a pet savage rather than a real one” leaving it as inconsequential as Stravinsky’s later works. And Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra amounts to a group of pretty sounds and harmonic piquancies without adding up to anything meaningful. The grit is missing.

Then there are the concerto recordings. For the most part, the concertos are serviceable, if conductor driven, affairs (and HvK is hardly the only conductor who high-handed soloists). The Tchaikovsky Concerto with Richter* was the most anti-charismatic recording of this warhorse ever made – until HvK repeated the trick with Kissin. But that’s the low point. The high point here is the Beethoven First Concerto with Eschenbach, where the soloist freely embellishes as would have been heard in the composer’s time. For violin concertos, HvK was content to stick with Christian Ferras – a pairing that produced some of the most anonymous concerto recordings in history.

Sound quality/remastering: the documentation does not make clear which recordings have been newly remastered and which are using existing transfers. But all are acceptable, and demonstrate the sound DG typically gave Karajan in the 1960s: well-judged microphone placement (without obvious spot-miking), with plenty of hall ambience, adding up to a clear if slightly gauzed sonic picture.

The book provides recording dates and locales. There are three essays, one sycophantic, the others perceptive.

*Richter reportedly despised the recording

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