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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Gumdrops for 2014

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It’s customary this time of year for me to provide a “bonus” version of my Chronique du Disque, where I review some acquisitions that failed to make it in one of my monthly instalments. When I do so, I usually don’t provide a “grade” – though, for the suggestions I retained, I would give them high marks for overall impression and good to very good marks for sound quality.

Karajan Anniversary

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Karajan’s death and, though not necessarily part of an anniversary arc on my blog, I shared a couple of releases from Herbert von Karajan’s extensive discography (his DG disc of Rossini overtures, and his Decca disc of the Tchaikovsky ballet suites). Today, I will share three “complete collections” that may be of interest to both Karajan fans and music collectors looking for Stereo-era versions of great classics.

As evidenced by some key threads on the forum pages (like this one), Karajan is a polarizing figure and – like him or not – he is an inevitable musical persona of the mid- to late 20th Century, much like Leonard Bernstein or Leopold Stokowski.

Where do I come in on Karajan? Well, I believe he’s one of the finest opera conductors "on record", with many “definitive” performances on disc of Classical era and Romantic era works: Mozart, Verdi, even Puccini and Richard Strauss. Very few conductors come close to him in that department. He is the poster-child for the German Romantic orchestral repertoire, and his tenure in the 1950’s with the Philharmonia Orchestra and his 30-year stint with the Berlin Philharmonic have yielded a steady stream of recordings (and re-recordings) of many of these great standards.

If there is a negative bias, it may be because I find that Karajan does have a bit of an over-sold, hyped up reputation. Some would say the same about Bernstein and Stokowski, though their acknowledged repertoire was seemingly broader. There aren’t many “duds” in the Karajan discography, but you have to be selective when it comes to his many “re-recordings”. We discussed, for example, his Brahms Symphony cycle which he recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in early stereo, then again later in the Neue Philharmonie, then again digitally. Sometimes, you have to concede that nothing more needed to be said after the first set…

Bach - Brandenburg Concertos, St. Matthew Passion, Mass in B minor, Magnificat D-dur, 2 Orchester Suites - Herbert von Karajan

The first of three “collections” I wanted to discuss is this set of Bach favourites, including the “complete” Brandenburgs and the three “usual suspect” violin concertos, a pair of "suites", and two mammoth sacred choral works. There is an expression I love: “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, and I think it applies here. As I said earlier, Karajan is “true Romantic” and his Brandenburgs are a manifestation of that Romanticism. If Bach were born 150 years later, maybe the Karajan vision of the Brandenburgs would work, but the fact is that these concerti sound ”wrong” to Baroque listeners used to “authentic or HIP” baroque. However, the treatment works better for the violin concertos, and especially for the large choral works in the set – the Matthew Passion and the Mass in B Minor, both breathtaking interpretations, and probably among the best the Stereo era can offer. Of note, French violinist Christian Ferras who has a history working with Karajan is the soloist on the Bach violin concertos, and many of the well-known first chairs of the Philarmonic (Michel Schwalbé and Karlheinz Zöller) stand out in some of the solo sections among these fine works. Little to no reservations here, except for the Brandenburgs.

Karajan Conducts Tchaikovsky

I said earlier that Karajan was the poster-child for the German Romantic repertoire, but Karajan has proven himself an excellent interpreter of the music of other traditions, notably Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. This set features the complete symphonies (the numbered ones, so no Manfred), the afore-mentioned ballet suites, the serenade for strings, some of the other orchestral favorites (including the 1812 overture with Chorus) and the three workhorse concertante pieces (Piano No. 1, Rococo variations and the violin concerto). If some of you heard Evgenii Mravinsky conduct Beethoven, you will find he provides an “imitation-German” sound to the Leningrad Philharmonic. I didn’t say “fake-German”, because Mravinsky doesn’t “do” fake. He’s a genuine musician and interpreter, but he knows when to adapt stylistically. Similarly, Karajan, conveys an imitation-Russian sound to the Berlin Philharmonic, and does some pretty surprising things, especially with the lesser-traveled first three symphonies. The 4, 5, 6 set by Karajan falls a notch or two below the Mravinsky/Leningrad DG set that was recorded a few years before his, but he still has things to say, and it doesn’t sound “fake”. As for the rest of the set of pieces, they stack up favourably with non-slavic conductors’ readings of the same works. The soloists (Sviattoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich and the afiremnentioned Ferras) work well with Karajan in these over-recorded works, but there’s nothing that stands out there. All and all, an excellent survey of the Tchaikovsky orchestral repertoire.

Beethoven Complete Symphonies - Karajan [SACD] (6CD)

In a very fine piece from almost 25 years ago , Richard Freed does discuss Karajan’s “bad habit” of re-recording and as I would paraphrase, sometimes he should “leave well-enough alone”. Wikipedia tells us of the ‘astronomical’ recording costs associated with the DG 1961-62 Beethoven Cycle, with a figure of 1.5 Million DM expended to make the recordings – DG would need to sell 100,000 LP Boxed Sets to recoup the costs. The head of a rival classical music recording company, EMI, suggested that Deutsche Grammophon was ‘heading for a colossal financial catastrophe’. EMI, of course, was the recording company for which Karajan had recorded his first Beethoven cycle (MONO, with the Philharmonia), symphonies issued as a series of individual releases rather than in one swoop. By the way, it is said DG sold 1 million copies of the set… In his article, Freed suggests to make your “ideal” Karajan Beethoven cycle, you’d have to replace some of the 1963 set with some of his Philharmonia recordings. To my taste, the 1963 set (digitally restored) has this quality of “continuity” and “overall syntheseis” that I discussed a few years ago about some of the many complete cycles I already own. There’s no mistaking the sound, the oozing romanticism. The set comes with an interesting sound capsule: rehearsal audio of Karajan preparing for the recording of the Ninth.

Some Quick Hits

  • Planet yoga - music for yoga, meditation, and peace [Torrent] - Downloaded for my wife, who has since convinced me to take some Yoga lessons myself. (If you ask me, it's like going to Physio, for a fraction of the cost). Soothing, Eastern music, good for the soul.
  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 [iTunes] - This is a disc from the excellent Dohnanyi/Cleveland cycle recorded for Telarc, and for my money one of the best digital-era recordings of the Ninth. I re-purchased it because my CD was damaged... Glad I did!
  • Johnny Mathis - Open Fire, Two Guitars (1959) [Torrent] - The timeless voice of Johnny Mathis, in an intimate setting, with a few of his most memorable songs. Great to snuggle to after a cold day outside!