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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890, ed. Haas)
((i) Allegro moderato [17:00] (ii) Scherzo: Allegro moderato – Trio: Langsam [16:02] (iii) Adagio: Feierlich langsam doch nicht schleppend [27:35] (iv) Finale: Feierlich nicht schnell [26:17])
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)

Overture: Der Freischütz [10:29]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Hebrides Overture [10:10]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Overture: Der fliegende Holländer [10:56]
Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)

Overture: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor [9:07]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Grunewaldkirche, Berlin in May 1957 (Bruckner) and September 1960 (Overtures)
EMI KARAJAN COLLECTION 4-76901-2 [60:44 + 67:36]

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Last year John Quinn reviewed a live performance of Bruckner’s 8th symphony conducted by Karajan in Vienna. It was recorded just three weeks before he made the present studio version (see link to review below). I refer the reader to that review for a detailed comparison of the timings. However the bottom line is that he was slower in every movement here and took 87 minutes in total - nearly seven minutes longer. Karajan’s subsequent studio recordings, made in 1975 and 1988 both clocked in between 82-83 minutes and so it is probably this performance that is the outlier.

Whilst such differences in timing may seem large, this symphony can easily soak up (or lose) a few minutes without seeming excessively slow (or quick). More striking for me, in comparing this with the recording made over thirty years later, is a difference in feeling that I suspect has more to do with phrasing than tempi. This is a less heavily manicured account – more objective, almost ‘Klempereroid’. Both are great recordings and I would find it hard to draw a clear preference between them. If pushed, perhaps Karajan’s slow movement gets closer to the heart in 1988 but his 1957 finale is more conclusive. Incidentally, I would clearly prefer this version to the live 1957 recording – it seems that Karajan didn’t need an audience to get the best out of his players.

Most of Karajan’s 1950s work for EMI was undertaken with the Philharmonia Orchestra. This was one of the first recordings he made with the Berlin Philharmonic after becoming its conductor for life in 1954. The recorded sound was produced by Walter Legge and is amazing for the period, particularly for its depth of perspective. There is a most interesting essay in the booklet by Richard Osborne (an expert on both Bruckner and Karajan) reminding us that, when this record was issued, the mono was put out first and the stereo made available to special order three years later. The present issue is at mid-price and the 2 CDs are housed in a single-sized jewel case.

I presume no-one will be buying this package for the overtures which he recorded three years later. Nevertheless they are interesting bonuses and the Nicolai is Karajan’s only recording of the work. The others compete with later accounts made for DG. In comparing the versions of the Der Freischütz overture I felt the situation was similar to the symphony – Karajan added to his interpretation as time went by but the original was in some ways fresher.

Karajan was one of the greatest interpreters of Bruckner’s 8th symphony and he particularly revered the work. This version has been a mainstay of the catalogue for nearly half a century and it is good to welcome it back.

Patrick C Waller

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