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Herbert von Karajan: The Legendary Decca Recordings
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68 (1876) [45:57]
Tragic Overture, Op.81 (1880) [14:11]
Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90 (1883)  [33:09]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No.103 in E flat major, (1795) "Drumroll" [30:21]
Symphony No.104 in D major, (1795) "London" [26:41]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550 (1788) [24:50]
Symphony No.41 in C major, K551 (1788) "Jupiter" [28:46]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy Overture (1880) [20:54]

Swan Lake - Suite (1877) [25:44]
The Nutcracker - Suite (1892) [21:48]
Sleeping Beauty – Suite (1890) [21:39]

Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92 (1811) [35:25]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No.8 in G major, Op.88 (1889) [36:50]

Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)
Giselle (1841) [60:15]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Music from Peer Gynt, Op.23 (1876) [25:12]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op.32 (1918) [48:52]

Johann STRAUSS (1825-1899)
Die Fledermaus - Overture / Ballet Music  (1874) [15:06]
Annen-Polka (1852) [4:10]
Der Zigeunerbaron – Overture (1885) [8:00]
Auf der Jagd - Polka (1875) [2:13]
Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald - Walzer (1868) [11:42]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)
Delirien-Walzer (1867) [8:22]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28 (1895) [14:57]
Tanz der sieben Schleier (Salome) (1905)[9:26]

Don Juan, Op.20 (1888) [17:07]
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24 (1889) [23:55]
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30 (1896) [33:25]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Vienna, March 1959 (Brahms 1, Haydn 104, Beethoven 7, Strauss Waltzes, Zarathustra); June 1960 (Romeo & Juliet, Fledermaus, Till Eulenspiegel, Salome, Don Juan, Tod und Verklarung); October 1960 (Brahms 3, Mozart 40); September-October 1961 (Tragic Overture, Dvorak 8, Nutcracker, Giselle, Peer Gynt, Planets); April 1963 (Haydn 103, Mozart 41); March 1965 (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty)
DECCA 4780155 [9 CDs: 76:20 + 74:03 + 74:12 + 72: 20 + 69:18 + 60:15 + 74:03 + 74:48 + 74:40] 


Experience Classicsonline

Issued to celebrate the conductor’s centenary this year, this seems to be a straightforward repackaging of the 1995 compilation “Karajan - The Great Decca Recordings”. Karajan’s association with Decca was productive but brief, with all these recordings, plus classic opera sets such as Aida, Otello or Tosca, being set down under John Culshaw’s watchful eye in the late 1950’s/early 1960s. At this stage Decca was at the forefront of recording technology and the excellent quality of the sound is much in evidence. Clarity coupled with richness of sound, plus a believable concert-hall ambience, create a backdrop for playing that for the most part is full of character and colour.

It’s of necessity a slimmer volume than comparable offerings from EMI or DG – at the height of his career (from between around 1965 and 1985) Karajan was to concentrate largely on recording (and re-recording) much of this repertoire with the Berlin Philharmonic for those rival labels. Towards the end of his life, as relations with the BPO cooled, he was to work closer with the Vienna Philharmonic again. This Decca set, therefore, represents a snapshot of the younger Karajan at the height of his powers, and a kind of half-way point between his Philharmonia and Berlin periods. 

The two Haydn and Mozart symphonies are performed with a combination of traditional Viennese suavity and power which I felt was occasionally foreign to the music. Karajan emphasises the grandeur in Haydn with unashamedly big-band readings. With the Mozart, there is no shortage of drama in the G minor, and the Jupiter is played in the grand style; but we have moved on in our approach to these composers in the last fifty years and these recordings, while interesting to hear, present something of an anachronism. 

Beethoven’s Seventh and Dvořák’s Eighth are also given fine readings, the Beethoven sounding ever so slightly disengaged, the Dvorak relaxed and sunny. Karajan’s earlier Philharmonia Beethoven Seven was more dynamic than this, but there’s a warmth to the sound here coupled with a leanness that disappeared in later, more sonically plush Berlin recordings. The Dvorak is a memorable recording (Karajan included the work on a VPO tour around the same time) in which the VPO woodwind is made to sound authentically Bohemian; in any event it’s preferable to his later Berlin EMI version. 

Karajan’s way with Brahms here encapsulates his contrasting approaches to this composer’s works; the First Symphony attracted a rather lukewarm press on its appearance mainly due to Karajan’s flexible approach to tempi. To my mid it’s a fiery and exultant performance, lacking the stodginess of some of his later Berlin recordings. The final appearance of the chorale theme is indeed rather slow but I’ve heard far worse and given the flexibility and passion of the performance as a whole this is a relatively small price to pay. The Third Symphony displays a more mellow approach. Relaxed Viennese woodwind and strings create a Gemütlichkeit that is perhaps lacking the last degree of tension. It’s a tricky work to bring off, and the transition from the finale’s energetic first half to its more peaceful conclusion is not entirely convincingly handled. By contrast the Tragic Overture lacks nothing in fire and drive. 

Karajan was always at his most persuasive in ballet scores, where the drama and colour inherent in the music seemed to bring out his most imaginative responses. The Tchaikovsky and Adam excerpts are deservedly famous for the panache of the performances; the same goes for Romeo and Juliet and Peer Gynt where the orchestral colour is tempered by Nordic coolness. 

Karajan’s justly famous performance of Strauss’s Zarathustra fully encompasses the composer’s Nietzschean vision, both in the purple passages and the more delicate moments. Here and in the other Strauss works on the disc Karajan demonstrates how fully attuned he remained to this composer throughout his life. Till is suitably mischievous and pitiful by turns, Juan ardent and dashing, Tod und Verklärung suffused with the nobility this score needs if it is to avoid becoming mawkish. 

Karajan was also a master of the lighter Viennese repertoire; among his earliest recordings with the VPO in 1946 were memorable versions of Strauss waltzes and polkas and he included several of them in the VPO’s World Tour about this time. 

With the exception of a couple of ballet performances at the Staatsoper Karajan does not appear to have performed The Planets in concert, although he did make a second recording for DG later in his career. His performance here is astounding in its virtuosity and glamour and one can well understand the sensation this disc created on its appearance. Compared with Boult’s rather lame effort with the same orchestra on Westminster Karajan’s performance is in a different league, although one still senses that the VPO don’t have this music in their blood as does Sargent’s contemporary BBC Symphony on EMI.

There are no notes about the music, but a short introduction to Karajan and his links with the VPO. Given that EMI have issued their bumper Karajan collections at an average price of around £1.00 per CD, this set’s retail price tag of over £45 seems a bit steep.

Ewan McCormick



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