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Eliette von Karajan/Herbert von Karajan: Mein leben an seiner Seite: Meine Lieblingsaufnahmen (My Life at his Side: My Favorite Recordings)
see end of review for track details
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7541 [74:13 + 75:28]
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To accompany the publication of Mein Leben an seiner Seite (“My Life at his Side”), the memoir of Herbert von Karajan’s widow, Eliette, Deutsche Grammophon has released Eliette’s selection of favorites from her husband’s DG recordings. The release also functions well as a sample of Karajan’s work, offering some prime examples of what was outstanding in his work, both positive and negative. If my tendency is to fall toward the side of the divide that remains somewhat uneasy with Karajan’s machine-polished, air-brushed sound-world, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some favorite Karajan moments of my own, including several of the ones gathered here.
 
If Frau von Karajan’s intent is to elevate her husband’s memory in the 100th anniversary year of his birth, it isn’t surprising that she opens with Beethoven. I would question the selection of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, though, if only on the grounds that this pretty, flowing music is a more suitable starter for one of those cheesy Karajan “Adagio” compilations DG loved putting out to cash in on the mass market only interested in music as a sedative. Karajan finds reasonable life in this very laid-back music, I suppose, though the rich, smooth sound he drew from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982 makes it easy to just lie back and wallow. Good in its way, I guess, but if you want to hear this music with a little less sheen and a little more variety, I would recommend checking recent recordings such as Haitink and the London Symphony, Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle, or for some period starch, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. The sound on this track is re-mastered from the original release, which was notorious for its bright, glassy sound. Early digital recordings had a tendency to sound that way, and the digital Beethoven cycle Karajan did was particularly glaring. It seemed to have been worse than most due to how it was processed for television and film recording. Later reissues have considerably improved the mix of those early CD releases, and the enhanced re-mastering is used here.
 
Next comes the sweet melancholy of the third movement of Brahms’ Third Symphony, given here in Karajan’s 1964 recording. One immediately notices the change from bright digital sound to much more shaded analogue, which emphasizes the creamy smoothness of the sound. But there’s more to an excerpt like this than super-refinement. If it doesn’t have quite the tender quality of Walter’s recording, nor the plain-spoken potency of Szell’s, it is nonetheless masterfully shaped.
 
Third, we move on to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun - hey, maybe this is one of those Karajan Adagio discs! Karajan was impressive in Debussy, virtually overturning the French tradition of playing Debussy with sharply defined colors and clear tempos and rhythms. Karajan’s languorous, hazy way with this music opened a can of worms. Many imitators have tried taking his course, without having the sheer control to hold things together. But Karajan did have a magisterial grip that made it possible for him to blur the sounds without losing focus on the flow and destination of the music. The erotic near-stasis of parts of this performance is bewitching. Like the Brahms, this comes from the early stereo recordings DG made of the BPO in the spacious Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. At least a portion of Karajan’s reputation for velvety lushness must come from this reverberant venue.
 
Recorded the same month in the same place was Karajan’s Suite No. 2 from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. If ever a piece was made for this aural environment, this is it. Ravel’s lush scoring seems to melts away into silence in Karajan’s hands. Though a number of performances offer faster dashes through the ankle-twisting “Danse générale” at the end, it is a fine demonstration of how Karajan could somehow generate intense excitement without breaking a sweat.
 
Next comes one of the truly great moments from Karajan’s discography, the third and final movement from Arthur Honegger’s “Liturgique” Symphony. Karajan paces himself perfectly, slowly building up tension to a white-hot climax of almost frightening catharsis. It is moments like this that make Karajan a figure deserving the utmost respect; mighty few artists are given that special something that allows them to create this kind of alchemy. Another moment that comes to mind is the climax of the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth - not included here - where Karajan pushes to a heart-stopping peak of blazing intensity. These kinds of moment give the lie to the stereotype of Karajan always having a steel fist wrapped in velvet. Sometimes the velvet fell away to reveal burning, molten steel beneath.
 
The Mahler we get is instead the “Adagietto” of the Fifth Symphony. I admire Karajan’s Mahler most in the darker pieces such as the Ninth and the Sixth. I have great respect for his Fifth, though I’ve never been able to cozy up to it. To truly love a performance — particularly of the “Adagietto” — I’d need to find something vulnerable. Although there is a gentleness and tenderness to this performance, it seems almost coated with Teflon. Cool, considered perfection. I might also add that at nearly twelve minutes, the tempo is slower than what is ideal. Karajan can sustain it. But that makes it more about showing off Karajan’s mastery than finding the heart of this music. Evidently, Eliette von Karajan finds more heart here than I do.
 
To close the first disc, we hear a highlight from one of Karajan’s New Year’s Day concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. Josef Strauss gave his brother some good competition on a number of occasions, and the Delirien Waltzes are certainly one of those. Karajan’s handling of some of the most familiar Strauss family chestnuts featured in those concerts could get a little mannered, but the dramatic, even melodramatic, tendencies of this sequences of waltzes inspired Karajan to be more in-the-moment, though the mantle of tradition is still present. The most uncomfortable thing here is jumping away from the lush 1960s and 1970s recordings into a very close-up, bright digital sound taken from numerous close-up microphones during a live concert.
 
The second disc starts with Karajan in territory where I’m least enamored of him. The aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion does not subject us to the most plush of Karajan’s baroque stylings. This is fortunate, as the bulk of its musical substance is shared by the solo soprano, Christa Ludwig, and the unnamed solo violinist from the orchestra. The violin is recorded here in just as much spotlight as the soprano, something that almost certainly wouldn’t happen today, in the age of stars. Ludwig’s singing is beautifully compelling, and the violin obbligato matches her tone and manner eloquently. Karajan sets a flowing pace, letting the pizzicato lower strings keep time, while the upper strings quietly back the soloists. It’s a lovely example of Karajan appearing to defer to his soloist, while unobtrusively steering everything.
 
If there’s one composer I simply can’t appreciate Karajan in under almost any condition, it is Mozart. Karajan has no truck with the kind of limpid, eternal freshness that I find key to Mozart. I find his handling of Mozart heavy and smothering, and gorgeous though the solo singing may be in the “Agnus Dei” from the Coronation Mass, it remains the same here. For my taste, this is enervated Mozart, utterly lacking the sparkle that makes great performances. In the first part of the excerpt, soprano Kathleen Battle almost succeeds in creating an atmosphere of wonder all by herself, but Karajan’s ponderous accompaniment leading the Vienna Philharmonic works against it. The spacious acoustics of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome make for a gorgeous resonance to the solo voices, but when all the closely-miked singers get going, along with full-sized orchestra and chorus, things become a bit woolly.
 
Continuing with the sacred theme (Karajan’s Holy Adagios?), we go back to another vintage 1964 recording to hear “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” from Brahms’ German Requiem. Karajan’s way with this music is spacious, more so than the recordings by Previn, Blomstedt, Levine and Solti, which I pulled off the shelf for comparison. Again, though, one of Karajan’s strengths was in exerting control through sheer will-power, so there is no sense of dragging here. He maintains the flowing sense of each phrase leading to the next with the kind of musical logic often only grasped by conductors who also compose.
 
To make the transition from church to theater, we have the last three sections of the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. The “Ingemisco” finds José Carreras in vibrant, passionate voice. José van Dam comes is commanding with the “Confutatis,” while keeping the more gentle passages gravely beautiful. The focus is again on the singers through much of this music, but one always senses the puppet-master looming over the whole performance, shaping it. The early digital sound of this excerpt comes from Vienna’s Musikverein, where it seems the DG team had consistently better luck capturing good digital sound than in the Philharmonie in Berlin. That said, when the explosive music that opened the “Dies Irae” returns at the end of the “Confutatis,” it bleaches out. The bass drum, in particular, has little bass impact, a typical feature of Karajan recordings throughout the years. The closing “Lacrymosa” adds Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Agnes Baltsa to the soloists, a stronger personality line-up than Karajan often preferred.
 
Thomas Stewart is featured in a set of excerpts from Karajan’s recording of Die Walküre. Granted, most fans bypass this recording in favor of the starrier Solti recording, but I have a soft spot for it, as it was my “eureka” recording for Wagner’s music-dramas. Listening to Karajan’s wielding of the ebb and flow of the dark storms of Nordic mythology made Wagner’s endless stream make sense to me for the first time. Here, from the luscious environs of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, we hear the ecstatic build-up to the “Magic Fire Music.” Stewart is not the most characterful of Wotans, but Karajan’s magisterial handling of the orchestra nonetheless makes this a glorious passage.
 
The second disc closes with one of my favorite Karajan recordings: The classic rendition of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with the silver-voiced Gundula Janowitz. Other performances may offer greater warmth, but there is an unending sense of ecstasy that makes the Janowitz/Karajan recording special.
 
Anyone who is less familiar with Karajan and would like to hear a sampling of his work including some great moments unlikely to be picked for your average “greatest hits” (or “Greatest Adagios”) collection, this set may do nicely.
 
The program notes in the booklet are only in German, as an English-language version of Eliette von Karajan’s book has not yet been published. In the notes, she mentions such things as precluding any of the adagios from the Bruckner symphony recordings due to length, though those are among her favorites, too. Likewise, the Richard Strauss Metamorphosen was bypassed in favor of the shorter Four Last Songs. She interestingly notes, too, that Karajan had been looking over Mahler’s Second in his last years, and had expressed a wish to perform it, though he died before he could put that plan into action. As all these excerpts demonstrate, whatever else it may have been, it would have been distinctive.
 
Mark Sebastian Jordan

Track details
CD 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”: “II. Szene am Bach” [10:13]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3: “III. Poco allegretto” [5:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun [9:51]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis and Chloe: “Suite No. 2” [15:15]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No. 3, “Liturgique”: “III. Dona nobis pacem” [11:46]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5: “IV. Adagietto” [11:53]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870) Delirien Waltzes [9:17]*
CD 2
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion: “47. Aria: Erbarme dich, mein Gott” [7:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mass in C: “Agnus Dei” [7:26]*
Johannes BRAHMS
A German Requiem: “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” [5:43]*
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem: “II. Dies irae” Excerpts:Ingemisco [3:55]*; Confutate [5:58]*; Lacrymosa [6:01]*
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre: “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” [4:52]; “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar” [6:58]; “Loge, hör! Lausche hieher!” [1:22]; “Feuerzauber” [3:49]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder: (I. Frühling [4:03]; II. September [4:49]; III. Beim Schlafengehen [6:13]; IV. Im Abendrot [7:05])
Bach: Christa Ludwig (alto); Mozart: Kathleen Battle (soprano); Trudeliese Schmidt (alto); Gösta Windbergh (tenor); Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass); Verdi: Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano); Agnes Baltsa (alto); José Carreras (tenor); José van Dam (bass-baritone); Wagner: Thomas Stewart (baritone); R. Strauss: Gundula Janowitz (soprano).
Wiener Singverein (Mozart; Brahms); Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper (Verdi); Sofia National Opera Chorus (Verdi).
Berlin Philharmonic, *Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Berlin, Philharmonie, November 1982 (Beethoven); Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, March 1964 (Debussy, Ravel); September 1964 (Brahms Symphony); December 1966 (Wagner); September 1969 (Honegger); January 1972 (Bach); February 1973 (Mahler, R. Strauss); Vienna, Musikverein, May 1964 (Brahms Requiem); June 1984 (Verdi); January 1987 (J. Strauss); Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica, June 1985 (Mozart); ADD/DDD (Compilation released 2008)
Tracks selected by Eliette von Karajan

 


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