Herbert von Karajan first conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra
in January 1938 but, as Richard Osborne's magisterial study Herbert
von Karajan: a life in music (London, 1998) observes, the
conductor's response to what most would surely have considered
a golden opportunity was somewhat surprising.
As General Music
Director at Aachen and still, at that time, three months away
from making his first guest performance with the Berlin Philharmonic,
the self-confident young tyro – his brilliantined matinee-idol
intensity well captured in the CD's cover photograph from the
mid-1930s - might have been expected to see the chance to conduct
the prestigious Amsterdam band as a major step forward in his
burgeoning career. Already, though, Osborne speculates, Karajan's
long term plans persuaded him that further association with
the Concertgebouw – already raised to superstar status by Mengelberg
over the previous 43 years – would have led him into an artistic
cul-de-sac. What prestige, after all, was to be gained by a
fruitless attempt to improve on something already widely perceived
That 1938 Amsterdam
concert included a well-received account of Brahms's first symphony,
already something of a Karajan calling-card. Two months later
he was to perform it again with Salzburg's Mozarteum Orchestra
just as another native Austrian who had made his career in Germany
– Adolf Hitler - was incorporating their shared homeland into
the Third Reich. And it was that work that the conductor chose
to record on his next encounter with the Concertgebouw at recording
sessions held over 12 days in September 1943.
Of course, that
five year interval had made all the difference in – and to -
the world. In October 1938 Karajan had made a huge artistic
breakthrough in Berlin with a Tristan und Isolde that
had propelled him to stellar status. As the Berliner Zeitung
am Mittag critic gushed, “To put it bluntly: we are faced
with a prodigy. This man is the century's most sensational conductor.
No one aged thirty in our time has achieved so objective or
personal a triumph at such a level” [quoted in Osborne op.
cit. p.114]. The Dutch orchestra, meanwhile, had suffered
all the political and artistic indignities associated with their
country's military defeat and consequent occupation, while Mengelberg's
own collaborationist sympathies had done nothing to maintain
the players' cohesion and morale.
Thus it is probably
not too fanciful to detect more than a hint of artistic tension
between Karajan (“at his haughtiest and most difficult” notes
Osborne) and the Concertgebouw players, many of whom were no
doubt extremely resentful at the presence on the podium of one
of the occupying power's greatest musical icons. Such tension
can, however, be a galvanising influence – and that seems to
have been the case at these recording sessions.
used only to the plush, well-upholstered Brahms recorded by
Karajan later in his career will find some surprises here. To
an extent, it has to be conceded, the recording quality per
se makes a difference: the smooth, homogeneous sound that
the technophile conductor and his engineers deliberately cultivated
in his Deutsche Grammophon years is entirely absent.
But, beyond the sheer sound, there is a notably attractive,
fresh and lyrical approach that marks out this 1943 account
as a particular delight. The beginning of the first movement
provides an early case in point, with a comparatively slow and
deliberate tempo combined with a remarkably open and airy orchestral
texture: note how the timpanist's contribution is far more subtle
than usual, giving a significant boost to the overall transparency
of sound. Similarly, the adagio opening of the finale
is especially carefully – and quite beautifully – phrased to
emerge as far more than merely an introduction to the “big tune”
- which itself is more carefully integrated into the music's
overall structure than is sometimes the case when directed by
more grandstanding conductors.
Throughout, in fact,
Brahms's score is enhanced not by the melodramatic - but often
highly effective - overemphasis to which Mengelberg was prone
but by Karajan's careful control of dynamics and fine orchestral
articulation. Sometimes, indeed, one senses, especially in the
two central movements, that the players are almost in chamber
music mode, so closely do they seem to be listening and responding
to their peers. The result is a superficially low-key but nonetheless
extremely satisfying interpretation that sounds remarkably close
to twenty-first century musical tastes in spite of the initially
rather sub-fusc sound.
The other two items
on this disc were recorded during the same period and share
some of the identical characteristics, without, perhaps, being
quite so striking or memorable. The Beethoven is notable for
its fire and drama. The booklet notes by the ever-enlightening
Colin Anderson speak of its “whiff of greasepaint” and “off-the-leash
impetuosity”. Meanwhile, Salome's notorious striptease is depicted
with the requisite degree of musical hot-house eroticism, although
Strauss's tour de force is the track that suffers most
of all from the inevitable lack of aural sparkle on these somewhat
recessed and dull-sounding recordings.
in general, the initial impression of the sound quality may be
a little disappointing, the ear soon adjusts to it.
historical reissue can be recommended with confidence to those
seeking a wider than usual perspective on the overall achievement
of one of the last century's great conductors. At its bargain
price it is irresistible.