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HDTT $19.99

Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Richard Strauss recorded live at the Salzburg Music Festival
Don Quixote Op.35 - Fantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters [43:52]
Also sprach Zarathustra Op.30 [35:13]
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Ulrich Koch (viola)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Salzburg Music Festival, 27 August 1975 (Don Quixote), 27 August 1979 (Also sprach Zarathustra)
Experience Classicsonline

It is always said that if you enjoy the experience of driving a car don’t drive a Rolls-Royce. The theory being that the upholstered cocooned perfection of the vehicle divorces the driver from the road as you are swept along in sterile magnificence. I have to say that I have often felt the same way about recordings by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. No one can doubt the extraordinary technical brilliance and refined execution but often I have felt this to be at the expense of spontaneity and indeed humanity. The glory years of their association produced literally hundreds of recordings from Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and others where no doubt as much studio time as the maestro required was lavished. Not for them the modern realpolitik of “live” performances recorded for commercial release. So it was with a degree of almost academic interest that I put on this disc of live performances from Salzburg to see how they would measure up. Within seconds of the opening of Don Quixote I was completely hooked. This is why Karajan and his Berlin players were so great. All my previous caveats and concerns fade away like so much morning mist. 
Don Quixote has always been one of my favourites amongst the canon of Strauss tone-poems. For sure the full gamut of orchestrational trickery is covered; from bleating sheep to rides through the air but running as a spine through the centre of the work is the character, the humanity indeed, of the eponymous hero. Strauss’s great genius in this work is to reveal the flaws and foibles of this character through music. Yes it is one of the great orchestral showpieces but at the same time it is without doubt one of the finest portraits in music of the human spirit ever conceived. Strauss chose to write this portrait as a concertante cello part - here entrusted to the inimitable Mstislav Rostropovich. This live recording dates from 1975 - the same year that these exact artists made a studio recording for EMI which has been released as part of that label’s “Great Recordings of the Century” series. I have not heard that performance, much to my shame, but it has generally been acclaimed as the finest of Karajan’s three studio recordings of the work. But to focus on this performance - to my ear the orchestra sounds and feels unleashed and inspired. What I find thrilling in both of these performances is the exultant sense of music-making taking wing. Take the very opening of the work; the woodwind figure is bright-eyed and full of anticipation with the following string line unfurling and blossoming with the richness of tone only a great orchestra can muster. Even more gloriously the solo oboe - I assume the great Lothar Koch - sings, and I do mean sings, the main theme in a long winding gently ecstatic reverie [track 1'-1'30"]. This segues into a distorted fanfare which, in a few concise musical strokes, conveys the Don’s nobility and incipient madness. I hear here the brilliance of execution I expect from the Berliners but now it is allied to an attention to detail and an attack I didn’t. Listen for the pointing of the accents on the fourth of each group of semiquavers - it is perfectly realised. Throughout the brass snarl and menace magnificently: track 4 1'07" - are they sheep?, is it madness?, in his madness have the sheep become monstrous? I go into such detail over the first few minutes simply to illustrate the musical riches on offer. And this is before Rostropovich has played a note! It is worth bearing in mind that the mid-1970s were the period when Rostropovich started moving away from the cello and began conducting in earnest. Not that his playing betrays anything but total technical security but added to that is a patrician wisdom that I find profoundly moving. This is great playing - not overtly flashy, not perfect for sure, but wise. Jumping ahead to the final Death of Don Quixote - always a moving passage - I don’t think I have ever heard it unfold and swell into visionary triumph before lapsing back as the Don dies quite so affectingly. I know that elsewhere Karajan is criticised for his Strauss lacking passion at the expense of form and symphonic sweep. That is definitely not the case here. Comparing other recordings - the famous Kempe/Dresden Staatskapelle on EMI (originally released on CD as CDC7 47865-2), Järvi/Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos (originally CHAN8631), Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra on CBS (re-released as Sony SBK47656) - I am genuinely surprised to find myself being the most engaged and moved by Karajan and Rostropovich. Those other three recordings are well regarded, the Kempe particularly so, but for me Karajan takes the laurels. All of which has made me muse on the nature of great orchestras and great conductors. For sure with a great orchestra it is the ability to expand and encompass. By this I mean tonally - there seems to be no limit to the depth or volume of sound they can produce, temporally - they never seem rushed or hurried - lines (as with the oboe above) simply unwind. Technically, the most tortuous and complex passages are negotiated with indecent ease. A great conductor is able to convince you of the “rightness” of their vision at that given moment. There can never be a single way with any piece of music but in that instant, in that place, you cannot imagine it being done any other way.

Which brings me back very neatly to the sense of occasion that pervades this disc. Clearly these concerts were special events for the orchestra. The recordings were made on analogue reel-to-reel tapes by, I assume, Austrian Radio. Apart from a moderate amount of tape hiss and something I can only describe as “hall rumble” they are remarkably fine. A wide dynamic range allied to a beautifully natural orchestral balance - indeed it bore in on me whilst listening that this kind of natural perspective is missing all too often from modern recordings. Both performances are blighted by severe bronchial outbursts from the audience but actually this simply underlined the unique live nature of this performance for me. Ulrich Koch playing the concertante solo viola part is far more limited technically and expressively than Rostropovich - indeed that imbalance is the only flaw for me here but not one that would stop this going straight to the top of my list of preferred performances.

After the touching humanity of Don Quixote the pompous philosophical musings of Also Sprach Zarathustra can seem overinflated and self-important. But for UK listeners of a certain age this work can only really mean one thing - the Apollo Space Missions of the late 1960s. The sunrise opening in all its awe-inspiring grandeur is still synonymous to me with Saturn 5 space rockets! For years the Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording on Decca has been a guilty pleasure with its super-charged playing and recording, but for the first time in forty years I felt that thrill that took me back to being about 10 years old watching the TV. This is Strauss as shock and awe. How does Karajan achieve this? Quite simply in fact: a steady uncontroversial tempo but one that allows the orchestra to play exactly what is on the page faithfully. The dotted rhythm of the opening tonic-dominant-tonic fanfare faithfully observes the semiquaver (16th note) anacrusis with the following timpani figure clearly in triplets against the previous rhythm. The three repetitions build inexorably to the spine-tingling sunrise crowned by blazing trombones and rock-steady brass. OK the organ chord wilts but by then I’m already sold lock, stock and barrel. Again the humanity of the work shines through - Karajan finds passage after passage where the most loving of rubati allow the music to breath and smile. A perfect instance is Das Tanzlied (track 21) - over pertly alert oboes the solo violin of Michel Schwalbé finds an almost Kreisleresque quality - and certainly a Viennese lilt - that I had never imagined there. I wouldn’t be surprised if the principal trumpet is still kicking himself for the big split on the infamous passage 3'09" into track 20 The Convalescent but again by then I really do not care. The power of Karajan’s vision and the conviction of the Berliner’s performance renders all such caveats mean-spirited and frankly irrelevant. The broad sweep of the complete performance renders any such criticisms worthless.

In returning both of these performances to some kind of general circulation the company HDTT are to be warmly praised. Technically the transfers are beyond reproach - as fine as any live broadcast tapes from that period that I have heard. Their presentation is frankly idiosyncratic. For example Also is given its opus number the Don not - why? Salzburg is spelt as Salzberg! Appallingly badly they have left less than 1 second from the abruptly cut-off end of Don Quixote and the opening of Also sprach. Given that these are individually burned CDs perhaps some kind of option to insert a space was not exercised in error. There has to be a proper break after a performance of this impact - and I would have liked to hear the audience response too. Then the disc comes in a DVD-style case. This is a mistake. Discs of this nature will be bought by collectors; collectors have collections(!) which tend to be on shelves, in drawers or in stacks. The old style jewel-case may be one of designs great triumphs of ineptitude over functionality but it is the norm (dimensionally at least). The liner-note is oddly printed on a folded piece of card in fonts of varying sizes and whilst reasonably interesting about the works relates nothing about the performance. Again, if you buy this disc the likelihood is that it was the performance you sought. I don’t know how widely available this disc will be but if you have any interest in Strauss’s orchestral works I would urge you to seek this disc out. It is to be hoped that the other discs released by this company show similar levels of artistic judgment in the selection of repertoire and performance as well as technical excellence in both source tapes and CD transfer. 

Powerfully performed testaments to great artists at their peak.

Nick Barnard 



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