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Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844 - 1908)
Scheherazade. Op 35*a [46.29]
(1840 - 1893)
Capriccio italien Op.45b [16.51]
Overture 1812. Op 49c [15.29]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Michael Schwalbé (violin)*
Herbert von Karajan
Recording details. Berlin. Jesus-Christ-Kirche Jan 1967a, Oct 1966b, Dec 1966c ADD
DG The Originals 463 614-2 [79.05]
Crotchet  Amazon USA

In his time as conductor and overlord of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan made the orchestra into what was generally recognised (outside Vienna, that is) as the finest in the world. A massive list of recordings shows the range of works the Karajan era produced. This generously filled CD (79 mins +) has three works from the late 1960's when the BPO had been coerced, bullied, trained, honed into near perfection in its silky-smooth style. This style pleased many but left a large number of listeners appreciative of its quality but often unmoved and unconvinced that beauty of sound was not enough.

The contents of this disc add nothing to what we already know of the BPO and its controversial conductor. Schererazade sounds beautiful, with some glorious string playing, everything in place and immaculate, but the opening movement is (using a kind word ) soporific and only begins to come alive later until by the end it is quite exhilarating. Michael Schwalbé on the violin is exemplary as the story-teller. It was all a bit sugary-sweet and did nothing to dislodge the classic Beecham 1957 recording from its favoured position.

Neither of the two fillers can be recommended. Tchaikovsky's Italian Caprice - sounding more Spanish than Italian - is taken very slowly and the 1812 Overture enters a very crowded field and must be an also-ran in it. The gunfire and bells are a let-down and the choice of a Cossack choir at the opening is an accepted variation, but one that may not please purists (a purist in the 1812 - is there such a person?) To anyone liking this option the Jaarvi version (also on DG and digital) is very well recorded and has much better sound-effects added. The booklet reminds us about the unkind photograph of Karajan taken at a playback of the 1812 when he was seen to be yawning expansively. I refrain from added comment.

DG is not the first label that comes to mind when thinking of sonic spectaculars - the Decca's of this world usually came ahead in that territory - and here the very fine playing is not matched by the engineers who fail to give the sound the final degree of wide-openness it deserves. Even though their regular recording venue is used and presumably the recording team knew it well they still managed a slightly congested sound stage effect in works that cry out for more.


Harry Downey

but Arthur Baker thinks more highly:-

During the 1960s the combination of the much admired Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic justly regarded as one of the world's best orchestras, proved an irresistible combination in stereo and DG issued a huge number of recordings which sold like the fabled hot cakes. That the sound on most of these LPs were fairly lacklustre made no difference to their success. But it must be admitted that many suffered from what might be described as a water colour approach; with compressed dynamic range, remote perspective and poor base. However with their new CD pressings in their "The Originals - Legendary Recordings" series DG has shown immense skill in re-editing their old recordings and the results would be applauded if recorded yesterday.

Scheherazade is of course is unsurpassed as an orchestral showpiece and the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrates the utmost virtuosity in all sections of the orchestra. Michel Schwalbé is superb in the violin solos and the brass playing is rich and glowing. Without doubt this vital and sensuous version is amongst the best available of this much recorded symphonic suite. Interesting, in his cover notes, Karajan's biographer, Richard Osborne postulates that the conductor was uneasy about conducting the piece because of the artistic merits of Beecham's famous recording. Intrigued by this remark I made a detailed comparison of the two versions and whilst Karajan came out very well, I thought that Beecham had the edge, especially in the two central movements.

Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien is one of those works which is very popular on record but is rarely heard in the concert hall. It is not the most sophisticated of pieces but is tuneful and beautifully orchestrated. Here Karajan is very good and at a slightly slower pace than normal, plays it for all it is worth. The recording is very fine indeed and the brass comes across especially well.

The 1812 Overture is not the kind of piece you would associate with Karajan and although he plays it well one cannot help feeling that he is not fully engaged. An interesting feature is that Karajan uses the variant of the opening in which the Russian Orthodox chant is sung rather played by the strings, the Choir is the Don Cossack Choir. The playing throughout is good and it reaches a good climax at the end. However in this piece, the recording of the cannon is very important and here the engineers had not shown the same imagination as shown in certain well known recordings where you wonder whether the speakers will explode!

Overall a well filled disk at medium price with very good performances of three orchestral favourites which will satisfy.


Arthur Baker


Arthur Baker

Harry Downey

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