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Vienna Philharmonic: 1957-1963
Anton BRUCKNER (1824 Ė 1896) Symphony No 8 in C minor (ed. Haas)* [80í32"]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911) Symphony No 9 in D minor** [79í59"]
Richard STRAUSS (1864- 1949) Tod und Verklärung. Tone Poem for Orchestra Op. 24*** [23í48"]; Ein Heldenleben. Tone Poem for Orchestra Op. 40*** [42í30"]
Vienna Philharmonic/*Herbert von Karajan; **Dimitri Mitropoulos; ***Karl Böhm
Recorded: *Musikverein, Vienna, 17 April 1957; **Musikverein, Vienna, 2 October 1960; ***Konzerthaus, Vienna, 19 May 1963 ADD
ANDANTE AND 4997Ė5000 [4 CDs: 30í26" + 50í06" + 79í59" + 66í21"]



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This is another interesting and important set from Andante. It showcases the Vienna Philharmonic in live performances led by three conductors who had significant relationships with the orchestra in the post-war era. Moreover, each conductor is featured conducting major works by composers with whose music they were closely identified.

Strangely, Andante donít give any information about the sources of the recordings of the Karajan and Mitropoulos performances. The Böhm recordings, however, are identified as Austrian Radio productions. Are the other recordings from private sources, I wonder? Such an explanation might account for the fact that the sound quality on Böhmís recordings is the best by some distance.

Herbert von Karajan made three studio recordings of Brucknerís Eighth. (For DG he set it down with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1975 and with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1988.) The first of his three commercial recordings was made for EMI with the BPO just three weeks after the performance captured here was given. Incidentally, there is an even earlier recording in existence though, tantalisingly, it is shorn of the first movement. This is an amalgam of two radio recordings made in Berlin with the Preussische Staatskapelle in June and September 1944. This recording, in amazingly good sound (the finale is in stereo), is or was available from Koch Schwann and is a fascinating document. Proving that conductors donít always slow down as they age Karajan took no less than 71í05" just for the last three movements!

By contrast, the complete performance captured here may be his swiftest recorded traversal at 80í18". Initially I was puzzled by Andanteís documentation, which states that the Nowak edition of the score is used here. However, I am indebted to my colleague, Patrick Waller who has listened to this performance in conjunction with his copy of the score of Nowakís edition of Brucknerís 1890 version of the symphony. This appeared in 1955. Some years later Nowak brought out an edition of the original 1887 score, which is used by Georg Tintner on his Naxos recording. It would appear that Andante are incorrect and that here Karajan uses the Robert Haas edition here (and, presumably on his Berlin EMI recording made shortly thereafter though my LP copy gives no information as to the edition used.).

I am told by Patrick that the following differences that substantiate the use here of the Haas score; these affect only the adagio and the finale. In the adagio the passage between 17í13" and 17í54" in this performance are in Haas but not Nowak (1890). Again, in the finale there are two passages, between 6í40" and 7í16" and again between 8í02" and 8í14" that appear in Haas but not Nowak.

Iíve seen other reviews of this set in which the reviewers have expressed a definite preference for the studio BPO recording, made just three weeks later, over this VPO account. I think that on balance I share that view. Listening again to my LP set of the Berlin account thereís no doubt that the studio version, made under the eagle-eyed aegis of Walter Legge, is more polished where the live VPO traversal almost inevitably has a few minor fluffs and other blemishes. Also, the EMI engineers were able to balance the sound much more precisely in Berlin. That said, itís not all gain. In the VPO performance, for instance, Karajan draws out the first movement coda just that little bit more, with much more satisfying results, I think. Also, as the performance progresses thereís something of the sense of urgency and electricity that itís not so easy to recreate in the recording studio.

This sense of extra urgency may be apparent from a comparison of the timings of each movement in Vienna and Berlin (again, Iím grateful to Patrick Waller for telling me the timings of the 1957 EMI Berlin recording. The timings are as follows:

  Vienna 1957 (Andante) Berlin 1957 (EMI)
Movement 1 15í30" 17í05"
Movement 2 14í50" 16í04"
Movement 3 25í22" 27í31"
Movement 4 24í36" 26í17"
Total 80'18"

 

86'57"

Itís fascinating to find Karajan taking nearly seven minutes longer under studio conditions just a matter of weeks later!

This concert took place around the time that von Karajan assumed the direction of the Vienna Staatsoper. In fact, in the fortnight or so before the concert he inaugurated his régime with productions of Die Walküre and Verdiís Otello. In his magisterial biography of the conductor, Herbert von Karajan. A Life in Music (1998) Richard Osborne avers that around this time the relationship between Karajan and the VPO "seems to have been workmanlike and productive, though occasionally tinged with unease." Of course, Karajan was no stranger to the VPOís podium. He had regularly conducted them in both the concert hall and the opera house for a good many years. However, solely on the evidence of the Berlin and Vienna Bruckner Eighths one might conclude that at this time Karajan and the Berliners were that much easier and more familiar in each otherís musical company.

In this Vienna reading the first two movements sound good to me without being anything extra special. Partly that may be due to the recorded sound, which is perfectly serviceable but doesnít really open up as one would wish in the sonorous climaxes. However, the performance starts to take flight in the great adagio. Thereís a real intensity to the playing of the strings in the movementís opening paragraphs and, indeed, the strings (and the harp, for that matter) really play beautifully in this movement. The VPO horns are pretty impressive too, ringing out majestically at climaxes and offering some very sensitive quiet playing also. Karajanís reading of this movement has nobility and dignity and contains just the right leavening of passion. The finale is taut and grand. However, at least as recorded, the climaxes sound somewhat strident.

In summary, this would not be a reading or recording to prefer to the subsequent Berlin effort. However, it should not be dismissed, either. It is a good performance and, in the adagio at least, rather better than good. Karajan devotees (and Bruckner aficionados) will find it fascinating to compare and contrast the different results that the same conductor could get from two different orchestras in the space of three weeks.

Karl Böhm was renowned for his affinity with the music of Richard Strauss and left notable recordings of many of the operas as well as quite a few of the orchestral works. Here we have him in two of Straussís best known tone poems, each of which shows his mastery of the Straussian idiom. One point worth noting is that both works here feature violin solos (famously so in the case of Ein Heldenleben) and on this occasion they were played by Willi Boskovsky. He is balanced rather closely but one readily forgives this since his playing is so good. Böhm shapes Tod und Verklärung expertly. The hushed opening is most atmospheric and all the instrumental solo work matches Boskovskyís for distinction. Later on the turbulent allegro fairly erupts (at 5í06"). The transfiguration theme can sound banal in the wrong hands but Böhm is expressive but tactful. The last six minutes or so are noble and dignified, with Böhm obtaining some particularly eloquent playing from the VPO.

His account of Ein Heldenleben is equally satisfying and itís good to have this performance available since Iíve been unable to trace any other recordings of the work by Böhm in the current British catalogue. At the start thereís a splendid, but not overblown, swagger to the Heroís theme. When the critics appear on the scene (track 3 Ė all six sections of the work are separately tracked) pungent brass and wind playing leaves us in no doubt of the waspish nature of these particular critics. When Boskovsky begins to portray the Heroís companion (track 4) his very first entry is at the same time sweet and commanding. This section of the work is one that can easily sound garrulous and outstay its welcome. Thatís not the case here for Boskovskyís playing is full of character (and very accurate) and he invests every phrase with interest. The Love Scene is gorgeous and erotic, as it should be with a lovely wind-down, all passion spent. Itís just a pity that at this point the languorous clarinet solo is rather swamped by the lower strings.

Thereís another unfortunate issue of balance in the Battle Scene where the side drum is far too dominant (or is allowed so to be by the engineers, Iím not sure who to blame.) The clangour and hectic clamour of this section is excitingly conveyed but, perhaps inevitably, the sound as reported is somewhat congested and you donít get anything like the detail of a studio recording. Furthermore it sounds to me as if the radio engineers have compressed the loudest passages. Böhm is masterly in the twilight glow of the Heroís Deeds of Peace, laying out Straussís tapestry of self-quotation beautifully. The final section is especially fine. At the point marked ĎLangsamí, just before cue 102 in the score, the violins dig into their glorious melody with real passion, producing a wonderful, golden tone (track 7, 3í30"). Then the coda winds down beautifully, given added lustre by the playing of Boskovsky and the uncredited solo horn player. This is a fine performance, one that is both authoritative and understanding.

However, with all due respect to Messrs. Karajan and Böhm the performance that sets this collection apart is the account of Mahlerís Ninth, led by Dimitri Mitropoulos that occupies disc 3. Itís important not to duck one major issue. I read a review of this set some time ago by Richard Osborne in which he described the recorded sound thus: "most of it (including the whole of the Rondo Burleske) is pure aural masochism." I wouldnít quite go that far but there is no denying that the sound quality is pretty rough and primitive. The brass blare aggressively when playing at anything above mf and the timpani boom horribly. Mr. Osborne actually went so far as to say that the sound on the legendary 1938 Bruno Walter/VPO recording is "far superior". Surely, I thought, that couldnít be right? However, a few comparison passages show that, incredibly, the 1938 sound is much better, at least in the Dutton transfer in my collection. Intending purchasers of this set should be warned that there is a good deal of surface noise and louder passages do distort.

And yetÖ.. If you can listen through the sonic limitations the prize is great for you will experience a performance that is quite extraordinary. By this time Mitropoulos was mortally ill after the second of his heart attacks the previous year. Notwithstanding his frailty, he came to Europe in the summer of 1960 with a punishing schedule that included a heaven-storming account of Mahlerís Eighth at the Salzburg Festival in August (available at one time on the Living Stage label) followed by a run of performances of La forza del destino at the Vienna Staatsoper. After that he led the VPO in two performances of Mahlerís Ninth, of which this is one. All that then remained was a solitary Mahler Three in Cologne on 31 October and the very next day he died in Milan, rehearsing the same symphony, felled by a massive coronary.

Is it fanciful to suggest that this Mahler Ninth is the reading of a man obsessed by his own mortality? In one sense, yes, because Mitropoulos had further engagements in his diary and was clearly determined to carry on as long as he could. On the other hand, he was well aware of his declining health and quite probably approached each concert knowing that it might be his last.

Certainly he conducts the Ninth here like a man possessed. I mustnít give the impression that this is an hysterical reading, shorn of lyricism, for it is not. However, the coruscating drama of Mahlerís score and its huge emotional range is conveyed as in few performances that I know. The reading of the huge, complex, seething first movement is quite staggering in its intensity. Mitropoulos quite simply grabs the listener by the throat and never lets go. The VPO respond with edge-of-the-seat playing. While thereís raw power in the loud passages itís the sheer tension of the quieter music that really grabs my attention. Mahlerís emotions are laid bare here and the conductor conveys a vision that is very unsettling. Itís compelling listening.

The second movement Ländler is suitably grotesque. The demonic Rondo Burleske is taken at a slightly deliberate tempo, which I find works extremely well. It may not be the fastest account of this music that Iíve heard but at times itís the scariest. However, precisely because of this the lyrical trumpet-led section in D major is even more balm for the soul than usual (even if a couple of thunderous timpani rolls do rather disfigure the music when they occur.)

Mitropoulos and his players really dig deep in the concluding adagio. Because so much of the music is quiet the sonic problems are not as pronounced here. This movement is one of Mahlerís most profound utterances and Mitropoulos conducts as if his very life depends on it. The great climax (track 4, 14í07") is heart rending but itís the long hushed passages that are particularly unforgettable. The ending is marvelously bittersweet and the intensity of the playing of the VPO strings is breathtaking. This is the only recording in the set that is not followed by applause, for which many thanks. Any applause after such an experience would be a grotesque intrusion.

There are many great recordings of this symphony. One thinks of Karajanís live 1982 BPO reading (DG); Bernstein live with the same orchestra in 1979 (also DG); Bruno Walterís aforementioned 1938 VPO reading; and Barbirolliís recordings (the justly famous 1964 BPO reading for EMI and also a live one from 1962 with the New York Philharmonic in that orchestraís own-label Mahler cycle.) This Mitropoulos vision of the score (and I use the word "vision" advisedly) is fit to rank beside these benchmark versions, despite the very poor sound. Interpretatively itís not a version for "everyday" for I think one could only experience such a shattering reading occasionally. However, itís a performance that every admirer of either the conductor or the composer should hear if at all possible. Unfortunately Andante seem wedded to the concept of multi disc sets. If ever there was a recording that cries out for separate issue it is this one.

This, then, is a most important set and one which connoisseurs of conducting will certainly wish to hear. The Karajan performance is interesting to hear even if, in the last analysis, it doesnít add greatly to our knowledge of him (especially given that a studio reading was set down almost contemporaneously.) The Böhm performances are extremely distinguished and add to that conductorís currently available discography. The Mitropoulos is simply unique.

The set comes with the usual lavish, illustrated documentation in English, French and German. Itís not a cheap set and one wonders if by editing out most of the applause for the Karajan performance it could have been accommodated on three CDs. However, if one views it as an investment itís pretty gilt-edged.

John Quinn



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