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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120a (1841, rev. 1851) [rehearsal 51:17; performance 29:48].
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1797-1827)

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67b (1808) [rehearsal 20:15; performance 27:33].
aVienna Symphony Orchestra, bBerlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
rec. aVienna, November 1965; bBerlin, January 1966.
Director: Henre-Georges Clouzot.
NTSC 4:3 PCM Stereo; Region 0
DVD also includes interview with Karajan and filmed masterclass on the opening of the second movement of the Beethoven
EUROARTS 2072118 [120:00]

 

This is a real eye-opener. To eavesdrop on Karajan at work reveals a true master-musician. Karajan knows exactly what he wants, and how to communicate it to the orchestra. Often, too, he will tell the orchestra why he wants something done in a particular way; in the introduction to the first movement of the Schumann, he tells the violins exactly how to take away the harmonics as they play so that the doubling flute can come through. Note that the Schumann is the only extant document of Karajan rehearsing an entire work.

The Schumann, in fact, was the last rehearsal before the DGG Vienna Symphony recording, yet Karajan remains fastidious – no run-through here. He will take strings at a fraction of full speed to ensure unanimity. His imagery is accurate – the last bars before the first movement proper ‘hold the idea of the whole symphony’. They are taking an idea ‘to the point of madness’ - surely a reference to the composer’s malady? Illuminating comments come thick and fast – the writing, Karajan posits, comes from a keyboard background idea and the players must take that into account in their bowings.

He refers to the Richard Strauss and Weingartner re-orchestrations to bring out what was important ‘to the Romantic era’. He, however, tries to remain true to the romantic impulse by staying faithful to the score. It is telling that he says about two specific bars of the first movement ‘too much rhythm and too little expression’, a clue perhaps to the genesis of the later Karajan splodge? Yet there is so much here: his thoughts on ostinato - always equally accented notes - and his clear grasp of Schumann’s tricky structural thought. He brings a quasi-Wagnerian breadth to the transition to the finale before castigating his players for playing the last movement in too frivolous a fashion - ‘For Heaven’s sake this is not a jolly piece!’

It is the long-range vision that is the most striking aspect of the film. Again in black-and-white, although shot slightly darker than the rehearsal, Karajan, himself clad all in black, gives the first movement introduction a darkly magisterial slant. The Allegro, when it comes, is rightly determined. The sound congests a little too much at forte, though. Karajan, conducting from memory, uses his hands, arms and body to sculpt a performance that is quite simply electric. The filming is imaginatively unpredictable – aerial shots and spotlights on soloists are juxtaposed – then suddenly the camera freezes, as if mesmerized, on Karajan for a period.

The filming of the solo oboe and solo cello at the opening of the slow movement is particularly memorable. They appear as isolated figures, juxtaposed against each other against a backcloth of darkness. There is a real fire to the finale. The close-up filming of the fugato gives it an added edge of intensity; as if Karajan would let up anyway! As it reaches its climax, a shot of Karajan shows the Maestro in typical, concentration-drenched pose.

‘The Art of the Conductor’ is the title of the second (shorter) film on Beethoven’s Fifth with the Berliner Philharmoniker. There is an added and unannounced bonus – a 1966 Unitel interview with Karajan, who is seated at a piano; it is not separately indexed. He refers to a series of thirteen broadcasts preceded by an introduction: rehearsal or even conducting masterclass. Taking as his example the opening of the second movement of Beethoven Fifth, he then stands and watches an unidentified student conductor and tells him to be a sculptor with sound as he rehearses the cellos and violas. Karajan even demonstrates the art of connection between notes at the piano - in itself a seemingly contradictory idea! - and even introduces some motivic analysis.

Then to the Beethoven/Karajan film of the performance. There is a mighty intensity to the playing we hear - as well as some of the Karajan bass-heaviness. Some of the filming is superb – the way the camera focuses on the solo oboe cadenza and then juxtaposes Karajan; the characteristic view of Karajan with closed eyes, but seen through a forest of violin bows ... this is not only dramatic but carefully considered. And all this while the music positively blazes; this even displaces my preferred Karajan reading, the early Philharmonia. And if Karajan does slow up for the big orchestral restatement of the ‘Fate’ theme, it is not a huge halting.

The slow movement is affectionately shaped on every level although some will doubtless find it too personally shaped. The depth of the string sound is a particular joy here. This movement emerges as a personal and deeply felt utterance. Its shadow is felt over the Scherzo; the camera’s dwelling on the double-basses that form the bedrock of the sound is hardly accidental. The finale is absolutely monumental – it reminds us that clichés like ‘hewn in granite’ have a starting point somewhere, and that starting point is from performances like this. The camera zooms into Karajan’s upper torso for the final couple of chords. It is, after all, his performance!.

Informed notes by the Karajan authority Richard Osborne complete a significant release.

Colin Clarke

 


 



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