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Karajan en Italie
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’ K551 (1788) [27:59]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 (1877) [38:20]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 83 (1881) [46:22]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor Op. 125 Choral (1824) [68:06]
Béla BARTÓK (1881–1945)
Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) [23:17]
Géza Anda (piano)
Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano); Hilde Rössl-Majdan (contralto); Waldemar Kmentt (tenor); Gottlob Frick (bass)
Orchestra of RAI, Turin (Mozart, Bartok)
Orchestra of RAI, Rome (Brahms, Beethoven)
Herbert von Karajan
rec. Turin and Rome 1953-54
TAHRA TAH611-13 [3 CDs: 66:59 + 68:06 + 70:14]

Karajan’s first Italian visits occurred in wartime but he returned quite regularly thereafter and these three CDs document his performances during the years 1953 and 1954. The repertoire is essentially standard – only the Bartók is somewhat off the beaten track for Karajan – and he’s heard with two of the orchestras with which he worked when in the country – the RAI orchestras in Turin and Rome.
The Mozart has all the accustomed qualities one would expect to find in his performance – clarity, precision, and a certain moulding of string phraseology which will strike one either as elegant or mannered according to taste. And beyond that a somewhat aloof profile in the slow movement - but a compensatory dynamism in the finale. The orchestra responds with alacrity and immediacy to his direction and they sound very well drilled. The Brahms Second Symphony was taped in Rome in 1953. The virtues here are more evident but the sense of expressive disengagement in the Adagio is still a troubling if perhaps expected feature. Karajan clearly took great pains to ensure wind separation and balance. One can trace the flutes’ lines with chart-like precision. To suggest a navigational or map-like accuracy to his direction is hardly a novel observation but it’s in these small details that one appreciates the level of preparation that Karajan undertook to ensure that his symphonic perceptions remained uncompromised. There’s certainly grandeur and power in the Adagio but the sense of control can stifle a full blossoming of expression – precisely, one assumes, what he was aiming for. Those who seek the charge of “sleekness” in his direction might find evidence for it in the Scherzo but the finale certainly gathers momentum and ends in a real blaze – tremendously exciting.
The second disc is entirely devoted to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Tensile, linear and in the Toscanini mould, this is more evidence of his brilliant but variably engaged musicianship. Much here is magnificent and he gets the orchestra to play, once again in this series of live performances, with real polish and precision of articulation and phrasing. The executants are in the grip of an imposing and directional force in the shape of the conductor but the slow movement proves equivocal. It lurches between twin poles of expression and unbalances the emotive direction of the performance. Something of the same happens in the finale where the excessive moulding of the choral entries sounds overly nuanced. The solo singing however is technically speaking excellent. And the sound is equally good, ensuring we hear this imposing, tensile and frequently overwhelming performance in all its immediacy.
The sound for the Brahms collaboration with Anda is a touch splintery and compressed. The balance between piano and orchestra however was well managed by the radio engineers. Those familiar with the later 1960 Anda-Fricsay recording in Berlin will soon find that the two conductors take a strongly divergent approach. Karajan slices two minutes off Fricsay’s timing for the first movement alone and whilst the remaining movements aren’t subject to quite this level of radical overhaul it’s true that Karajan takes a considerably more lean and propulsive approach throughout. That said there is still real flexibility in the Italian performance and Anda brings great warmth; his slips in the scherzo are passing ones. I don’t find Karajan’s solutions in the finale especially convincing however; the dance rhythms are over-cooked.  
The Bartók does seem to me the superior collaboration between the two men. It’s deft, rhythmically vital, and illuminated by some brilliant firefly coloration. Throughout the ensemble is solid, the musicianship of a highly distinguished stamp and the characterization of the music – from pianist and conductor – exceptionally vivid. The faster section of Andante religioso is a particularly fine example of the vital pulse of the music making, one which fuses flexibility and expression in equal measure.
Tahra’s notes are, to put it mildly, more than a little idiosyncratic being devoted to a demolition job on the conductor whose music is being promoted. This is certainly a commercial novelty and takes some guts! 
Jonathan Woolf


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