the publication of Mein Leben an seiner Seite (“My
Life at his Side”), the memoir of Herbert von Karajan’s
widow, Eliette, Deutsche Grammophon has released Eliette’s
selection of favorites from her husband’s DG recordings.
The release also functions well as a sample of Karajan’s
work, offering some prime examples of what was outstanding
in his work, both positive and negative. If my tendency
is to fall toward the side of the divide that remains somewhat
uneasy with Karajan’s machine-polished, air-brushed sound-world,
that doesn’t mean I don’t have some favorite Karajan moments
of my own, including several of the ones gathered here.
If Frau von
Karajan’s intent is to elevate her husband’s memory in
the 100th anniversary year of his birth, it
isn’t surprising that she opens with Beethoven. I would
question the selection of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral
Symphony, though, if only on the grounds that this
pretty, flowing music is a more suitable starter for one
of those cheesy Karajan “Adagio” compilations DG
loved putting out to cash in on the mass market only interested
in music as a sedative. Karajan finds reasonable life in
this very laid-back music, I suppose, though the rich,
smooth sound he drew from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982
makes it easy to just lie back and wallow. Good in its
way, I guess, but if you want to hear this music with a
little less sheen and a little more variety, I would recommend
checking recent recordings such as Haitink and the London
Symphony, Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle, or for some period
starch, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire
et Romantique. The sound on this track is re-mastered from
the original release, which was notorious for its bright,
glassy sound. Early digital recordings had a tendency to
sound that way, and the digital Beethoven cycle Karajan
did was particularly glaring. It seemed to have been worse
than most due to how it was processed for television and
film recording. Later reissues have considerably improved
the mix of those early CD releases, and the enhanced re-mastering
is used here.
the sweet melancholy of the third movement of Brahms’ Third
Symphony, given here in Karajan’s 1964 recording. One immediately
notices the change from bright digital sound to much more
shaded analogue, which emphasizes the creamy smoothness
of the sound. But there’s more to an excerpt like this
than super-refinement. If it doesn’t have quite the tender
quality of Walter’s recording, nor the plain-spoken potency
of Szell’s, it is nonetheless masterfully shaped.
Third, we move
on to Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun -
hey, maybe this is one of those Karajan Adagio discs!
Karajan was impressive in Debussy, virtually overturning
the French tradition of playing Debussy with sharply defined
colors and clear tempos and rhythms. Karajan’s languorous,
hazy way with this music opened a can of worms. Many imitators
have tried taking his course, without having the sheer
control to hold things together. But Karajan did have a
magisterial grip that made it possible for him to blur
the sounds without losing focus on the flow and destination
of the music. The erotic near-stasis of parts of this performance
is bewitching. Like the Brahms, this comes from the early
stereo recordings DG made of the BPO in the spacious Jesus-Christus-Kirche
in Berlin. At least a portion of Karajan’s reputation for
velvety lushness must come from this reverberant venue.
same month in the same place was Karajan’s Suite No.
2 from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. If ever a
piece was made for this aural environment, this is it.
Ravel’s lush scoring seems to melts away into silence in
Karajan’s hands. Though a number of performances offer
faster dashes through the ankle-twisting “Danse générale” at
the end, it is a fine demonstration of how Karajan could
somehow generate intense excitement without breaking a
one of the truly great moments from Karajan’s discography,
the third and final movement from Arthur Honegger’s “Liturgique” Symphony.
Karajan paces himself perfectly, slowly building up tension
to a white-hot climax of almost frightening catharsis.
It is moments like this that make Karajan a figure deserving
the utmost respect; mighty few artists are given that special
something that allows them to create this kind of alchemy.
Another moment that comes to mind is the climax of the
last movement of Mahler’s Ninth - not included here - where
Karajan pushes to a heart-stopping peak of blazing intensity.
These kinds of moment give the lie to the stereotype of
Karajan always having a steel fist wrapped in velvet. Sometimes
the velvet fell away to reveal burning, molten steel beneath.
we get is instead the “Adagietto” of the Fifth Symphony.
I admire Karajan’s Mahler most in the darker pieces such
as the Ninth and the Sixth. I have great respect for his
Fifth, though I’ve never been able to cozy up to it. To
truly love a performance — particularly of the “Adagietto” — I’d
need to find something vulnerable. Although there is a
gentleness and tenderness to this performance, it seems
almost coated with Teflon. Cool, considered perfection.
I might also add that at nearly twelve minutes, the tempo
is slower than what is ideal. Karajan can sustain it. But
that makes it more about showing off Karajan’s mastery
than finding the heart of this music. Evidently, Eliette
von Karajan finds more heart here than I do.
To close the
first disc, we hear a highlight from one of Karajan’s New
Year’s Day concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic. Josef
Strauss gave his brother some good competition on a number
of occasions, and the Delirien Waltzes are certainly
one of those. Karajan’s handling of some of the most familiar
Strauss family chestnuts featured in those concerts could
get a little mannered, but the dramatic, even melodramatic,
tendencies of this sequences of waltzes inspired Karajan
to be more in-the-moment, though the mantle of tradition
is still present. The most uncomfortable thing here is
jumping away from the lush 1960s and 1970s recordings into
a very close-up, bright digital sound taken from numerous
close-up microphones during a live concert.
disc starts with Karajan in territory where I’m least enamored
of him. The aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St.
Matthew Passion does not subject us to the most plush
of Karajan’s baroque stylings. This is fortunate, as the
bulk of its musical substance is shared by the solo soprano,
Christa Ludwig, and the unnamed solo violinist from the
orchestra. The violin is recorded here in just as much
spotlight as the soprano, something that almost certainly
wouldn’t happen today, in the age of stars. Ludwig’s singing
is beautifully compelling, and the violin obbligato matches
her tone and manner eloquently. Karajan sets a flowing
pace, letting the pizzicato lower strings keep time, while
the upper strings quietly back the soloists. It’s a lovely
example of Karajan appearing to defer to his soloist, while
unobtrusively steering everything.
one composer I simply can’t appreciate Karajan in under
almost any condition, it is Mozart. Karajan has no truck
with the kind of limpid, eternal freshness that I find
key to Mozart. I find his handling of Mozart heavy and
smothering, and gorgeous though the solo singing may be
in the “Agnus Dei” from the Coronation Mass, it
remains the same here. For my taste, this is enervated
Mozart, utterly lacking the sparkle that makes great performances.
In the first part of the excerpt, soprano Kathleen Battle
almost succeeds in creating an atmosphere of wonder all
by herself, but Karajan’s ponderous accompaniment leading
the Vienna Philharmonic works against it. The spacious
acoustics of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome make for a gorgeous
resonance to the solo voices, but when all the closely-miked
singers get going, along with full-sized orchestra and
chorus, things become a bit woolly.
with the sacred theme (Karajan’s Holy Adagios?),
we go back to another vintage 1964 recording to hear “Wie
lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” from Brahms’ German Requiem.
Karajan’s way with this music is spacious, more so than
the recordings by Previn, Blomstedt, Levine and Solti,
which I pulled off the shelf for comparison. Again, though,
one of Karajan’s strengths was in exerting control through
sheer will-power, so there is no sense of dragging here.
He maintains the flowing sense of each phrase leading to
the next with the kind of musical logic often only grasped
by conductors who also compose.
To make the
transition from church to theater, we have the last three
sections of the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem.
The “Ingemisco” finds José Carreras in vibrant, passionate
voice. José van Dam comes is commanding with the “Confutatis,” while
keeping the more gentle passages gravely beautiful. The
focus is again on the singers through much of this music,
but one always senses the puppet-master looming over the
whole performance, shaping it. The early digital sound
of this excerpt comes from Vienna’s Musikverein, where
it seems the DG team had consistently better luck capturing
good digital sound than in the Philharmonie in Berlin.
That said, when the explosive music that opened the “Dies
Irae” returns at the end of the “Confutatis,” it bleaches
out. The bass drum, in particular, has little bass impact,
a typical feature of Karajan recordings throughout the
years. The closing “Lacrymosa” adds Anna Tomowa-Sintow
and Agnes Baltsa to the soloists, a stronger personality
line-up than Karajan often preferred.
is featured in a set of excerpts from Karajan’s recording
of Die Walküre. Granted, most fans bypass this recording
in favor of the starrier Solti recording, but I have a
soft spot for it, as it was my “eureka” recording for Wagner’s
music-dramas. Listening to Karajan’s wielding of the ebb
and flow of the dark storms of Nordic mythology made Wagner’s
endless stream make sense to me for the first time. Here,
from the luscious environs of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche,
we hear the ecstatic build-up to the “Magic Fire Music.” Stewart
is not the most characterful of Wotans, but Karajan’s magisterial
handling of the orchestra nonetheless makes this a glorious
disc closes with one of my favorite Karajan recordings:
The classic rendition of Richard Strauss’s Four Last
Songs, with the silver-voiced Gundula Janowitz. Other
performances may offer greater warmth, but there is an
unending sense of ecstasy that makes the Janowitz/Karajan
is less familiar with Karajan and would like to hear a
sampling of his work including some great moments unlikely
to be picked for your average “greatest hits” (or “Greatest
Adagios”) collection, this set may do nicely.
notes in the booklet are only in German, as an English-language
version of Eliette von Karajan’s book has not yet been
published. In the notes, she mentions such things as precluding
any of the adagios from the Bruckner symphony recordings
due to length, though those are among her favorites, too.
Likewise, the Richard Strauss Metamorphosen was
bypassed in favor of the shorter Four Last Songs. She
interestingly notes, too, that Karajan had been looking
over Mahler’s Second in his last years, and had expressed
a wish to perform it, though he died before he could put
that plan into action. As all these excerpts demonstrate,
whatever else it may have been, it would have been distinctive.
Mark Sebastian Jordan
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”: “II. Szene am Bach” [10:13]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 3: “III. Poco allegretto” [5:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun [9:51]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis and Chloe: “Suite No. 2” [15:15]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No. 3, “Liturgique”: “III. Dona nobis pacem” [11:46]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5: “IV. Adagietto” [11:53]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870) Delirien Waltzes [9:17]*
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
St. Matthew Passion: “47. Aria: Erbarme dich, mein
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mass in C: “Agnus Dei” [7:26]*
A German Requiem: “Wie lieblich sind Deine Wohnungen” [5:43]*
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Requiem: “II. Dies irae” Excerpts:Ingemisco [3:55]*; Confutate [5:58]*; Lacrymosa [6:01]*
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Walküre: “Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches
Kind!” [4:52]; “Der Augen leuchtendes Paar” [6:58]; “Loge,
hör! Lausche hieher!” [1:22]; “Feuerzauber” [3:49]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder: (I. Frühling [4:03]; II. September
[4:49]; III. Beim Schlafengehen [6:13]; IV. Im Abendrot
Bach: Christa Ludwig (alto); Mozart: Kathleen Battle (soprano);
Trudeliese Schmidt (alto); Gösta Windbergh (tenor); Ferruccio
Furlanetto (bass); Verdi: Anna Tomowa-Sintow (soprano); Agnes
Baltsa (alto); José Carreras (tenor); José van Dam (bass-baritone);
Wagner: Thomas Stewart (baritone); R. Strauss: Gundula Janowitz
Wiener Singverein (Mozart; Brahms); Konzertvereinigung
Wiener Staatsoper (Verdi); Sofia National Opera Chorus
Berlin Philharmonic, *Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Berlin, Philharmonie, November 1982 (Beethoven);
Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, March 1964 (Debussy, Ravel);
1964 (Brahms Symphony); December 1966 (Wagner); September
1969 (Honegger); January 1972 (Bach); February 1973 (Mahler,
R. Strauss); Vienna, Musikverein, May 1964 (Brahms Requiem);
June 1984 (Verdi); January 1987 (J. Strauss); Rome, St.
Peter’s Basilica, June 1985 (Mozart); ADD/DDD (Compilation
Tracks selected by Eliette von Karajan