It came as something of a shock on receiving these discs to realise that it is now twenty-five years since the death of Herbert von Karajan (1908-89). That anniversary has prompted Warner Classics to reissue these and many other EMI Karajan discs. The surprise is occasioned by the fact that, thanks to his recordings, Karajan remains a very active presence in the minds of music-lovers. Indeed, if I remember correctly, I read just recently that he is still one of the top-selling artists for Deutsche Grammophon, the other label with which he had a major association.
My Seen and Heard International
colleague, Mark Berry opens his valuable booklet note with this challenging statement: "In our ‘historically informed’ times, it has become unfashionable to laud Herbert von Karajan’s work in Classical repertoire. So much the worse for fashion." I must plead something of a mea culpa
in that respect because over the last twenty years or so I have found the work of such historically informed artists as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe – and others – so illuminating that, on reflection, I may have been guilty sometimes of undervaluing the work of conductors of the previous generation. Yet whenever I listen to Klemperer’s great recording of Ein Deutsches Requiem
– still a benchmark (review
) – or to Furtwängler in Beethoven (review
) – I realize afresh how rash it is to forget what these masters can teach us about the great works of the repertoire. I grew up as a record collector in the years when Karajan seemed to dominate the catalogue. I bought – and still possess – many of his recordings but in recent years I suspect his star has waned a little for me. Thus the opportunity to evaluate his 1960s Beethoven cycle for DG a few months ago was something of an epiphany (review
) and that process of re-enlightenment has continued with this boxed set.
Karajan’s wonderful recording of Die Schöpfung
, made for DG in the 1960s, has been a favourite of mine for many years but I’d not previously heard the recording of Die Jahreszeiten
that he made for EMI Classics in 1972. From the rich, sonorous orchestral opening you know that this is going to be Haydn on a big canvas. Just because it isn’t Haydn on the small, lithe scale of Herreweghe’s excellent recent recording (review
) doesn’t mean that this is going to be any less enjoyable. Large the orchestra may be in comparison to Herreweghe’s band but, my goodness, they play well. The orchestral contribution throughout is superb with the woodwind work a particular delight – and listen to the horns in ‘Hört des laute Getön’, taken at a bounding pace by Karajan.
Karajan has a fine team of soloists. Werner Hollweg is expressive and clear of tone while Walter Berry’s contributions are firmly focused. They are both very good indeed but Gundula Janowitz is simply wonderful; her lustrous, creamy tone is a constant source of pleasure. The choir is slightly recessed in comparison to the orchestra, which is in the foreground. However, the chorus still makes an impact and they sing very well. Karajan’s conducting is excellent and though this may not be quite on the exalted level of his earlier account
of Die Schöpfung
I still enjoyed it very much.
His reading of Beethoven’s hugely demanding masterpiece is very impressive indeed. He certainly has the measure of the work. It seems to me that the choir, which sings very well, is more forwardly balanced than was the case in the Haydn – the blazing opening of the Gloria
testifies to that. Oddly, the soloists seem more distant than one might expect: I wonder if they were placed behind the orchestra. This disconcerted me at first but I came to wonder if the placement was deliberate – to give an aural suggestion of mere mortals, perhaps. Actually, the balance achieves a result that is arguably more realistic than we are accustomed to hearing on recordings; after, all, the microphones often give vocal soloists a greater prominence than they would have in the concert hall. One supposes that Karajan, who always took a strong interest in the very process of recording, must have approved.
The solo singing is excellent. Once again Gundula Janowitz's voice is a treat for the ears: listen to her soft, creamy tone floating the line over the top of her colleagues in the Amen at the end of the Credo. The other soloists all make a strong showing too - Schreier’s declaration ‘Et homo factus est’ is a ringing proclamation while José van Dam and Agnes Baltsa make especially impressive contributions to the Agnus Dei. Once again there is sovereign orchestral playing and Karajan’s direction, whether or not you agree with every single detail, evidences deep thought about the music. As an example, at ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo, I might feel the speed is a touch on the slow side. However, Karajan gets his tenors to sing with a more veiled tone than I can recall hearing elsewhere and the result is a very real sense of mystery in this passage to which the measured pace contributes; it’s wonderful. A few moments later the ‘Crucifixus’ is piercing, the accents marvellously jagged, and then ‘Et resurrexit’ is very exciting, as it should be. Karajan shows his wisdom in the way he handles the ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ fugues: both are firmly controlled and in the second, faster one the music is kept on a tight rein, not suffering it to be rushed off its feet. The climax at the end of the second fugue is a magnificent, affirmative moment, after which the music gradually dissolves. All in all this is a very fine account of Beethoven’s daunting masterpiece.
The Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde are on duty again for Ein Deutsches Requiem
and there’s a nice symmetry to that since the immediate post-war vintage of the same choir sang on Karajan’s famous 1947 EMI recording, which was made in Vienna. The singing of the 1976 cohort is not entirely flawless but they do pretty well. Mark Berry opines that in this performance we hear the work ‘in the light and shadow’ of the Brahms symphonies and I think I understand what he means. Certainly the orchestral lines often come through in a way that one doesn’t always encounter – though that’s not due to any undue highlighting; it’s the result, I’m sure, of Karajan’s fastidious balancing. Furthermore, this is a performance that bespeaks long experience of Brahms’s music. Also, like Klemperer, Karajan is patient in his unfolding of the score. So the opening movement is spaciously paced and beautifully moulded. Mr Berry rightly draws attention to the ‘cumulative power’ and absence of histrionics in ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ and while agreeing I’d draw attention also to the delicacy of the ‘So seid nun gedüldig’ episode, even if I might have wished for the music to move forward a little bit more here. Later on I thought initially that the pace of ‘Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt’ was too measured. However, over time the spacious treatment casts its spell and justifies the pacing. The Last Trump section is not taken as quickly as some conductors do but the weighty, powerful approach brings its own rewards while the fugue on ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ is strong, the lines clear. Karajan is well served by his soloists. Anna Tomowa-Sintow’s gorgeous tone and good sense of line are heard to advantage in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ while José van Dam is excellent in both of his solos.
This is a fine set which I enjoyed very much. Anyone who has heard or seen recordings of Karajan in rehe
arsal will know that results such as these didn’t just ‘happen’ but were the product of painstaking, detailed preparation. You may not agree with every interpretative decision but there can be no doubt that throughout this set a master conductor is at work. It’s a pity that Warner Classics couldn’t have seen their way to providing texts and translations, especially for the Haydn but I suppose we can’t have everything. The notes by Karajan biographer Richard Osborne and by Mark Berry are good.