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Karajan: Orchestral Spectaculars from Handel to Bartók. 1949-1960
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Various locations, 1949-60
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 633621 [13 CDs: 16 hours]

Many of these EMI recordings are very familiar but I have more-than-dipped into them, not least to test the nature of the re-mastering. There is no engineering guru credited, just the generic Warner Classics name. I can report, though, that things have been well done – the sound is warm, not cloying, and there’s been no metallic admixture. Very satisfactory indeed.

This Official Re-mastered Edition has been parcelled out into bulky boxes – the Beethoven Symphonies, Soloists I and II, Sibelius, German Music and Russian Music, and so on. There are thirteen boxes all told, containing from 4 CDs to 13, the latter number being the case in the box under review. Karajan recorded for EMI with the Philharmonia and then his Berlin Philharmonic and there are examples of both orchestras in this box. I won’t itemise everything, when so many things are famous, but draw attention to a few features.

The first three discs are given over to Sibelius, of whom Karajan was, in the main, a fine interpreter. All are with the Philharmonia – and collectors will note that the 1976-81 Berlin Sibelius recordings have a box to themselves elsewhere in the series. There are two recordings of the Fifth Symphony, one from 1952 and the other from 1960, mono and stereo. The Second Symphony is lighter than it was to become, and the Fifth, in both Philharmonia recordings, powerful if a shade unmoving cumulatively. The Fourth is fine in every way, interpreted with insight and recorded with sensitivity – Douglas Larter was the balance engineer and Walter Legge the producer. Disc four starts with Sibelius’s Finlandia and Valse triste but then turns into the classic Britten-Vaughan Williams compilation of the Frank Bridge variations and Tallis Fantasia. The former, with a full string complement, has some searching expression in the first variation and a truly bleak Funeral march, whilst there are some elevated string solos in the Tallis. The mono version of Hamilton Harty’s Handel Water Music suite offers an unusual slant on Karajan’s discography – the stereo version in Berlin, housed in disc 13, is less 'old school' with faster tempi all round.

Karajan’s Kodály Intermezzo is a touch bland though his Bartók isn’t. The Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is heard in mono versions (Philharmonia, 1949) and stereo (Berlin Phil, 1960). There are interesting changes of perspective; he takes the opening movement significantly faster in the stereo remake, for example. Both are well thought-through and excellently performed though clearly the mono recording can’t do what the later stereo can in clarifying the music’s balances. The recording of the Concerto for Orchestra dates from 1953 and is heard in splendid mono and this befits a reading that is powerful but not suave. One disc is given over to his 1958-60 discs of Rossini overtures which, where they overlap, are less incisive than Fritz Reiner’s RCA traversals. Another couple of discs collect more Italian operatic extracts, a genial pot-pourri of favourites such as the Dance of the Hours and the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. There is also a brief snippet from Boris Christoff, singing Vous qui faites l’endormie from Gounod’s Faust. However disc seven ends with something special, his 1949 78 set of Roussel’s Fourth Symphony, recorded under the auspices of the Maharaja of Mysore’s Musical Foundation, the same organisation that did so much to bankroll Medtner’s recordings at around the same time. This is one of the highlights of the whole box, a brilliantly conceived and executed example of Karajan at his very best. Volume 8 also includes a scintillating reading of Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

Disc 9 is all-Berlioz and includes a scrupulous and superficially exciting Symphonie Fantastique from July 1954 as well as a refined and virtuosic Le Carnaval Romain and more French music, of a very much lighter stripe, is contained in the tenth CD. Here you will find Bizet – the Carmen Suite and L’Arlésienne suites 1 and 2, as well as some Chabrier and Gounod’s ballet music from Faust. More light offerings follow in the next disc, with Offenbach’s Gaďté Parisienne in the orchestration by Rosenthal taking pride of place, alongside the Berlin Bartók Music for strings, percussion and celesta noted earlier. If you wondered about Karajan’s affiliation with Granados, Waldteufel and even Weinberger (Schwanda, inevitably), now is your chance. These are stereo versions but he had earlier recorded some of these lollipops in mono so one can – should one wish – compare and contrast CDs 10 and 11. Disc eleven also contains a meatier proposition in the form of La Mer which is beautifully calibrated but can’t withstand the elemental ferocity of Koussevitzky, especially heard live in New York. The last disc includes Dvořák’s New World Symphony (Berlin Philharmonic, 1957) which is self-regarding and lacks idiomatic colour, though many people admire it, and a manicured Vltava though this final disc also offers the stereo Berlin Handel that I mentioned earlier.

This is a good way to collect 16 hours of Karajan on disc, impressively re-mastered, and in a variety of repertory, both great and small.

Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index links in contents list

Contents List
Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123, Sz.116
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, BB 114, Sz. 106 – two recordings
Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9
Chasse royale et Orage (from Les Troyens)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24: Rákóczi March
Carmen Suite
L'Arlesienne Suites 1 and 2
Carmen: Prelude to Act IV
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
Espańa – two recordings
Joyeuse Marche – two recordings
La Mer
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 'From the New World'
Faust - Ballet Music
Vous qui faîtes l'endormie (from Faust) with Boris Christoff (bass)
Goyescas (opera): Intermezzo
Water Music – two recordings
Háry János: Intermezzo
Pagliacci: Intermezzo
Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo
Gaité Parisienne – Ballet Suite
Orphée aux Enfers Overture
Barcarolle (from Les Contes d'Hoffmann)
Dance of the Hours (from La Gioconda)
Manon Lescaut: Intermezzo Act III
Rapsodie Espagnole
Pines of Rome
La scala di seta Overture
L'Italiana in Algeri Overture
Il barbiere di Siviglia Overture
La gazza ladra Overture
Semiramide Overture
Guillaume Tell Overture
Guillaume Tell: Pas de trois et chœur tyrolien
Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 53
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 63 – two recordings
Symphony No. 6 in A minor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 7 in A minor, Op. 63
Finlandia, Op. 26 – two recordings
Tapiola, Op. 112
Valse Triste, Op. 44 No. 1
Má Vlast: Vltava
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
La traviata: Prelude to Act 3
Aida: Ballet Music, Act II
Ella giammai m'amň (from Don Carlo)
Boris Christoff (bass)
Les Patineurs - Valse, Op. 183
Schwanda the Bagpiper: Polka