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Overtures and Intermezzi
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
The Gypsy Baron: Overture (1885) [8:19]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Thaïs: Meditation (1894) [6:43]*
Luigi CHERUBINI (1760-1842)
Anacréon: Overture (1803) [10:59]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz: Overture (1817-21) [10:31]
Franz SCHMIDT (1874-1939)
Notre Dame: Intermezzo (1902-4) [6:13]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Suor Angelica: Intermezzo (1918) [4:55]
Manon Lescaut: Intermezzo (1893) [5:23]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
L'amico Fritz: Intermezzo (1891) [5:07]
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hansel and Gretel: Overture (1893) [8:28]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
The Hebrides, Op. 26 (1830) [10:10]
*Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
recording data not given
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 5217812 [77:36]

The bulk of this programme - all of it except the first and last tracks - comes from an early-digital LP of "Opera Overtures and Intermezzi". EMI doesn't offer session details, but a publication date of 1981 and a dryish acoustic suggest that these items were recorded in the Philharmonie. The string sound is clearly warm, but it never blossoms; the tuttis never expand to fill out the space.
 
The dry ambience also tends to emphasize the wrong things about the conducting, with Karajan absorbed in his trademark silky sound, and neglecting such matters as whether the music's going anywhere, or even whether everyone's playing quite together. The little flourish a few seconds into Notre Dame is a blur. The outpouring leading to the climax in Suor Angelica is unruly. Even the landing at 5:57 of Hansel and Gretel, in a passage with a strong rhythmic profile, splatters. Tutti punctuating chords are generally soggy.
 
In the Cherubini, the batteria is permitted to cover the moving parts; in the Weber, the punctuating chords are harsh. In both those overtures, the soft-edged, mushy playing is too Karajan, and not sufficiently Classical, in style. Slow passages - the Freischütz horn duet, the cello solo in Manon Lescaut, the Evening Prayer in Hansel - just lie there, lethargic and under-motivated. The high woodwinds in Manon Lescaut are wheezy. The Meditation from Thaïs, despite Anne-Sophie Mutter's tactful dollop of star power, is both pokey and stiff. There are a few characterful passages - the foreboding start to L'amico Fritz, the general post-Mahlerian brooding of the Schmidt - but not nearly enough of them.
 
The Gypsy Baron overture, from an analogue Johann Strauss programme of 1976, is altogether better, though the muscular tuttis are hardly echt Viennese, and the woodwind solos, suitably lighter, bring no real delicacy. The more lightly scored transitions betray approximate ensemble. A warmer acoustic, particularly around those reeds, suggests the resonant Jesus-Christus-Kirche as the venue; the reproduction is round and pleasing, although perspectives shift between the fuller and the quieter passages.
 
The reissue producers have included Karajan's 1962 Hebrides as an additional, if non-operatic, makeweight, and it's the best thing on the programme. There are still some ensemble issues: in the recurring fanfare motif, the double-sixteenth pickups tend to sputter. The performance projects a suitable maritime atmosphere, however, and the playing is full of life and purpose. The clarinet's second-theme reprise is a nostalgic reflection.
 
I can't recommend this, even for the Hebrides, which I'm sure has turned up in an earlier reissue; at any rate, avoid the conductor's muddy DG remake. To hear what Karajan could really do with the Puccini and Mascagni selections, hunt down a digital transfer - or, even better, a vinyl copy - of his DG Opern-Intermezzi programme, in the company of some more likely suspects, along with a better-controlled Schmidt.
 
The pause between the Cherubini and the Weber ought to have been a second or two longer.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.