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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Quixote op.35 (1897) [43:15]
Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) [35:16]
Rudolf Streng (viola)
Pierre Fournier (cello)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live, Salzburg Festival, Austria, 30 August 1964
ORFEO C909151B [78:31]

Herbert von Karajan’s visit to the Salzburg Festival in August 1964 was dominated by the works of Richard Strauss in celebration of the composer’s centenary. Already released on Orfeo is his incandescent - and only - recording of Elektra, an opera he ceased performing entirely after this festival. Two days before that performance, on 15 August 1964, Karajan had given a concert with his Berlin Philharmonic. This coupled Strauss’ Vier Letze Lieder (with Schwarzkopf) and Ein Heldenleben, magnificent and highly dramatic readings that outshine almost anything he ever achieved in the studio (Paragon CD, deleted). Whilst this freshly released Also Sprach Zarathustra has previously appeared in an Andante boxed set devoted to Karajan at the Salzburg Festival, the Don Quixote appears to be a first issue; this was, coincidentally, also the work he performed on the 100th anniversary of Furtwängler’s birth in 1986 (available on Sony DVD).

As always with Karajan, the distinction between his meticulous and sometimes rather over-wrought studio recordings and his live performances are noticeable. Even the choice of orchestra adds something to the magical and precise details that Karajan draws from both performances. That with his Berlin orchestra tended to be occluded by dense textures. Thrilling as the Berlin Philharmonic Ein Heldenleben from a few weeks before this concert with the Vienna Philhamonic is, what clarity and definition and sheer grace there is in the Viennese playing, especially in their glorious performance of Don Quixote.

Yes, Karajan does exploit the dark tones of the Viennese basses at the beginning of Von der Wissenschaft in Also Sprach Zarathustra, but how wonderfully they are transposed against such tonally fluid upper strings. The music never once sounds stressed or over-indulgent. Similarly, Karajan controls brass explosions – and they are really quite fierce – superbly. Listen to the Viennese players at 1:16 in Der Genesende and how poised they sound. That said, this is a tone poem in which darkness and light are in perpetual opposition, in which the friction between the keys of B and C major is in turbulent sparring and Karajan’s way with the score is often quite radical. Take for example the very opening of the work. The open perfect fifths that rise through the trumpets accompanied by the underground tremor of contrabassoon, double basses — and, unfortunately, a very underwhelming organ in this performance — are taken at a blistering pace. This is a sunrise that breaks over the horizon like an exploding star. The Backwaters (Hinterweltern) emerge with a poetic shimmer, a hazy and seductive Viennese dreaminess that recalls Debussy in Karajan’s hands; not for Karajan do we get a ham-fisted or schmaltzy Viennese waltz. For a live performance dynamics are astonishingly accurate – but given that Karajan’s way with this huge piece is really to treat it like a chamber work that isn’t surprising. Throughout one is often spellbound by details here and there, playing of unusual poetry and a stunning use of dynamics. It doesn’t sound in the slightest forensic, but highly spontaneous, as a live performance ought to. It borders on the opulent but it has just the right amount of spikiness to bring the account alive.

This Also Sprach was done five years after his Decca recording in Vienna and nine years before his 1973 Berlin Philharmonic recording for DG. In every way it falls in between both those two issues as an interpretation. I’ve always found the 1959 Decca record rather heavy going; in contrast, his 1973 remake has greater elasticity but an almost cloying focus on textures. This is opulence of an entirely different order. I’m divided over whether I prefer Karajan’s almost unique way in this work of treating the strings at the opening of Das Grablied in this live Vienna performance or his 1973 Berlin remake. In both, the violins emerge from the orchestra as if completely disembodied from the rest of the players, like a ghostly apparition of rattling skeletons. Similarly, is Karajan really the only conductor to notice that Strauss writes the very opening for trumpets at pianissimo rising to fortissimo and that there is no crescendo? The DG is sonically much better but as a distinct vision of a single performance I marginally prefer this live Vienna version. It’s incandescent, beautifully played — though by no means perfectly — and in more than tolerable mono sound.

Karajan commercially recorded Don Quixote three times, so clearly loved the work, but more than that, for a conductor so devoted to the intricacies of detail and refinement, he had a clear empathy for irony and humour, two virtues almost essential for a performance of Don Quixote to take flight. Virtuosic though the solo cello and viola parts are — not to say the bass clarinet and tenor tuba which also depict Sancho Panza — Strauss didn’t necessarily have in mind a virtuoso soloist for the Don himself. Karajan’s choice of Pierre Fournier is rather an inspired one, not least because Fournier has all the dashing elegance and brilliance required to bring off the role with both distinctive tone and razor-sharp precision. Rudolf Streng, principal viola of the Vienna Philharmonic, is both masterly and pure, entirely at one with the character he’s portraying. The difficulty with this work is in making it sound cohesive, giving it a narrative that brings together its Mozartean deftness with its Straussian touches into an expressive fable. Perhaps because this is the Vienna Philharmonic, and perhaps because this is Karajan, episodes such as the attack on the sheep and the battle with the windmills, with added wind machines and the inventive woodwind flourishes are less garish than they sound in other recordings. Karajan can be rousing, exciting and even violent in his characterisation of Strauss’ demands, but the underlying execution has an aestheticism and expressiveness that is entirely eloquent. In a work which is as difficult to bring off as Don Quixote this performance is near perfect.

In many ways this is a rather remarkable document of a concert where the results defy the difficult events surrounding the achievements of the music-making. This final concert from the 1964 Festival was somewhat clouded by the political and cultural differences between Karajan and Vienna and Salzburg which had led to an unbridgeable gulf between the two. As is so often the case, personal bitterness can lead to artistic results at an unfathomable level. This was very much the case here, and just listening to these two performances you sense a conductor and orchestra so clearly meant to be making music together but probably not in Vienna or Salzburg.

Marc Bridle



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