Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890, ed. Haas) [87:17] Otto NICOLAI (1810-1849)
Overture: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor [9:09] Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture: Der fliegende Holländer [11:05] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) HebridesOverture [10:22] Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Overture: Der Freischütz [10:37]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Grunewaldkirche, Berlin, May 1957 (Bruckner); September 1960 (overtures) MINUET RECORDS 428413 [60:48 + 67:43]
Karajan’s first stereo recording of this grandest and greatest of symphonies was made, incredibly, as long ago as 1944; unfortunately that extraordinary recording is shorn of the first movement. He subsequently made three more: this one in 1957, another in 1975 and the final one in 1988, with the VPO. All four are thoroughly recommendable. I do not propose to make any detailed comparisons, mainly because Karajan’s concept of the work remained remarkably consistent over the forty-four years separating them, even though this one here is something of an outlier by being several minutes longer in duration.
Nonetheless, a symphony scored on this scale can easily absorb a few minutes either way without much impact on its overall effect. My own preference seems to depend on which recording I am currently listening to, and certainly I revere all four interpretations as setting a kind of gold standard amongst recordings. This is probably the least impressive in pure technical terms but remains eminently listenable, especially when it has been this well re-mastered.
The recording quality in this latest re-mastering from the Minuet label is certainly superior to my 1996 EMI issue: hiss is reduced, the bass is richer, there is less blare at climaxes and clearer definition in concerted passages. I have not yet heard the new Warner re-mastering, which is, by all accounts, excellent although one has to be careful with these latest issues as it seems that in some cases Warner has gone too far in removing the acoustic peculiar to the recording locations.
While it is perhaps a tad more calculated and self-conscious than Karajan’s last, blazing account shortly before his death, the qualities of majesty, measure and a sense of forward impulse all characterise this performance. Just as Karajan’s final recording for DG has a palpable atmosphere emanating from the orchestra’s perception that this recording was valedictory, there is perhaps a special intensity in this, presumably the first stereo recording, arising from the sense of new horizons opening up, whereas the middle recording from 1975 is marginally more routine.
For the record the movement timings for this 1957 version are:-
(i) Allegro moderato [17:06]
(ii) Scherzo: Allegro moderato – Trio: Langsam [16:06]
(iii) Adagio: Feierlich langsam doch nicht schleppend [27:35]
(iv) Finale: Feierlich nicht schnell [26:29]
I presume no-one will be buying this package for the overtures which he recorded three years later. they are beautifully played. These are four big, German, Romantic works, three of which are by sadly short-lived composers, none of whom lived to see his fortieth birthday. They are all interesting bonuses and the Nicolai is Karajan’s only recording of the work. The others compete with later accounts made for DG. In comparing the versions of the Der Freischütz overture I felt the situation was similar to the symphony – Karajan added to his interpretation as time went by but the original was in some ways fresher. All sound wonderful in Karajan’s hands.