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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551 (Jupiter) (1788) [27:09]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E (Haas edition) (1883) [63:07]
British National Anthem [0:58]
Austrian National Anthem [1:21]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. in concert, Royal Festival Hall, 6 April 1962
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5102 [29:29 + 63:07]

This concert - in a BBC recording now licensed to ICA - was apparently a significant event in British musical life, and so deserves documentary preservation. Still, it's not as if Karajan neglected to document his work in multiple audio and video formats over his long career. Does this issue really serve any further discographic function?

In fact, none of the conductor's three studio recordings of the Bruckner Seventh is quite satisfactory. Digital tweaking may have cleaned up the murky, over-reverberant sound of his c. 1970 EMI version - at least, as heard on the Angel LPs issued stateside - but also exposed the reading as soggy and ponderous. His DG remake of just a few years later (1976) sounded clearer but was strident in tutti. A third recording, from Vienna in 1990, was more direct, with a few uncertain transitions. So this sturdy, listenable reading actually fills a gap.

The Festival Hall performance resembles that last studio recording in its comparatively flowing manner. The first movement, with a clean attack on the opening tremolo, offers full-throated cellos; open, airy textures; and clear, firm tuttis. Karajan's attention to detail is welcome: the low strings are balanced subtly forward when they carry the themes; the violins' answering phrases in the agitated minor-key passage after 10:50 are shapely. In the recapitulation, the extended transition at 12:54 is mysterious, and the episode at 16:23, preceding the coda, is broad and exploratory. Other details are casual: the tremolos manage to come unstuck at 1:07, and the trombones suffer a few "sticky" attacks. There are also self-conscious moments: the little ritard at 7:46 is unduly protracted, and some of the pianos and pianissimos are a bit coy.

The Adagio begins well, with the quartet of Wagner tubas a powerful presence. The movement builds compellingly, in a broad arc, but it seems naggingly unsatisfying. The second group is lovely, but misses real elegance. The big climactic passage - with controversial cymbal crash at the peak - builds carefully, but the brasses intoning the chorale tend to speak slightly late against the moving strings. Ultimately, for all the reading's musicality and stylistic acumen, the lack of any spiritual quality registers as a shortcoming.

The Scherzo is forthright, though, at Karajan's rolling pace, it takes the trumpet and horn principals a few phrases to figure out how to articulate the recurring dotted rhythm: the trumpet smudges it, the horn drags. The Trio section sings expressively, with a pleasant rustic mood, perhaps surprising from this conductor. The Finale returns to the no-nonsense manner of the first movement. The opening theme is sprightly - though it loses some of its rhythmic point when the basses take it over - and the second theme maintains a dignified, steady tread. Later in the movement, some of the climactic tuttis hint at the portentous manner to come: the attack at 6:25 is sclerotic, and, at the immer breiter at 7:05, the rhetoric is a bit much.

The monaural sound would ordinarily be a deal-breaker for me in this repertoire, where stereo is really needed. In this case, however, the engineering encompasses the various lower brasses in particular with vivid presence and depth. Lighter textures, despite a lack of directionality, emerge with some transparency. On the debit side, there's a prominent background hiss; tympani rolls turn the sonorities opaque in the first-movement coda and tend to obscure activity in the Scherzo; and, in the score's closing pages, the trumpets suffer a touch of breakup and buzzy distortion. None of this seriously interferes with enjoying the performance.

But the Mozart symphony! I have no problem with big-orchestra Mozart: I was favourably impressed by the Klemperer/EMI reissue of some years back (EMI 0946 3 458102-8), but those performances were sturdy and rigorous, and this one is neither. The opening gestures - negligent, imprecise thuds - set the tone for what follows. The low strings ooze out of control whenever they take over the themes. At the start of the slow movement, the muted violins are nicely subdued, but the answering chords, and numerous cushioned attacks thereafter, are smudged. The Menuetto isn't bad, but the bows sit too long on the strings, and oozing basses are again a trial. Karajan maintains a surprisingly swift tempo for the finale - no mean feat with a large orchestra - but buries most of Mozart's elaborate counterpoint in the process; the bass runs are a particular blur. It's a musically informed racket, but a racket all the same.

For what it's worth, the anthems are fine: the British anthem comes off as more stolid than the Austrian.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York (lighthouseopera.org)




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