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2020 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Orfeo label. Founded in 1979 by Axel Mehrle and launched in 1980, its first recording was Orff’s Die Bernauerin. Since that time the label has gone from strength to strength from initially concentrating on vocal music and opera to branching out into historical recordings from Bayreuth, Salzburg, Vienna and the Bavarian State Opera. These were considered of having both historical and musical importance, and the performances had at their helm big-named conductors and renowned soloists. To celebrate this auspicious occasion Orfeo, now under the wing of Naxos, have released this 10 CD set, featuring some of their finest and best. The line up looks mouthwatering.
The only recording in this collection that I’m intimately familiar with is Carlos Kleiber’s May 1982 performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 from Munich. This spectacular performance is, for me, the highlight of the collection. Certainly it’s the finest Fourth I’ve ever come across, and would be my top recommendation. If you want something energetic, invigorating and underpinned by rhythmic vitality then you need look no further, it doesn’t get more edge-of-seat than this. The original issue, hovering around the 30 minute mark, was parsimonious by any standards. It did include 3 minutes of rapturous applause which, sadly, has now been removed. Paired with Mitropoulos’ Prokofiev 5 in this set, the total length of the CD is 71 minutes and the applause could have been accommodated.
The Beethoven performances, Coriolan Overture and Eroica Symphony under Hans Knappertsbusch, couldn’t be more different. They date from 1954 and 1962 respectively. In both cases the conductor begins before the applause has finished. The Coriolan Overture is a powerful reading with much intensity and drama. The Eroica, on the other hand, is heavy going and weighty in the worse sense. Heavy on its feet would be a better description, with tempi on the slow side. He omits the first movement exposition repeat, which isn’t ideal. It’s a performance I could happily pass on. There are no such disappoints in another Beethoven Symphony included, namely a wonderful performance of the Ninth from the Musikverein, Vienna dated 25 June 1955. The Orchestra is the Vienna Symphony under the inspirational direction of Herbert von Karajan. I’m well and truly enamoured by this traversal. The tension and pace of the outer movements reveals the conductor more light on his feet than in his later recordings of the work. Listen to the impressive opening of the finale and you’ll be awestruck by its potency. Lisa della Casa, Hildegard Rössel-Majdan, Waldemar Kmentt, and Otto Edelmann form an impressive line-up in the final movement, and the Vienna Singverein are mightily impressive.
There are two Bruckner performances, and forty years separates them. The 1951 Fourth Symphony has Wilhelm Furtwängler at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. This has done the rounds on various pirate labels over the years, but the mono recording has been masterly restored by Orfeo and sounds very good for its age and provenance. There’s another recording of the Symphony with the same forces from a week earlier in Stuttgart which Andrew Rose has remastered for his Pristine label. It’s been given some high praise, but sadly I’ve never heard it to compare. Understandably, in much better shape is the Fifth Symphony from 1990-91 played by the orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera under Wolfgang Sawallisch. Nicely paced, idiomatic, with a firm sense of direction, it’s one of the finest recordings of this Symphony I know, ranking alongside Jochum’s magnificent 1986 performance with the Concertgebouw on Tahra.
Of the two performances of Brahms Symphonies, Celibidache’s First from 1952 I prefer. It’s an expansive account. The Andante sostenuto is heartfelt and the finale has great power and force, and he skillfully steers the work to a soaring conclusion. Barbirolli’s Brahms Second is a washout, humdrum and prosaic. The slow movement especially suffers, and fails to move mountains. Fricsay’s Tchaikovsky Sixth is on a different plane. It’s one of the most impressive accounts I’ve heard. The quality of the recording for 1960 is marvelous, and there’s so much orchestral detail to be heard. The opening movement is passionate, with the big tune eloquently sculpted. In the finale, Fricsay achieves maximum emotional impact. If you want an earth-moving account of this symphony, then this is it. The original Orfeo release coupled the Tchaikovsky with the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3 with Annie Fischer. It's a pity this was not included, as it would have comfortably fit on this meagre 51 minute disc.
The renowned Straussian Karl Böhm hits the jackpot in the 1973 performance of Ein Heldenleben from the Herkulessaal in Munich. It doesn't get much better than this. For a start, the the sound quality is everything you could wish for, and you're able to hear every detail of the score. The performance is invigorating and muscular, and the heroic passages have visceral impact. The moments of tension and relaxation are superbly managed.
These are performances of significant historical importance, and there’s much variety to be had. Jens F. Laursen provides some insightful and informative vignettes of the featured conductors which, I must say, I enjoyed reading very much. The booklet is in English and German.
CD 1 [72:29]
Schubert: Symphonie Nr. 2;
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben op. 40 – Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (29.9.1973)
CD 2 [76:22]
Bruckner: Symphonie Nr. 5 – Bayerisches Staatsorchester (1990/1991)
CD 3 [70:45]
Beethoven: Symphonie Nr. 4 – Bayerisches Staatsorchester (3.5.1982)
Prokofieff: Symphonie Nr. 5 – Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (9.7.1954)
CD 4 [66:33]
Beethoven: Coriolan-Ouvertüre op. 62 – Wiener Philharmoniker (17.1.1954); Symphonie Nr. 3 – Wiener Philharmoniker (17.2.1962)
CD 5 [71:20]
Brahms: Symphonie Nr. 3;
Beethoven: Symphonie Nr. 7 – Wiener Symphoniker (8.3.1956)
CD 6 [51:07]
Tchaikovsky: Symphonie Nr. 6 – Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (24.11.1960)
CD 7 [66:33]
Herbert von Karajan
Beethoven: Symphonie Nr. 9 (Lisa della Casa, Hildegard Rössel-Majdan, Waldemar Kmentt, Otto Edelmann; Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wiens, Wiener Symphoniker (25.6.1955)
CD 8 [64:05]
Liszt: Les Preludes;
Brahms: Symphonie Nr. 1 (30.10.1952)
CD 9 [78:39]
Sir John Barbirolli
Brahms: Symphonie Nr. 2;
Vaughan-Williams: Symphonie Nr. 6 (10.4.1970)
CD 10 [66:36]
Bruckner: Symphonie Nr. 4 (29.10.1951)
Participating artists and orchestras:
Lisa Della Casa (soprano)
Hilde Rossel-Majdan (contralto)
Waldemar Kmentt (tenor)
Otto Edelmann (bass-baritone)
Bayerisches Staatsorchester (2)(3)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (1) (6) (9)
Wiener Philharmoniker (4) (10)
Wiener Symphoniker (5) (7) (8)