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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Bolero (1928) [15:48]
Rapsodie Espagnole (1907) [15:18]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel) [33:01]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. December 1985, February 1987, February 1986; Philharmonie, Berlin
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 413 588-2 [64:25]

This is another reissue by Presto Classics of a deleted CD. In all other respects, it’s identical to the original, including the notes which are here very succinct by Paul Griffiths. The only difference is the word “Presto” on the disc itself.

These works were recorded by Karajan several times and whilst they remain consistent, collectors will have their preferences. The other point that needs mentioning is that the early DG digital recordings came in for a fair amount of criticism due to a glassy glare on some machines. This was remedied, it’s generally agreed, by re-mastering in the 1990s in a series called “Karajan Gold”. This cleverly made fans buy the same CD again and note the improvement. I believe it is these re-masterings that populate the large 1980s Karajan set I have of all his recordings for the “yellow label” in his last decade. This facsimile disc is the 1987 mastering which won’t appeal to some.

Karajan recorded “Bolero” at least twice, a famous 1966 DG recording in Berlin, originally coupled with “Pictures” and reviewed by Rob Barnett who described it as “aptly remorseless and enjoyably slick, is bedevilled with some hiss”. In 1977 he, with the Berliners again, recorded for EMI/Warner and William Hedley (review) didn’t like the homogenised sound and longed for something less comfortable and plush. Karajan’s digital recording is certainly comfortable and plush but it has its merits and I thought the sound fine. I’d rather have the “Frenchness”, “stupendously raw and ultimately brash”, of Jean Martinon in an oft-released essential Ravel/Debussy set on EMI/Warner (review). The “Rapsodie Espagnole” was also recorded by Martinon and in 1972 by Karajan and the Orchestre de Paris (again EMI/Warner). The present 1987 traversal is very fine and brings out the colours as only Karajan and the Berliners could. It is important to remember that Karajan recorded with the home listener in mind and was a fervent supporter of digital technology. He wasn’t trying to replicate the live experience. In that respect this performance is a perfect example.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures from an Exhibition” is a spectacular and Karajan was an excellent conductor for this kind of work. As well as the 1966 recording, there is a well regarded version with The Philharmonia with whom many feel he did his greatest work. It is available in an essential “Russian” box set from EMI/Warner with fine recordings of Balakirev, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. However, this late Karajan recording is superb: very engaging and exciting. It sounds totally committed and whatever problems may have existed at that time between the orchestra and the Austrian maestro, they’re not evident here. If you want a real “wallow” with blasts at the appropriate moments, this is for you. As far as the much debated sound is concerned, I found it very vivid and tangible. It’s been a long time since I heard this recording; I’ve usually gone to the earlier Berlin or the Philharmonia but was impressed by this. “The Great Gate of Kiev” brings the work to a splendid conclusion. I would also recommend Giulini's excellent Chicago recording from 1977 (review) but in any event you should have Karajan too.

It’s been a great pleasure to hear this enjoyable CD and it will certainly test your sound system even 35 years on. If you don’t have this recording and don’t desire box sets then this facsimile re-release is just the thing.
David R Dunsmore

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