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Herbert von Karajan Live 4
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, Op 40 (1898) [45:05]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Concerto No 3, BB 127, Sz. 119 (1945) [25:12]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No 10 in E minor, Op 93 (1953) [53:15]
Géza Anda (piano)
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (Strauss), Staatskapelle Dresden (Bartók), Berliner Philharmoniker (Shostakovich)/Herbert von Karajan
Rec. 2 July 1959, Los Angeles (Strauss); 13 August 1972, Salzburg (Bartók); 29 May 1969, Moscow (Shostakovich)
Download only
URANIA CP131537 [123:32]

Urania are coming up with some cracking performances in their Live Karajan series. Here we have two works of which, over the years, Karajan would give some of his finest – Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and Shostakovich’s Tenth. A rushed glance at the cover had me somewhat excited since ‘Dresden’ and ‘Shostakovich’ together is one of the great Karajan performances – and one of the greatest Shostakovich Tenths. Alas, this is not that performance.

The Dresden one, however, is Bartók’s Piano Concerto No 3 with Geza Anda from 13th August 1972, although why Urania should issue it is a little puzzling since it has been released on DG using Austrian radio’s original tapes. Karajan would often take the opportunity at the Salzburg Festival to conduct orchestras other than the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics. The Czech Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra both featured in his concerts there. In 1972 he took the reins of the Dresden Staatskapelle, then during its seven-year rudderless period before Herbert Blomstedt would take over in 1975. There is absolutely no hint whatsoever of an orchestra in decline, or with a loss of focus, as happened with the Czech Philharmonic during the Albrecht interregnum. The Dresdener’s playing is razor sharp but this is music that flows like blood through this orchestra’s veins. Every single detail, down to each dotted note, that Karajan wants is there. The orchestra doesn’t need to fly by the seat of its pants but they often sound as if they are. Perhaps the only issue one might have is that Karajan relishes that golden Dresden sound a little too much. This is dark Bartók, albeit with a very velvet touch.

Anda was a frequent collaborator with Karajan and had been since the 1950s. There is clearly a chemistry here – indeed, very rarely did Karajan choose soloists where there wasn’t. This 1972 performance is very different to the pianist’s much earlier recording with Ferenc Fricsay. Anda’s virtuosity, and his technical brilliance remains intact – what is perhaps missing with Karajan is some of the beautifully detailed phrasing, sharper lines and atmosphere of discovery that he brought to his earlier performance. On the other hand, what Karajan and Anda now bring to this concerto – which Fricsay didn’t with his fleeter, less ravishingly shaped performance – is a much weightier and more cultivated reading of the work. Karajan can seem a little seduced by the ‘Baroque’ sound of the Dresden players – the gilded brass, those rich strings – and the effect on Anda is to overplay his tone, especially in the Adagio religioso. But it sounds magnificent. The Allegro is also weightier, not because Anda plays it notably slower than he did for Fricsay but because he makes it sound so much darker: the pedalling is heavier, the fingers a little firmer. In many ways this is the more delicate of the Bartók concertos and yet Karajan and Anda bring such power to this interpretation it sounds much closer to the Second Concerto than is normally the case. The sound is very good. The DG is coupled with Schumann’s Fourth, which was the work which Karajan played in the second half of this Dresden concert. A great performance, by the way.

Richard Strauss is indelibly associated with Karajan. He would give some seventy performances of Ein Heldenleben between 1933 and 1988 (of Strauss works only Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel would receive more). Over twenty of these performances survive from broadcasts, this one with the Los Angeles Philharmonic being one of the earliest. Karajan could – with some justification – be accused of giving short programmes in many of his concerts; this Los Angeles concert from 2nd July 1959 did not sound like one of those. Stafford Smith’s The Star Spangled Banner, a Wagner overture (Die Meistersinger), Ives’ An Unanswered Question, Mozart’s Symphony No 35 and the Strauss was undeniably substantial fare. (This concert does, however, fit on one CD: Memories MR2325.)

I have never particularly warmed to this Los Angeles Ein Heldenleben. None of Karajan’s live performances of this work are in any sense bad; some struggle to raise themselves to the level of high dramatic impact, however. Richard Osborne, in his biography of the conductor, has suggested that Karajan spent a lifetime trying to achieve his ideal Ein Heldenleben – his Telemondial (18th -20th Feb 1985) recording coming closest to it (Osborne, p.699). Indeed, those five days between the 18th and 23rd of February when he made the film, his final studio recording and gave the staggering Berlin concert on the 23rd may well represent the summit of his achievement in this work. There are, I think, other live performances in between the Los Angeles and Berlin ones which achieve profound insights – Moscow 1969, New York 1974 and London 1976. His 1959 studio Ein Heldenleben sounds remarkable on a Japanese SACD and is no less remarkable for its sheer drama and brilliance. I never tire of listening to it. And the Berliners in 1959? Well, they would eventually never sound that fabulous, even under Karajan.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is quite a muscular orchestra and that big sound is on ample display here; Karajan hardly had to add that Berlin effect to the orchestra because it was largely already there. The strings, however, if hardly bold in their opening statement, have a tendency to draw attention to shapeless woodwind playing and insecure brass. And that’s just in the four-minutes of ‘Der Held’. A plus are the solos of the orchestra’s leader, the 1937 Klemperer appointed David Frisina, who is closer in style and substance to John Corigliano who had played Strauss’ Hero for Karajan in his New York Philharmonic Ein Heldenleben in 1958. Neither sound remotely like Michel Schwalbé on the 1959 Berlin recording who was so sweepingly dramatic and intense in his playing, probably a stark reminder of American and European playing styles in the late 1950s. Frisina’s cleanness and effortless virtuosity, however, is entirely gripping for much of this performance but I don’t much care for this swaggering type of Hero fueling the wrath of his critics.

The battle hangs fire at first, and Karajan never quite manages to get the strings of the LA Phil to stoke up much enthusiasm. Brass – notably trumpets, which really are off-stage – are very distant though perhaps Karajan’s main interest is in the timpani which have terrific heft. Nevertheless, there is a bogged down feeling here. There is, however, no lack of nobility in the two closing sections of the work. There are still intonation issues – especially with the horns – but the strings project powerfully, and Karajan brings an acute ear to details like the harps which even in this acoustic one might be forgiven for being missing in action. And there are undeniably beautifully moments – in ‘Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung’ [4:05 – 5:15], for example, and the closing pages are almost inspired. A little too late perhaps in a performance which is uneven.

The sound certainly doesn’t help on this Urania release, although in all fairness this was recorded from the Hollywood Bowl. Although these are FLAC, the compression rate is low (‘Des Helden Gefährtin’ is barely above the highest mp3 level of 320kbs); if I recall, a Memories release, Karajan in America, had rather better sound. You can also find the performance in ambient stereo on Pristine, although beefing up the sound hardly compensates for problems elsewhere.

And, so, to the final performance here, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. This was a work which Karajan programmed with some frequency – it appeared each year from 1966 to 1969, for example, and often during the 1970s. The cover gives no date whatsoever for the Berlin Philharmonic Shostakovich Tenth which appears on this Urania release. There are three live performances of this work with Karajan and this orchestra which are most commonly known – 24th September 1967 (Berlin), 29th May 1969 (Moscow) and 30th May 1982 (Salzburg). The one anomaly that is distinct to both the Berlin and Salzburg Tenths – but not to the Moscow Tenth – is an (approximate) 30-bar cut in the first movement. This is also on the 1973 Dresden Tenth. This Urania performance – the Moscow one – has no cut and is intact between [11:31 – 12:13], the section which Karajan removes from his other live performances. I’m not sure why Karajan made this cut – neither of his studio recordings have them – but it might be valid to assume the Moscow performance is given complete because Shostakovich was present at this Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic concert.

Karajan had first recorded this symphony back in 1967 and that is a superb recording – for some finer than his remake from the early 1980s. The live performance here comes from the Berliners May/June 1969 tour of Moscow, Leningrad, London and Paris. All three of the Moscow concerts were recorded and issued on Melodiya back in 2008. The sound has often been viewed as a problem – the timpani too prominent, the strings thinner than one would expect from this orchestra. This does have to do with microphone placement – which improved as the Soviet tour went on – but doesn’t quite fit the profile of a conductor who simply preferred his timpani recorded this way. Urania haven’t always bettered alternative sources but in this live Tenth the sound is preferable to the Melodiya CD. Acoustically, it has a less boxed in feel to the 2008 issue, a richer and more natural balance in the orchestra and less overall compression. It is perhaps rather closer to the concert hall sound than Melodiya would have had us hear in this performance. There is some distortion here and there – the closing pages, for example, and audience noise is more intrusive than it was on the Melodiya CD. It is a little brighter than the Melodiya but this is because the engineers on that CD have attempted to suppress what was a very bronchial audience.

Karajan takes absolutely no prisoners in this work. Something common to all his live Tenths is a massive momentum that is unstoppable; the Berliner’s Andante - Allegro is really not for the faint-hearted: the strings that steamroller on with such power at [12:03], the incendiary woodwind and brass from [9:02 to 9:46] and the cataclysmic timpani rolls at [9:50] that rumble with aftershocks. In many ways, this Finale is the epitome of what makes a great Karajan Tenth. This elegant orchestra – with its noblest of strings – loses none of this whilst playing with a ferocity and terror which is almost unmatched by other orchestras. Even an atrociously off-balance piccolo at [11:47] sounds right. But when you hear those magnificent Berlin cellos and basses from [2:10] and the heavenly bassoon which touches perfection whatever disfiguring horror Karajan gets elsewhere disappears.

What we hear in the final movement has its seeds in the Moderato and Karajan builds up that picture of this symphony as if he is already looking in the rear mirror. Hardly ever deviating from its tempo, the movement needs to move with inexorable force towards its towering climax just as it needs an inexorable – but entirely controlled – power in its descent. This music can sound unstable and yet it is entirely the opposite, held together by the tension that extends between its beginning and its end. Some minor insecurity in the horns aside [11:41], Karajan and the Berliners are riveting and electrifying in a long movement that often loses its way.

Urania have decided to remove the brief few seconds of applause from the end of the Allegro; Melodyia retained it in their release. The Berlin strings are monumentally heavy in the opening bars. This is hammer and chisel playing, carving the notes into the granite of Stalin’s headstone – and you won’t really experience many recordings of quite this power. Karajan also sets quite a blistering tempo; this runs just a second over four-minutes. In one sense everything about how Karajan and the Berliners play this movement is excessive – the brutal string tone, the graphic brass, the forged, Wagnerian, timpani – are deliberately intended to enshrine a portrait of Stalin that is particularly pernicious and tyrannical. It may have proved to be an unsettling image in Brezhnev’s Russia of 1969. But the playing is phenomenal. Trombones, horns and tubas are feral as they savagely rip through the orchestra. Timpani – cymbals thrashed to within an inch of their life and militaristic snare drums – benefit from the forward placing of the microphones. It’s a stunning performance of an orchestra playing on the edge.

Nothing could be in greater contrast than an Allegretto which is intensely beautiful; enigmatic, haunting and deeply expressive as only the Berliners and Karajan could have done it.

This Shostakovich Tenth is not a one-off. All of Karajan’s live performances are as intense, dramatic, graphic and fiery as this one; it is one of this conductor’s greatest interpretations. If I have a slight preference for the overwhelming and incendiary 1973 Dresden Tenth from Salzburg, I wouldn’t be without the spectacular Moscow one either. I wouldn’t be without any of Karajan’s Shostakovich, including his studio performances.

As has been the case with the couple of Karajan Urania downloads I have reviewed the really great performances are mixed with ones that are often a little less compelling. This is again the case, and unfortunately the Shostakovich Tenth is not available to purchase separately (both Ein Heldenleben and the Bartók are). This Shostakovich Tenth is, however, easily the greatest Karajan performance yet released in this series. You’ll also be hard-pressed to find a more thrilling recording of this symphony anywhere.

Marc Bridle

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