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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op 120 (1851) [30:33]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No 8 in G major, Op 88 (1889) [36:36]
Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. January 1985 (Dvořák) & May 1987 (Schumann, live), Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna. DDD
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 431 095-2 [67:32]

This is an irresistible pairing of two great symphonies played by a conductor in his autumnal – if not hibernal – years with enormous affection and more than a touch of melancholy, yet also great energy. Karajan’s credentials as an interpreter of Dvořák are indisputable and while his engagement with Schumann’s first three symphonies was only fitful, he played the Fourth throughout his career and recorded it three times; it was clearly his favourite.

In a sense, the contrast between Karajan’s recordings of these two symphonies with his orchestras from Berlin and Vienna respectively mirrors the difference between the cities themselves: one is steel, the other gold. With the BPO, Karajan had previously been incisive and powerful – almost brutal; here, the intrinsically warmer, softer sound of the VPO underpins the ethos of these two performances lending the music greater charm and pathos.

The opening of the Schumann – surely one of the most arresting in all of the symphonic canon – is magnificent; nothing could be grander or more sonorous, then Karajan eases seamlessly into the wild rapture of the Allegro di molto, easing off only marginally for the fleeting lyrical passages so there is always an underlying tension. The Romanze is relaxed and dreamy, echoing the introduction to the first symphony but in twilit colours inexorably growing in intensity; the oboe-cello duet is especially entrancing. The pounding Scherzo has admirable depth in the bass department and the creeping opening of the finale gradually swells into a rustic romp until the conclusion erupts in a blazing, bacchanalian frenzy.

Virtually nothing about this performance gives away the fact that it was recorded live; the digital sound is exemplary.

The recording acoustic for the Dvořák symphony is more distant and reverberant than for the Schumann, lending it a folksier, more appropriately fairy-tale atmosphere. It is distinguished by what seems like an inexhaustible succession of good tunes. As is so often the case with Dvořák, any shadows are fleeting; clouds scud swiftly across the face of a beaming sun and for a conductor with a reputation for high seriousness Karajan is clearly revelling in the joyousness of this music. Nonetheless, this still a taut, muscular performance when that quality is required, such as in the stormy passages in the second half of the first movement before the music defaults in the coda to the former, exhilarating mood.

The exotic, bird-call opening of the slow movement is full of intriguing promise and indeed the development is essentially couched in variations before it moves in an unexpected direction towards a triumphant blast of fanfares, almost anticipating Mahler’s celebrations of Nature – another composer whose music the VPO knows just how to deliver. The dark, central section, where brooding cellos and double basses move into new tonal regions, makes the sudden reversion to tripping dance rhythms at 8:39 all the more arresting and from there, just as we feel that we are being led by the hand into a glowing sunset, an ominous roll of timpani thunder reminds us that to experience comfort and joy we need to know fear and sadness.

The lilting waltz which opens the finale is of course a sibling to the Slavonic Dances; pure bliss. The trumpet fanfare is a call to festivities, not to arms. In the slow, central section, we pause for breath and perhaps even laze languorously or even take a nap before the final orgiastic stampede towards the finishing line; even the final thumped (off)beat surprises. The virtuosity of the VPO in this music is outrageous; I have found myself redundantly describing the effect of the music rather attempting to analyse its delivery, as the partnership of Karajan and his orchestra could not interpret it more perfectly.

This is a deservedly celebrated classic and should be in the collection of everyone who loves this music.

Ralph Moore



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