Another historical package that really sweeps the board is imbued in this
latest Testament issue. The story of Karajans Philharmonia Missa
Solemnis was always a stunted one and it is all the more the pity that
EMIs top executives should have seen the wrong side of things as there
is definitely nothing wrong with the superb performance. Walter Legges
gaffe of issuing the mono recording first was not entirely his fault as Bicknell
and co were still dilly-dallying on the effects of stereo whilst Decca took
the plunge and once again stole a march on their cumbersome rival.
As Richard Osborne tells us in his excellent notes, the set disappeared from
the catalogue and was forgotten for almost forty years until Testament came
to its rescue. Karajans performance comes into direct comparison with
Klemperers studiously marmoreal EMI account and Karajans later
dashing and glitzy version for DG. After several hours of extended comparisons,
I am inclined to favor this Philharmonia recording for the natural cut
and thrust achieved by Legge and Dillnutt and most of all, for the
singing of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the title role.
As she recounts in her fascinating interview that precedes the actual recording,
Karajan and his fastidious ear for balance unnecessarily protracted most
of the sessions and correct interpretative quirks occasionally had the soloists
in bad tempers. The Philharmonias playing is a joy throughout and the
recording is a true picture of what the best engineering could produce in
those days. But let us proceed to the performance itself. The Kyrie
is a heavy-handed affair but immediately one senses the clear delineation
between the soloists, chorus and orchestra.
As Karajan always favored a clear beat, the ebb and flow of the music is
definitely clearer than in Klmeperers somewhat murkier alternative.
The Gloria is a literal tour-de-force of choral mastery; the
Viennese chorus obviously has its work cut out to keep with the murderously
fast speeds Karajan adopts. Moving on to the Credo, one has to
observe that the performance is curiously bland here, other conductors such
as Solti and Giulini have felt this sacred moment with much greater spirituality.
One marvels at the demands made on the orchestra, this was really a top-class
ensemble in those days, a fact demonstrated by the magnificent Beethoven
cycle recorded earlier in the 50s in resplendent mono sound.
Coming to the Sanctus, one is almost drained of dramatic strength
but Hugh Beans resplendent violin solo is even better than Michel
Schwalbe's schmaltzier rendering in 1966. The martial expositions in the
Agnus Dei are almost thrillingly done, Haydn is recalled with his Missa in
Tempore Belli not very far away! All in all, Karajans first version
is dramatically satisfying and I would be tempted to state that the Philharmonia
are just a shade better than the BPO in their admirable woodwind section.
We must not forget a real rarity in Mozarts Prague Symphony,
a version which never saw the light of day but which is another blemish on
executive policy taking precedence over artistic greatness. Karajans
unique way with Mozart lent an especially alluring view to the music and
the aristocratic geniality of K. 504 I something to marvel at. The performance
is truly magnificent. The rehearsal sequences that make up the rest of this
unmissable two-disc set show Karajan at his most autocratic, exacting and
getting the standards he constantly demands.
I have been one of the many who have fallen under the spell of Richard
Osbornes truly unputdownable biography of the maestro and
listening afresh to something about which I had read in detail in that book
was an immensely rewarding experience. Not a first-choice Missa
then, but definitely a supplement that is made all the more attractive by
the interview and the colourful rehearsals.