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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor Op.74 “Pathetique” [48:00]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58 [34:43]
Takahiro Sonoda (piano)
NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo/Herbert von Karajan
rec. live 21 April 1954, Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya Public Hall, (Tchaikovsky); April 1954 (Beethoven)

In April and May 1954, Herbert von Karajan visited Japan for the first time as a guest conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. He conducted sixteen concerts with them – two of which were for broadcast only (one for television, the other radio) – and the rest were public concerts given in Tokyo, Nagoya and Kyoto. It’s a constant source of frustration with Japanese historical recordings of radio broadcasts that rarely do you get a complete concert – and that is the case here. The Tchaikovsky Sixth and the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto come from different dates – the concerto, although having been played at the opening two concerts, on the 7th and 8th April, is in fact from neither, as I will explain, and the Tchaikovsky dates from 21st April where the first half programmed Cherubini, Handel and Prokofiev’s First Symphony.

The NHK/Karajan Tchaikovsky is not exactly a rare recording, having been released by DG in Japan and, most recently, by Naxos. Anyone familiar with the recording will know of the disastrous bassoon opening which somewhat haunts the performance. To suggest the playing of the orchestra is fragile would be an understatement – both the woodwind and the brass are sensitive to intonation problems, buckets of wrong notes and have difficulty playing in unison at times. I don’t think Karajan is quite as frenzied with his tempi – especially in the first movement – as he was with either the Philharmonia Orchestra, or with the Berlin Philharmonic, but those extra note lengths really don’t help the NHK players too much – in fact they probably give a sour edge to some of the flute and clarinet playing rather than the opposite, softer intended effect. On the other hand, the strings are quite remarkably warm and expressive – but this orchestra, and Japanese orchestras in general, have quite the way with Tchaikovsky (to hear this remarkable orchestra in a truly great Tchaikovsky Sixth, try the set of the last three symphonies with Hiroyuki Iwaki – King KCC – 2106/7). Yet, to say the performance lacks nobility would be quite wrong – the Adagio digs deep (it’s one of Karajan’s better attempts). Compared to the sound on the DG release, King’s is rather boomy, which, given that the NHK timpani or its brass isn’t entirely mellow by western standards – though this was entirely normal for this orchestra in the 1950s – can be difficult to adjust to.

Of much more interest is the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with the great Japanese pianist Takahiro Sonoda (1928 – 2004). Despite having collected Sonoda CDs for many years, this performance is new to me – and is of considerable importance, because it’s the earliest available recording of a Sonoda Beethoven piano concerto. Sonoda had recorded the ‘Emperor’ with Konoe back in 1970 (for Denon), and a complete cycle very late in his career – between 1998 and 2000 with the Kyushu Symphony Orchestra – but the Beethoven concertos don’t seem to have preoccupied him as much as they did many other pianists. Sonoda’s technique – as pristine as you could want – in many ways resembles Claudio Arrau’s. Sonoda was a superb exponent of the Brahms concertos and it is Brahms that colours this performance of the Fourth. It’s uber-masculine in a way that perhaps doesn’t ideally suit all of the serene, poetic and more intimate gestures of this concerto – and Karajan and the NHK Symphony Orchestra are more than willing powerbrokers as Sonoda asserts his authority over the keyboard like a tiger. The fortissimo of the recapitulation, for example, is almost ferocious. Sonoda is certainly able to bring a light touch to the keyboard in the lyrical second movement – the playing is both nuanced and subtle - though Karajan is extraordinarily heavy-handed – echoing the Fifth Symphony, which would appear a year later. For those who expect a dialogue between the orchestra and the piano to be rather understated, what happens here borders on the convulsive and anarchic. The Rondo takes Sonoda back to the Brahmsian model – more weight, less fleetness – though the finger work is obviously mercurial. The recording perhaps places the piano very forward, but I think this is exactly where Karajan wanted it.

In many ways, Sonoda’s approach to Beethoven’s Fourth should come as no surprise. His traversal of the complete Beethoven Sonatas are both majestic and grandly conceived – much as his Bach is on the monumental side, too. The scale of his playing, and the sound he produces, won’t be to all tastes – though it’s clear that Sonoda and Karajan were very much of the same mind when they came to perform the piece on this occasion. Sonoda would, in fact, become a frequent accompanist in Germany after this concert with Karajan, and he established a notable partnership with Sergiu Celibidache, though no recordings have ever surfaced of them performing together.

The Japanese booklet notes are somewhat vague as to the actual recording date of the performance itself (it only dates it as April 1954) but do confirm some facts. The recording was made for a subsequent broadcast; it also seems Sonoda made a mistake in the first recording session and came back to Tokyo later to correct it. It’s also apparent that even at this stage of his career Karajan was controlling the recording process and relied on his own engineering techniques rather than those of NHK – and this would certainly explain why the mono sound is very good for the time. It’s vastly more natural and balanced than the Japanese engineered Tchaikovsky, even allowing for the different acoustics.

The Tchaikovsky has always struck me as a performance for Karajan completists only. The Beethoven is one of those rare Karajan concerto performances where conductor and soloist found themselves having more in common than anything that compromised their interpretation. It’s a pity this is the only record of their collaboration.

Marc Bridle


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