Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, born 5 April 1908, Salzburg, died 16 July 1989, Anif.
The chunky booklet gives all the information a collector wants: recording dates (here from March 1959, Also sprach Zarathustra, to April/May 1978, Le nozze di Figaro) and venues; the names of producers & engineers; and catalogue numbers on first release (including the iconic SET and SXL prefixes). In addition, each of the CDs’ slipcases is graced by the artwork that adorned the LPs’ covers, and the booklet, as well as containing numerous photos, carries an informed essay by Richard Osborne.
All of the recordings here, with one exception, feature the Vienna Philharmonic. Richard Strauss’s Zarathustra, a hi-fi spectacular sixty years ago, still sounds grand if slightly restricted dynamically and a little contrived by the control room, especially when the organ appears, but the performance is imperious. It was an inspiring and seminal start to this particular discography back then (Karajan not stinting on the Columbia, DG and EMI catalogues either) and remains a version worthy of longevity. By the way, Osborne reveals that this Karajan taping was used anonymously at Decca’s request by Stanley Kubrick for the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey; check any 2001 reference and it is said to be Karl Böhm’s Berlin recording, I assume because the film’s credits say so. Further Strauss is included in this collection, Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, and Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome; all magnetic, especially Tod and the Salome snippet.
Don Juan (slightly subdued when compared to Kempe, Reiner and Szell) was coupled on SXL 2269 (I have a poor-condition second-hand copy that cost three quid) with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and this composer is also represented by selections from Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake together with the Suite from The Nutcracker; all meticulously prepared and sophisticated. The lighter side of musical life continues with six movements from Grieg’s score for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, very suave if not without poignancy, then a selection from The Strauss Family (with the orchestra for such things), mostly Johann II – two each of Overtures, Polkas and Waltzes – one of the latter being Josef’s magnificent Delirien, and an hour’s worth of Adolphe Adam’s music for the Giselle ballet, charming if insubstantial. If I recall correctly, producer John Culshaw reminisced in one of his books that the Giselle parts turned up in a mess and some session time was taken up sorting them out and trying to align what the players had with Karajan’s copy; you’d never know though, for the end result is as painstaking as this conductor would lavish on the greatest of Symphonies.
Talking of which, there is Beethoven 7 and Brahms 1, the latter especially powerful, and, surviving the decades with ease because Karajan indulged no fad or fancy, Haydn’s and Mozart’s respective final two Symphonies. I love this Mozart 40 (K550, as revised with clarinets), ideal, not-rushed, tempos (the Finale doesn’t hang around though) and perfectly proportioned through very few repeats, an arrangement which suits this particular work well, although I like them all in the ‘Jupiter’ (Karajan doesn’t oblige, mind, and he’s a little sluggish in the first and Minuet movements). Of the Haydn, No.104 (‘London’) – Karajan’s view of it much-admired by Haydn guru H. C. Robbins Landon, says Osborne – certainly enjoys energy and grandeur, while 103 (Drum Roll), following a mysterious introduction, dances along nicely in the Allegro con spirito opener – uplifting – yet the Minuet is lugubrious, although the Finale (no repeat, alas) sparkles.
Not a Symphony but a Symphonic Suite is Gustav Holst’s The Planets. From September 1961 (released as SXL 2305) Karajan’s conducting of it is as spectacular as James Brown’s sound – Mars probably raised the Sofiensaal’s roof by a few inches – but also delicate, spectral and ethereal, as required, if not always idiomatic if one has Sir Adrian Boult (the Suite’s first conductor and who recorded it five times, including in Vienna) as a faithful guide to what is written, particularly regarding changes of metre; from Karajan, Jupiter is wholly misjudged; overall a curate’s egg; I cannot recall how I reacted to his DG/Berlin remake.
Of this set’s thirty-three discs the first eleven are orchestral (I have yet to mention No.11 itself), while those numbered from thirteen onwards are operas, eight in number, and Die Fledermaus, an operetta. What of No.12? “Christmas with Leontyne Price” (SXL 2294) is the answer, forty minutes of festive fare (Silent Night and other favourites) and a morsel of Mozart (the Alleluja from K165) recorded in 1961 during the unseasonal month of June, involving Price the opera singer – who makes few concessions to her starry art, although she is not spot-lit in the balance – with various configurations of the Wiener Singverein and Philharmoniker.
Of the operas, Verdi is represented twice (Aida, Otello) and Puccini thrice (La bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca), with a single appearance for Bizet (Carmen), Mozart (Figaro) and Mussorgsky (Boris Godunov). All have stellar casts – surnames are sufficient – and each is effectively a concert performance whether associated at the time with a staged production or not. Thanks to generally superb sound – widescreen and deep of perspective – a theatre for the mind is opened up.
Aida features Tebaldi, Bergonzi and Simionato, and tangible presence for all the performers – from May 2020 to September 1959 seem like only yesterday. Otello – Del Monaco, Tebaldi, Protti – is suitably stormy to open, although I wouldn’t prefer it to Karajan’s EMI remake (Vickers, Freni, Glossop) despite the cut in Act III.
The Puccini trio includes a stunning Tosca – Price, Di Stefano, Taddei – with the malevolent Scarpia’s motto thundered out in the most arresting fashion … action from the first bar. I was bowled over by Karajan’s La bohème on first hearing (SET 565-6), recorded in Berlin during October 1972 with Pavarotti, Freni, Harwood and Ghiaurov and it still sets the pulses racing even allowing, now, for some vocal and orchestral stridency in its current presentation, and production artificiality, that the LPs may have softened or disguised. Back to Vienna, January 1974, for Madama Butterfly – Freni, Pavarotti, Ludwig – brings greater naturalness if no lack of human emotions.
For Carmen (November 1963, a Culshaw production first released on RCA Victor) the cast includes Price, Corelli, Merrill and Freni, and is bitingly dramatic if a bit heavyweight and languorous at times; plenty to relish though.
Operatically speaking, the two showstoppers here are the couldn’t-be-more-different Godunov and Figaro. The former, Mussorgsky’s epic historical tale recorded in November 1970, sung in Russian using Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition, and issued on four LPs, SET 514-17, is a remarkable experience, not least for having Ghiaurov in the title-role, the only name out of twenty that is detailed on the cover, plus Karajan’s of course. The conductor’s final operatic venture for Decca was Mozart’s Figaro (1978), with, wait for it … Krause, Tomowa-Sintow, Cotrubas, van Dam, von Stade, Berbié, Bastin, et al. It’s a lively, considered account that grips the mind’s eye and is equal-handed in distilling comedic shine and human affectedness.
I have not forgotten Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus – neither has Decca – from 1960, a champagne version (Kmentt, Gueden, Berry, Wächter) and including the famous added-in Gala, for which numerous A-list singers turned out for Prince Orlofsky’s party, amongst whom are Nilsson, Berganza, Sutherland and Björling.
For me though, disc No.11 is the prize: if a spectre descends upon me and says “Colin, you can only have one of these discs, which will it be?”, my answer is simple and immediate, “number eleven mate!”. From Karajan, Brahms’s Tragic Overture is insanely trenchant and deeply reflective – spiritual nourishment in abundance – and I keep finding more in this particular account of the Third Symphony each time I listen. From Brahms to Dvořák is a virtual family affair sidestep, the Czech composer’s Eighth Symphony, a glorious account from Karajan and the Vienna Phil, so alive to expression and detail, to the music’s song and dance/flora and fauna, and also its darker side (the slow movement). Rarely does the third movement seduce like this, the VPO swaying as one, and the Finale is thrilling, blazing horn trills and all, while the whole is capped by an electrifying coda and jaw-dropping execution at speed.
If these Decca recordings are a relatively small proportion of Karajan’s extensive discography (and he had already documented much of this repertoire or would do so again) then they are a significant part of it. It’s good to have them so handsomely collected here – on Decca 483 4903 (33 CDs).