Karajan and His Soloists I = Works of Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, Franck, Brahms, Leimer – Warner Classics set (8 CDs)

Karajan and His Soloists I = CD 1: SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54; MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K.467; CD 2: BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”; CD 3: MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488; Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K.491; CD 4: SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488; FRANCK: Symphonic Variations in F-sharp Minor; Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16; CD 5: MOZART: The Four Horn Concertos; CD 6: MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297a; Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622; CD 7: LEIMER: Piano Concerto in C minor; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; Massenet: Thais-Meditation; CD 8: BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83 – Dinu Lipatti, piano (Schumann; Mozart Concerto No. 21 and 24)/ Walter Gieseking, piano (Beethoven; Grieg; Schumann; Mozart Concerto No. 23; Franck)/ Dennis Brain, horn/Sidney Sutcliffe, oboe/ Cecil James, bassoon/  Kurt Leimer, piano/ Hans Richter-Haaser, piano (Brahms)/ Bernard Walton, clarinet/ Manoug Parikian, violin (Massenet)/ Philharmonia Orch./ Lucerne Festival Orch./ Berlin Philharmonic – Warner Classics 825646336258 (8 CDs): 59:10, 70:01, 57:42, 75:25, 53:52, 65:36, 51:56, 50:07 (4/8/14) *****:

Warner Classics has instituted a major revival of the recorded legacy from Herbert von Karajan (1909-1989), who after the death of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, assumed the unofficial title of Music Director of Europe. The release of the Karajan Official (EMI) Remastered Edition in 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the conductor’s death in 1989 at age eighty-one. The project means to include selected recordings made by the esteemed Austrian maestro between 1946 – when Walter Legge created the Philharmonia Orchestra of London specifically for Karajan’s musical “rehabilitation” after WW II – through 1984, when Karajan gravitated between his own Berlin Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris. The Vienna Philharmonic and La Scala Orchestra Milan will also become part of the release, which focuses on instrumental and vocal music. The present installment, “Karajan and His Soloists I” restores performances inscribed 1948-1958.

Since most of these performances have long critical-reception histories, it becomes more efficient to mention the improved sound quality. I began with my personal favorite, the venerated sequence of Mozart Four Horn Concertos, as performed (12-13 November 1953) with the illustrious Dennis Brain. The immediate sound, opening with the D Major Concerto, K. 412, simply staggers. Brain’s peerless playing sails through space, effortless; and the more concertos he plays, the more seamless the entire project becomes. More principals from the Philharmonia Orchestra join Brain for the slickly facile Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297 (17-18 November 1953), another stunning restoration whose resonance finally does real justice to the astonishing musicians who often worked together as part of the Dennis Brain Players. The eternally autumnal Clarinet Concerto with Bernard Walton (9-10 June 1955) features a haunted Adagio whose sublime simplicity of expression says volumes about Mozart. The classic accounts with the brilliant, tragically doomed Dinu Lipatti in music by Schumann and Mozart’s K. 467 Concerto gain a new gloss, the interplay between Lipatti and individual color soli in the C Major Concerto (23 August 1950) now exquisitely resonant, although his keyboard generates a slight ping.

Claudio Arrau often claimed that Walter Gieseking did not possess the correct sound for Beethoven, this despite Gieseking’s long association with the composer’s music. True, Gieseking’s especially light articulation suited the French repertory better, but the restored Piano Concerto No. 4 (9-11 June 1951) often benefits from the pearly aspects of Gieseking’s “Aeolian Harp” approach. The Emperor Concerto (8-9 June 1951) fares less successfully, but through no fault of the orchestral part, which Karajan makes immense. The microphone placement here does not bring out the accompanying instruments well. Gieseking does shine in the Rondo: Allegro, where his fleet fingers create a rollicking dance of graceful power.

In Mozart, however, one can discover few faults. The A Major Concerto (10 June 1951) moves with athletic, lyrical finesse in all parts. The more tragic C Minor Concerto (25-26 August 1953) features the rarely played first movement by Hummel, a performance searingly passionate. The Philharmonia woodwinds provide an object lesson for concerto interplay. Gieseking’s playing might be construed as too “jeweled” and more appropriate to a “rococo” notion of Mozart, but his singing, lucid musicianship and natural pacing remain masterful. The Franck Symphonic Variations were a Gieseking staple: I owned with pride my 78 rpms of his collaboration with Sir Henry Wood. The Karajan performance (7 June 1951) progresses from a gloomy, thoughtful deliberation to an increasingly effervescent liberation of feeling, beautifully balanced. For classic readings of the Schumann Concerto (24-5 August 1953), Gieseking proves more lyrical than dramatic; Karajan brings that element to the fore. I recall that the Angel LP (35215) combined this performance with Gieseking’s Kinderszenen. My own preference in the Grieg Concerto is precisely that by Dinu Lipatti (with Alceo Galliera), but Gieseking (6, 11 June 1951) knows the piece well, his having recorded it on shellacs with Hans Rosbaud. A truly virtuosic performance, it projects a wonderful mystique of veiled tracery in the Adagio, as well it must. The horn part belongs to Dennis Brain, and he and Gieseking hit it off well enough to motivate their collaborations in Mozart and Beethoven piano quintets.

The most unfamiliar music, that of Kurt Leimer (1920-1974), occupies Disc 7, in which the composer-pianist and Karajan perform the 1948 C Minor Concerto and Left Hand Concerto (11-12 November 1954). Leimer, noted for his love of the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F, performed it with Leopold Stokowski, who also led a recorded performance of Leimer’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A video performance of the two in Leimer’s Concerto No. 4 exists. Much of this piece pays homage to Rachmaninov – his Concerto No. 2 is likewise in C Minor – with occasionally brash references to Prokofiev. The central Andante tranquillo casts a veiled hue, a kind of waltz, followed by an Allegro ritmico which acknowledges Prokofiev as cross-fertilized by Gallic sarcasm, a la Francaix. The one-movement Left-Hand Concerto, which one critic described as “a musical smorgasbord,” seems to have been conceived as a “response” to the fact that Richard Strauss dedicated his Panathenaenzug, Op. 74 (written for Paul Wittgenstein) to him. The Concerto proceeds to pay respects to those composers Leimer admires: Rachmaninov, Schulhoff, Gershwin, Ravel, Addinsell, and jazz styles, like boogie-woogie. The disc concludes – somewhat incongruously – with Massenet’s Meditation from Thais, with concertmaster Manoug Parikian (rec. 22 July 1954), a lovely rendering that Karajan would emulate later with his BPO concertmaster Michel Schwalbe.

Disc 8 reproduces one work, the Brahms B-flat Major Concerto (rec. 30 November 1958) with German pianist Hans Richter-Haaser, Karajan, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Richter-Haaser (1912-1980) often won plaudits for an astonishing technique with limitless capacity for pianissimo coloring, but he no less suffered a reputation for a lack of musical spontaneity, that each every effect had been preconceived and executed like a musical machine. We might ask ourselves why EMI could not have paired Karajan with Geza Anda, who had been an EMI artist. The performance by Richter-Haaser, nonetheless, conveys power and noble sweep, consistently tempered by a lilting, romantic sense of poetry. The pianist’s dynamic range can be explosive, as in those huge octave ascents in the first movement, which finish off with ringing trills and arpeggios. Karajan erupts just as majestically, the French horn’s having primacy of melodic place. For those who await with baited breath the D Minor Allegro appassionato (scherzo), will eagerly hurl themselves into this special, moody volcano. This furioso demonstration elevates the performance to top-drawer for many a devotee. Richter-Haaser and the BPO principal cello make an ardent nocturne of the Andante – Piu adagio – Tempo I third movement. Not every Brahms colorist can suggest Debussy in his spread chords. The last movement enjoys a cavalier, virtually galant character, wistful but monumental in a heartbeat. We can feel, palpably, the sympathetic rapport between the principals in this classic rendition of the most ‘symphonic’ of piano concertos.

—Gary Lemco

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