BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”; R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 – Michel Scwalbe, violin/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan – Testament

by | Nov 1, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”; R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 – Michel Scwalbe, violin/Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan

Testament SBT 1452, 79:58 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:


The broadcast of 16 May 1972 from Royal Festival Hall, London includes two complementary works led by Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), on tour to demonstrate the seamless facility and felicities of his Berlin Philharmonic. Much in the Toscanini mold, the music passes by with a golden glibness attributable to the stellar cast of principals who inhabit this exalted sphere: James Galway, flute; Karl Leister, clarinet; and Lothar Koch, oboe. Never one to tolerate a rough edge in his music-making, Karajan moves the 12/8 stream in the second movement with perfect eddies and watery turns, a shimmering resonance in bassoon and low strings that attests to a balanced mechanism of forces that still manages to produce sensuous Arcadian harmony.

The Berlin Philharmonic horn section shies in the Peasant Dance, the festivities easily translating into Breughel’s rustic revels. The swift motion of the dance suffers the early intrusion of the rain shower, a regal, Jovian series of lightning bolts.  Without the recourse to any artificial wind-machine, the wildness of the BPO tempest pursues and overtakes us, the perfect storm. A lovely French horn tattoo ushers in the Shepherds’ hymn of thanksgiving, lustrous, ripe with rainbow colors. Karajan finds the objectification of the heroic in Nature, just as Furtwaengler found its wellspring in introspective subjectivity. Karajan’s insistence on homogeneity of tone in strings and brass choirs testifies to the mesmerizing discipline of his fluid ensemble, even at the expense of emotional warmth. Still, the sound has hardly begun to decay when the audience explodes in gratitude.

The 1898 Ein Heldenleben by Strauss has already been dubbed by me as his great ego-musik; and here, under Karajan, one grand megalomaniac deserves another. That Karajan can penetrate the superficial bombast and self-aggrandizement of the music to some viscerally earnest pageantry beneath speaks to the force and breadth of his reading, facilitated in no small part by Michel Schwalbe’s stunning solo, his personification of Pauline Strauss, The Hero’s Wife. The twitterings and mockeries of the Hero’s Adversaries elicit pungency and emotional ardor, respectively. In its ascent, the love-scene achieves the same rhetorical intensity and loftiness we experience in “The Knight’s Vision” of Don Quixote, quoted veritably late in the epilogue. After love, the spectacular battle, much as in Beethoven’s Pastoral, which likewise fuses classical form to an affective sense of storm and retreat. No less evident is Karajan’s awareness that the Battle serves to modulate to the huge recapitulation for the score, that heroic architecture–enter the strains from Don Juan–lies at the core of the personal crises.  And so we pass through recollections of nine Strauss works to the Hero’s withdrawal from the world to seek personal fulfillment. Does the shepherd’s call over a throbbing tympani share Tristan’s passion? The transition to the Beethoven Eroica in conciliatory terms will find its parallel later in Strauss–and again, its premier by Karajan in 1947–in Metamorphosen. Karajan takes the resigned bitter-sweet coda in subdued tones, perhaps imbuing the score with a dignity it might otherwise lack.

–Gary Lemco

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