Herbert von Karajan – For the First Time After WW II in the USA with the Berlin Philharmonic = MOZART: Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner”; R. STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche, Op. 28; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; Bonus: BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 (from London, 1961) – Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Herbert von Karajan – Andromeda ANDRCD 9210 (2 CDs), 60:23, 50:08 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) appeared with his Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at Constitution Hall, Washington on 27 February 1955, leading a concert of Mozart, Strauss, and Brahms, his first appearance in the USA since the advent of the Second World War. He began by paying homage, via their respective national anthems, to the American and German nations.

The somewhat distant sound has been remastered, but the effect remains distinctly monaural. The Haffner Symphony bears the usual earmarks of the Karajan experience: crisp attacks in the leaping octaves, thoroughly rounded phrases, and a firmly moving bass line. The affect for this 1782 D Major Symphony seems dark and aggressive, fixed on structure and the clarity of the Mannheim Rockets and contrapuntal motions rather than devoted to any intrinsic warmth of feeling. The Andante does evince a lighter mood, relaxed and genial, especially in the string and bassoon parts. In its richer harmonizations, Karajan aligns the singing line with the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477. An elegantly formal Menuetto ensues, stylistically a cross between Salzburg and the more opulent Vienna. Karajan plays the Trio as a precursor to the lovely laendler that Schubert refined even further. The Presto’s infectious energy, its combination of dramatic variety and invention, provides just the right magic for Karajan and his orchestra to display their relentless pizzazz.

Karajan returns to the podium for the ironic 1895 symphonic poem Till Euelspiegel’s Merry Pranks, another bravura showpiece to highlight his miraculous wind and brass elements. The roguish protagonist challenges authority on a variety or levels and in various scenarios, depicted through a loose rondo form. Karajan treats the various sections as color contrasts, focusing early on the slick talent of his concertmaster, Michel Schwalbe. The French horn makes his presence felt, as does the fervent tympanist. Of course, Till’s misadventures and picaresque sensibility lead to his trial and summary hanging, pictured in broad and slap-dash strokes, given that every musical phrase evinces the Karajan penchant for symmetry. The trumpet work as the music approaches Till’s brutal demise – via an effective snare and bass drum worthy of a full military tribunal – proves quite compelling. The epilogue somehow reassures us that Till’s renegade spirit cannot be stilled so easily.

The high drama unfolds with the performance of the Brahms C Minor Symphony, a work for which Karajan had unflagging devotion, much in the manner of his great predecessor at the BPO, Wilhelm Furtwaengler, but with a more materialist, even Italianate, spirit. It often appears that Toscanini, rather than Furtwaengler, set the musical ideal for Karajan; and we know Karajan deeply admired Victor de Sabata. The taut drama of the Un poco sostenuto leads to a militant but fluid Allegro, conscious that Karajan wants the winds and horns to sing in the face of “fateful” counterpoints. Karajan exerts a terrific tension in the course of building his climax in the recapitulation, a feverish cascade of sound with a pendulum, melodic suasion that can easily segue into light and colorful melodic fragments. The bass line in the last pages of the first movement quite carry the aggressive momentum to a lyrical, wistful conclusion, a consolation devoutly to be wished.

Karajan’s principal oboe and Michel Schwalbe’s ardent violin will carry the passionate Andante movement through its alternately dark and lyrical episodes. The stunning crescendo of high strings leads to a duet between horn and violin of Alpine magic, fading into a crepuscular haze of ardent nostalgia. The third movement intermezzo Un poco allegretto e grazioso – receives a brisk, forward motion, the impetus of which gains the 6/8 trio section an unusual volatility, although the A-flat coda dissolves quietly into the clarinet.

Karajan makes the C Minor last movement ominous enough, the bassoons, lower strings and tympani in grim throttle. The pedal point grumbles forward in thirty-seconds and punctuated chords that lead to the French horn’s Black Forest motif over zephyr-like strings. Karajan now has his C Major theme that Brahms never denied has its basis in Beethoven’s Ninth.  Broad and nobly stated, the music moves with a confident gait into a second theme, syncopated, contrapuntally into a bright E Major. In the course of the development, Karajan flutes and low strings strut in dramatic discourse while the texture becomes ever more molten. Once more, the heroic theme sings, largamente; then it undergoes another series of transformations, again polyphonic and mightily dramatic, until a sustained chord brings the French horn round on the “Alpine” motif from the movement’s earlier andante section. Karajan keeps the tympanic pulse well to the foreground prior to the transition to the extended final period. Inevitably, we must proceed with Karajan’s driven vigor to the chorale-like theme, wherein the trombones play a foreshortened version of the main theme. The C Major coda proper proves quite shattering, and the house comes tumbling up in superheated applause.

The bonus performance – the Beethoven Eighth from Royal Festival Hall 17 April 1961 – contains enough manic volatility and wit to sustain our interest, particularly given the alert quality of Karajan’s BPO strings and winds, once more girded up a titanic kettle drum part. Once more, we feel that the Toscanini emphasis on fierce rhythmic propulsion, even more than Beethoven’s tenderly flexible singing line, exerts its influence on the Karajan ethos. The propulsive layering effect, the dynamic stretti, prove overpowering. Many an auditor may claim this performance of the first movement the most sensational in their experience!  Strong, acerbic accents mark the Allegretto scherzando’s mock-metronome antics, interrupted by some striking melodic development. The martially wry Tempo di Menuetto assumes a larger-than-life persona, the bassoon prominent. The active bass line in low strings and horns that accompanies the melodic line consistently threatens to usurp our attention. A muted string line opens the Allegro vivace, only to erupt into incorrigible antics over and under an animated melodic line that tolerates all sorts of intrusions. Beethoven’s deft polyphony comes to the fore, and Karajan invests the energetic welter with brawny as well as rustic power. A real holy terror wrapped in Classical garb, this favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, and Karajan has insisted we savor each of its many irreverencies.

—Gary Lemco