Herbert von Karajan – The Early Lucerne Years, 1952-1957 – Audite

by | Oct 16, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Herbert von Karajan – The Early Lucerne Years, 1952-1957 – Audite 21.464 (3 CDs: 75:00; 80;06; 69:51, complete listing and credits below) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern, established in 1938, began with a gala concert led by Arturo Toscanini. The Lucerne Festival archive, in collaboration with Swiss Radio and Television, has made it possible for Audite to present outstanding concert recordings of artists who helped shape the course of the Festival throughout its six-decade history. In the case of Austrian conductor Herbert von Karjan (1908-1989), he accepted the 1948 invitation to the Festival shortly after the ban on his performing – due to Nazi Party affiliation – had been rescinded in October, and he made his Lucerne appearance 25 August 1948, after which he would consistently return for the better part of four decades. It was at Lucerne that Karajan discovered the fine violinist Michel Schwalbé, whom Karajan beckoned away from the Swiss Festival Orchestra to become his concertmaster in Berlin.

Of the seven concerts included in this set, Audite has already issued the Bach Double Concerto in a prior tribute to Geza Anda in Lucerne (95.650), reviewed by Audiophile Audition in September 2022, here quoted with minimal editorial adjustment:

The [10 August]1955 rendition of the Bach C Major Concerto with Karajan is virtually identical in concept and tempo to the commercial release from April 1956 from London with Alceo Galliera, conductor (EMI CDH 7 63492 2). Anda and Romanian colleague Clara Haskil (1895-1960) seem entirely self-sufficient for most of the musical means, which requires little support from the string body of the Swiss Festival Orchestra. The second movement, in particular, plays as if the work were originally conceived for two klaviers, with the string parts added later. A festive brio invests the performance, whose outer movements feature both keyboards in full chords, which the artists temper dynamically to achieve a rare sense of intimacy. The “live” quality of the recording captures audience shuffles and even the movement of the performers on their respective piano pedals!

The 16 August 1952 concert on Disc 1 opens with a brilliantly fervent Beethoven Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Karajan’s demonstrating a musical concept close to that of Arturo Toscanini in linear drama. The intensity and thrust of the two interior movements allot these “dance” sections a power and impetus that resonates with firm conviction. The Trio of the Tempo di Menuetto third movement does relax enough to allow some bucolic lyricism to surge forth. The final movement, Allegro vivace, fiercely aggressive, luxuriates in the dynamic contrasts Beethoven offers, from an almost imperceptible pp to fearsome degrees of fortissimo. Karajan’s capacity to create “tectonic tensions,” in the words of Willi Schuh of the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung, becomes volcanically obvious.

Herbert von Karajan often received plaudits in his role as an ideal accompanist to esteemed concert soloists, and the collaboration with pianist Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) certifies the assertion, here in Mozart’s 1786 Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor.  Karajan had led the same concerto in Lucerne in 1950 with the fatally ailing Romanian virtuoso, Dinu Lipatti, a performance issued on EMI. The dark beauty of this Sturm und Drang work finds equal balance in the flowering, lyrical passages and crystalline runs executed by Casadesus, master of the symmetrical phrase. The presence of the metrically askew ¾ in the first movement, along with its main theme’s bold chromaticism – utilizing all 12 notes of the scale – creates an uncanny, menacing sensibility throughout the first movement Allegro, such that even brief, melodic incursions into E-flat Major, sound lugubrious. The volatility of Casadesus’ cadenza, its torrential rush to the tutti, proves astounding.

The second movement Larghetto in E-flat ostensibly offers repose and sanctuary from the mortal storm, here in a rondo that has Casadesus’ interacting with the Lucerne winds and strings. Bassoon and flute exert their prominence in this disarming idyll that, upon close hearing, reveals C Minor intrusions into the otherwise placid surface. The result gives us a tender but tragic interlude after a decisive, spiritual tumult. In his last movement, Allegretto, Mozart opts for a theme and eight variations in C Minor. The venmartial tune appears only twice in the major mode, and its final variant, in 6/8, refuses to concede to any form of metaphysical consolation. Casadesus realizes his part in what must be termed “militant resolve,” given the controlled percussion he applies. The Swiss orchestra woodwinds shine consistently in this collaboration, and their presence in reduced number for the third, fourth and sixth variation makes a nuanced contrast, allowing the Casadesus legato is just due. The dark ascent to the coda is greeted with unabashed enthusiasm by the Lucerne audience.

The 1954 dispute between the Swiss Festival Orchestra and the Lucerne management led to the engagement of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the ensemble that had worked with Karajan since its inception in 1945, founded by producer Walter Legge specifically to record for EMI. For Karajan, the association with the London orchestra constituted his “rehabilitation” in the eyes of the record-buying public and a means of establishing a broad repertory that would export to orchestral venues elsewhere after the denazification procedures concluded. Disc 2 contains two major works conducted 6 September 1956 with the Philharmonia and Karajan: the Beethoven Sixth and the Brahms Fourth.

The Pastora Symphony by Karajan proceeds in a driven, linear manner, much in the Toscanini tradition, touched by a feeling of mirth in Nature’s bounty. The periods already exhibit the rounded edges that mark the Karajan style, especially with the Berlin Philharmonic. The repeat in the first movement exposition does allow the music to breathe in the bucolic intoxication Beethoven invokes. The Philharmonia strings virtually luxuriate in their fertile sonority; and in this, we might detect less the Toscanini debt but more the expansive influence of Karajan’s artistic rival, Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose death in 1954 allowed Karajan to appear twice each year in Lucerne. The warm glow of which the Philharmonia Orchestra became noted marks the entire “Scene by the brook,” its 12/8 momentum stirred by string breezes and woodwind denizens of the air. The progression, a luxurious serenade, proceeds as a seamless orison to Nature’s restorative powers.

The kinetic energy that inhabits every Beethoven score emerges with frolicking revelry, especially in the Philharmonia brass, for the “Merry gathering of country folk,” only to be interrupted by the much-touted “Thunderstorm,” which Berlioz once likened to the end of the world. Karajan’s forces whip up a dandy maelstrom in air and on earth, the Philharmonia timpani expressly active, and the piccolo in a paroxysm of flight. Do we assume correctly that illustrious French horn virtuoso Dennis Brain conducts us to the intensely radiant “Shepherd’s Hymn” of praise that overflows the banks of verbal depiction?  No personnel are listed in the booklet credits, but the homogeneity of sound elicited by the orchestra seems testimony itself to the discipline upon which Karajan insisted in his years with the ensemble. The ultimate hymn of praise rises from the audience.

If Toscanini’s model impels Karajan’s Beethoven, the Furtwängler ethos dictates Karajan’s conception of the mighty Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, culminating in the potent discipline of the last movement’s passacaglia. The powerful sense of Romantic yearning invests the opening movement’s arrangement of rising and falling thirds with a pained nostalgia and something of the Dylan Thomas “rage against the dying of the light.” Karajan elides the first movement repeat, invoking his winds and expressive strings to engage in antiphons of stoic resolve. The contrapuntal resolve of the first movement Allegro moderato rises to fever pitch, the coda its own version of Beethoven’s descent into the maelstrom in the Pastoral.

The brass invocation of the Phrygian mode beckons us into the mysteries of the Brahms Andante moderato, whose temper evolves from a solemn march into a combination of bucolic languor and personal lamentation. Karajan imposes in the Brahms periods here an almost – we daresay – “Brucknerian” breadth to the occasion, the sense of metaphysical import and mortality having become palpable. The one scherzo in a Brahms symphony, the Allegro giocoso, feels less light-hearted than rebellious, an assertion of fervent potency in the face of autumnal energies. The Trio section merely serves as a darkly directed transition to the volatile Tempo I. The last movement opens with a most dire statement of the passacaglia pattern, a surging tribute to the fascinating compulsion to old modes of emotive expression. The motif, taken from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, perhaps captures a longing that Brahms the man lacked in terms of traditional devotion. Karajan turns the notion, “I long to be near you, Lord,” into an assault on Olympus . The peroration of this massive exercise in counterpoint resonates with an enduring cry of the heart, rare in the Brahms canon of great performances.

Disc 3 skips ahead in time to, first, the concert of 17 August 1957, when Russian virtuoso Nathan Milstein (1903-1992) joins Karajan and the Swiss Festival Orchestra for the Brahms Violin Concerto in D (1878). The great violinist, known for his hard-driving approach to the major repertory, elicits a torrential orchestral tutti from Karajan to begin the Allegro non troppo opening movement. After rapid shifts into C Major and D Minor, Milstein enters with a sustained, lyrical restatement of the main theme in fluttering notes, soon supported by an ardent flute. The tympani roll ushers Milstein into a heart-rending realization of the secondary tune over pizzicato strings; then, the patented Brahms love of sequences allows us to savor the tune in half steps. When the D Minor tune appears in Milstein’s staccato, the Swiss Orchestra thunders forth in tutti, at last relenting into a legato version of the lyrical melody. Again, as the tension resumes, the various pedal points cadences aim for monumentality of scale, with Milstein’s rasping tone digging sensationally into his filigree. The progression to the cadenza seems to gather even more fervent momentum, then breaking off for Milstein’s blistering solo. The re-entry of the orchestra, sweetly tender, gathers the woodwinds and French horn to ascend, with Milstein, to a peroration of limitless impact.

The oboe and its oft-remarked F Major theme joins the Swiss Orchestra for a wind serenade Adagio that, for many early critics, diminishes the import of the solo violin part. But for those who forgive Brahms his bucolic impulse, the second movement stands as a marvelous creation, fervently lyrical, whose middle section, in F# Minor, no less conveys an intimate passion. The dialogues between Milstein’s upper register and the French horn enjoy a rare poignancy of effect. The last chords hover in, even embrace, a repose of spirit that transcends comparison. The gypsy rondo, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, projects a hefty humor and acerbic bite in Milstein’s realization, blazingly fast, in duple and triple time. With seamless transitions, the music offers pearly episodes that allow Milstein to display his craft in multiple stops and shifts of registration. He drives the music, along with Karajan, to the Mozart ploy (from the “Turkish” Concerto) of slipping into 6/8 for another savage exercise in triplets and fierce runs before a coda that sweeps the poised audience away in admiring delirium.

There may be something of Karajan’s own desire for reconciliation of spirit in his performance of Arthur Honegger’s 1946 Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique” for the concert of 10 August 1955. In three movements, each set to a liturgical text, Honegger essentially appeals for peace after having witnessed Earth’s Holocaust. From the ferocious Dies Irae opening movement, through the expansive second movement De profundis clamavi (Adagio), to the final movement, Dona nobis pacem, Karajan directs an instrumental tragedy of epic import. The virtuoso oboe player, Heinz Holliger, sixteen-years-old at the time of he performance, wrote his personal response to the Karajan rendition to Swiss conductor and impresario Paul Sacher: “I have never heard such a wonderful concert before. . . .The greatest experience for me was Honegger’s Liturgical Symphony, which meant more to me than the most beautiful church service. I heard the work for the first time. The effect was overwhelming.” Karajan’s realization of the last movement, Dona nobis pacem, with its episodes, seems to condense the tortured, militant and metaphysically remorseful progression of the two earlier movements, their intense personalization of world calamity.

The Audite site permits a download of the September 1951 Karajan performance of the Bach B Minor Mass with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Singverein, with soloists Schwarzkopf, Cavelti, Haefliger, and Braun.  The 62-page illustrated booklet, with a candid appraisal of both Karajan’s career and his relationship to the Lucerne Festival by Wolfgang Rathert is entirely commendable. We can hope that Audite, in cooperation with the Lucerne archives, will issue more of such significant musical collaboration.

—Gary Lemco

Herbert von Karajan: The Early Lucerne Years, 1952-1957 =
Philharmonia Orchestra

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral”
BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98;

Swiss Festival Orchestra

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93;
BACH: Concerto in C Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, BWV 1061;
BRAHMS: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77;
HONEGGER: Symphony No. 3 “Liturgique”;
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491

Pianos – Geza Anda and Clara Haskil, Robert Casadesus
Violin – Nathan Milstein,

Herbert von Karajan – Conductor

More information available through Audite

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Album Cover for Herbert von Karajan The Early Years


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