Karajan in Italy = Symphonies of MOZART, BRAHMS, BEETHOVEN and Bartok Piano Concerto 3

by | May 20, 2007 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Karajan in Italy = MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 “Choral”; BARTOK: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Geza Anda, piano/ Teresa Stich-Randall, soprano/ Hilde Roessl-Majdan, alto/ Waldemar Kmentt, tenor/ Gottlob Frick, bass/ Orchestra di Torino della RAI (Mozart, Bartok)/ Orchestra di Roma della RAI/ Herbert von Karajan

Tahra TAH 611-613 66:57, (2 CDs) 68:04; 70:12 ****:

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was musician and megalomaniac, magician and manipulator, the architect of music, often without emotional content. Karajan first appeared in Italy in in 1940, at La Scala, then again soon, in 1941 in Florence and Rome. Always favoring a monumental style, Karajan sought absolute perfection of sound with no rough edges. These inscriptions on Tahra date March 1963 – December 1954, and they include some mightily wrought performances of standard repertory from which Italian music is conspicuously absent.  Karajan leads the RAI Turin Orchestra in Mozart (19 February 1954), the “Jupiter” Symphony. Limber and driven in the Toscanini mold, the performance is made of emotional marble. The precision to which Karajan aspires comes forth in the final Allegro molto, the five-voiced fugue which provides a vehicle for the stunning efficacy of means. There are some miraculous shifts of contour and registration, evidence of Karajan’s ability to exact virtuoso realizations from what otherwise would have been mediocre talents.

The Brahms D Major (26 March 1953) testifies to an approach to a score Karajan knew well, educing a high lyricism and firm line from the RAI strings and horns. The emotion is monochromatic, despite the luminous playing of the strings and the volume of the horns. Only when Karajan relinquishes the feverish tension, does the human sunshine enter the iron gates. This is not to deny the explosiveness that erupts in the Adagio non troppo, the somber horn and woodwind work that intrudes prior to the ritornello prior to the little siciliano a la delicatezza. Shades of the Op. 11 Serenade? Certainly, the Allegretto grazioso moves fleetly, the brisk definition in the winds and the stop-on-the-dime tempo shifts very impressive. A mad scramble for the Allegro con spirito, Karajan’s pushing his players for all they are worth. A graduated, layered buildup for the final peroration – Brahms a grand, albeit demonized scale. The audience is already nuts before the trumpets and tympani have finished their explosions!

Karajan prepared a series of Beethoven Ninths, likely always cognizant of his arch rival Furtwaengler’s penchant for this colossal work. This Ninth (4 December 1954) begins with quick, nervous energy, the heavens already in pandemonium. The long-lined, classical elasticity of the musical phrases and the sheer energy of execution reduce the experience to an orchestral toccata on a monumental scale. The music has become a violent confrontation of sweeping, dark gestures, where ignorant armies clash by night. Only the last bars of woodwind work prior to the coda slack off the urgency; then, the iron will reasserts itself, implacable. The same maniacal verve saturates the Scherzo, set as a series of warring pulsations, set on a coiled spring. When the snake leaps, we wince back at the steely energy unleashed. There is little warmth, only flawless technique, the oboe in particular. He draws some ravishing sounds from the cellos and basses.

A sentimentalist, malgre lui? The noble Adagio molto e cantabile unfolds with a rich patina of sound, an expansiveness quite n the Romantic tradition. A palpable display of heart, of all things! But the temptation for the phrases to become polished, lavish modules of orchestral symmetry occasionally proves too much for Karajan, and the surface overwhelms the depth. Speed and technical mysticism combine for the choral finale, but we find it hard to separate Karajan’s politics from the message of Brotherhood that the music extols. Even the vocal soli strike one as virtuosos, talented vocal aerialists. Teresa Stich-Randall’s white tone sails above the ensemble, her own argument for aestheticism. A very deliberate pace for “Seid umschlungen, millionen” fughetta. Light feet for the last ensemble, the “Tochter aus Elysium” tripping to the sweeping chords from the strings and up to the “Alle menschen” invocation, with deep tones from Frick. Turkish-march pandemonium for the finale, the heavenly magic brought to earth by the most flamboyant of musical alchemists.

The Brahms B-flat Concerto (11 December 1954) and the Bartok Concerto No. 3 (12 February 1954) feature the great Geza Anda (1921-1976), whose personal warmth at the keyboard provides a foil to Karajan’s cool technical precision. The canvas is large, the tempos driven, but Anda manages a rounded tone, albeit in diminished sonics. The model would seem to be the Horowitz/Toscanini inscription of the 1940s. The anonymous cello soloist blends well with Anda for the expansive Andante, the oboe part also contributing to the emotional respite. An Italianate good humor for the sunny Allegretto grazioso, with Anda’s fleet handling of the more knotty passages and some crystal-clear trills and passing notes. Flute and piano tinkle most attractively. Some fiery non-legato from Anda along with his marvelous pearly play bring us to a well-wrought conclusion. We do not hear Karajan in Bartok often, and Anda in Bartok more frequently with Fricsay, but this Third Concerto has swaggering motion, the woodwinds rife with figures from the concerto for Orchestra. Luminous, quicksilver figures in the keyboard find a strong complement in the orchestra’s delicate traceries. The Andante religioso proves Bartok’s “night music” of sighs and raindrops at its best. The last movement froths with jerky Magyar rhythms and renewed energy, the tympani freed and Anda in polyphonic fettle.  Bernard Haitink said of Karajan: “He is a great musician when he isn’t busy enlarging his empire.”

— Gary Lemco

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