Karajan in New York, Vol. 2 = WEBERN: Five Pieces, Op. 5; MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 – New York Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
Pristine Audio PASC 224 , 63:06 [www.pristineclassiscal.com] ****:
Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) led a series of concerts in New York City, and I recall attending one of them with his leading the Berlin Philharmonic. Here, in his New York Philharmonic radio debut (15 November 1958), Karajan leads a German-Viennese program, opening with Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for String Orchestra (1929), arranged from his earlier (1909) String Quartet.
The Op. 5 of Webern, typically, offers five concerted movements, the music pulverized into tiny motifs and rhythmic kernels, extremely intense and even lyrical, in their own terms. The last of them, especially, becomes quite expressive, with violin and viola riffs, and high aching pedal tones in the upper reaches of emotional anguish. The deep basses cede their harmonies to plucked notes, growls, groans, and weeping figures spread around the range of stringed instruments. The landscape becomes both burnt and haunted, an eerie commentary on 20th Century sensibilities, intoned by a responsive NY Philharmonic String ensemble.
The Jupiter Symphony, despite its obviously heraldic content, begins rather modestly and soberly, lyricism rather than pageantry on the menu. Despite some distant (AM radio) sonics, the intensity of the performance shines through, the secondary theme in lilting colors, the counterpoint in firm control. The woodwinds, too, make their presence felt in the midst of the more titanic energies tossed among the strings and tympani. Altogether, the Karajan approach to the first movement emphasizes lightness of texture and a taut melodic line, unbroken in its arched directionality. The linear serenity extends into the Andante, in which something of the Toscanini impetus prevails, focused but unsentimental, the phrase-ends clipped. A soft ambiance marks the Menuetto, eminently Viennese and exalted in tone, the phrases the soul of harmonized symmetry. Virtuosity rules in the Finale: Allegro with its quick tempo, the woodwinds and low strings having to hustle thorough their riffs accurately but breathlessly. The grandiose whirlwind pomp of the contrapunctus manages to convey a fevered joie de vivre, a ceremonial nobility of an inflamed order, typical of the Karajan who thought himself the “pope of music.”
The Beethoven First (22 November 1958), from the outset, evolves as a measured affair, quite attentive to Beethoven’s harmonic procedures, which love to delay the tonic resolution. Karajan’s linear propulsion reigns, the textures light and streamlined, the conception majestic on its own terms. We sense Beethoven’s youthful brio in handling orchestral figures on a momentous scale, an ardent wielder of thunder and lightning. A forceful tempo commands the Andante sostenuto, played for its sturm und drang potential. This is a Romantic’s early Beethoven, with little care for the niceties of authentic performance. One of them is the more ominous and athletic Menuetto, the type of fiery Menuet that already evinces signs of rebellion against the polite society that gave it birth. Attacca to the last movement, playful but decidedly intent on its explosive means, again in the Toscanini manner of rhythmic propulsion and fleet textures in the Mannheim rockets that saturate the score. As they had at the end of the prior concert’s Mozart, the audience, too, erupts with resounding enthusiasm to their honored, if controversial, guest conductor.
— Gary Lemco