MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major; R. STRAUSS: Also sprach Zarathustra – Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan – Testament

by | Feb 18, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

MOZART: Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major, K. 297b; R. STRAUSS: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op, 30 – Berlin Philharmonic/ Herbert von Karajan – Testament SBT 1474, 68:35 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The concert 12 August 1970 at the Great Festival House, Salzburg finds conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) in a particularly relaxed and expansive mood, leading his Berlin Philharmonic in two staples, the Mozart 1770 Sinfonia Concertante and the 1896 Richard Strauss symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra, after the meditation on The Eternal Return of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Drawing his soli from the principals’ sections of the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan has his four woodwind players for the Mozart sinfonia – Lothar Koch, oboe; Karl Leister, clarinet; Gerd Seifert, horn; and Guenter Piesk, bassoon – blend perfectly with the larger body of string players arranged so that the winds served acoustically as a bridge between the divided ripieno of a classical “concerto grosso.” Measured and luxurious, the Karajan rendition certainly broadens Mozart’s Parisian style into music infinitely more Teutonic, though handsomely playful, in its abundance of forms and textures. The third movement’s Andantino con variazioni enjoyed a pert opera buffa presentation, almost a series of arias from Figaro in instrumental form. The clarity of design found a rare warmth in Karajan’s loving ministrations, without that cool objectivity that rounds out the rough edges by way of the calculated, intellectual laser beam. The palpably gemuetlich sensibility of the whole communicates itself to both audience and fellowship of ensemble, the joy of musical expression well attuned to the lofty cheer in Mozart’s flamboyant figures.

For the Zarathustra, Karajan has the peerless services of his concertmaster Michel Schwalbe for the Tanzlied and its joyous liberation from the spirit of gravity. By the time Schwalbe enters with the Dance-Song, we have become totally sensitized to every nuance the massive orchestra can realize, but the spirit of salon intimacy magically has not been sacrificed to bluster. The heroic C-G-C gesture and orchestral splash of the opening Einleitung soon yields to Karajan’s consistent desire to render this moody, sprawling work as chamber music; and so, much in the manner of Reiner’s conception – though with a warmer body of strings than Reiner’s Chicago Symphony – the Von den Hinterweltern rises in lush harmony to introduce Schwalbe’s first brief solo that merges with the harp. Often, the vitally sweeping colors and orchestral virtuosity assume the grand colors of the organ’s diapason, Karajan’s delivering the version Stokowski might have bestowed upon us. The Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions) section literally shimmers with its own voluptuousness, the music occasionally invoking the South Seas conceits that Hollywood allotted to Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall.

The Strauss penchant for polyphony – and later bitonality – remains potent in Karajan’s textural scheme, with his strong bass lines articulate in their anticipation of the Tanzlied, even in the midst of the darkly chromatic Das Grablied. The Von der Wissenschaft exploits contrapuntally the tonal range even further, delving into all the notes of the chromatic scale, even unto its lowest B. Winds and harp glissandi lead us to the Convalescent (Der Genesende) and its variants on the original motif in progressive mania, until it explodes in Karajan Technicolor. The luster of the BPO brass may never have achieved the heights and tonal purity it exhibits as this section evolves, as though Celibidache had taken possession of the Karajan imagination. The sheer passionate buoyancy of the succeeding Tanzlied must speak for itself. At the enigmatic conclusion of this effusive work, we must confront – in conflicting tones of C Major and B Major – the perennial Riddle of Being, whose “solution” Nietzsche himself could postulate only in the pre-Socratic terms he had imbibed from Empedocles as a student of philology. If the music invests us with existential doubts, the performance by Karajan offers only a vast, meditative repose. Brilliant stereo sound marks this disc, by the way, courtesy of Recording Supervisor Hans Sachs.

—Gary Lemco

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