MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major; BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Herbert von Karajan – ICA Classics (2 CDs)

by | Apr 27, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

MOZART: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551; BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 in E Major – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Herbert von Karajan – ICA Classics ICAC 5102 (2 CDs) 29:29; 63:07 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 6 April 1962, this disc captures a decidedly warmer personality in the music-making of Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) with the Vienna Philharmonic than is his wont with his Berlin Philharmonic ensemble. Although the tendency to round out every rough edge in music persists in Karajan’s approach to the Mozart Jupiter Symphony, his already having played the respective national anthems of Britain and Austria, we find a harmonic, romantic dimension in his interpretation we might have attributed to his musical forerunners Bruno Walter, Karl Bohm, and Richard Strauss. A vitality and luster permeate this reading that take advantage of the special sonority in the Vienna Philharmonic strings, winds, and tympani. The urge to the colossal in Karajan finds a mediator in the exquisite colors granted the winds in the Andante cantabile and the bravura execution of the Mannheim Rockets in the VPO strings in the Molto allegro finale.  The sheer girth of the fugal materials in the finale assume the dimension of passages from Ein Heldenleben. The audacity of the tempos, too, seems intent on dazzling the ear and aesthetic sensibilities of the packed house Neville Cardus reports attended Royal Festival Hall this April evening, who witnessed a triumph of the musical spirit in both genius composer and Herculean interpreter.

Having recently screened for my film students Visconti’s 1954 Senso, in which Nino Rota scored the 1883 Bruckner Seventh as an expression of the romantic agony endured by Alida Valli’s Countess Serpieri for Farley Granger’s Lt. Mahler, the Karajan version of the Bruckner fits exactly into such a dramatic and passionate posture for this work. More brisk than many of Karajan’s studio accounts, the ease and fluidity of transition bespeaks a comfort level with the composer’s massive periods we do not often experience. Karajan often emphasizes the natural, pantheistic aspects of Bruckner’s first movement, the lines singing lyrically and occasionally heaving fitfully in majestic outcries. Approaching the coda of the Allegro moderato, we can palpably sense Karajan’s molding of the long opening line over a fierce pedal point, the strings executing a lithe trill.  The horns invoke the coda proper, a monumental statement rooted in the tympani while the upward scales in counterpoint shake the heavens.

Many interpret the extended Adagio movement as a threnody for the deceased Richard Wagner, the liturgical cast of Bruckner’s pious sensibility having turned to symphonic expression via Wagner’s Tannhauser. Karajan manages to maintain a taut and flexible line throughout the twenty-minute duration of the second movement: manipulating the lightness and shadow, the antiphonal melodies, and the great sweeping sadness of the dark melodies, the swelling via Wagner tubas of the pageantry of the occasion. Organ-like, the orchestral layers mount up, but a rhythmic variety and constant, subtle shift in coloring prevents the ostinati from becoming tedious. The intricate working-out of the movement’s three themes proceeds majestically but with an urgency that bespeaks the music’s almost embarrassing sincerity. The chorale pattern easily bears comparison to elements in Wagner’s Parsifal, a funeral cortege built from eagles’ nests.

The Scherzo, with its active ostinati and wide-spaced trumpet call, invokes a feeling that Bruckner shares in admiration of the Ride of the Valkyries. Karajan projects a particularly noble version of the Austrian laendler tune that provides the middle section, once more rife with bucolic longings. With the return of the scherzo motifs and the active VPO tympanist, flute, and horns, we relive the throes and tensions of a pious musical artist caught in rousing carnal fantasies. So, too, the Finale confronts pietist chorale impulses with athletically robust Wagnerian sensuality. Karajan’s breezy passagework provides an elegant foil to the more stentorian aspects of the music’s episodic development The ensuing drama, playful as well as ardent, becomes a constant alternation of textures, rising inevitably to an Alpine conclusion of suave power. The British audience explodes in delight, an applause that extends well beyond the limits of the disc, which unfortunately has lost the Meistersinger Prelude that served as the encore to a genuinely thrilling concert.

—Gary Lemco

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