Opus Kura OPK 7030, 64:24 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
From what some collectors consider the most personally fertile period in the recording career of Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989), we have two Tchaikovsky inscriptions 1952 (Sleeping Beauty) and 1953 (Symphony) with the responsive Philharmonia Orchestra of London. The five selections from Sleeping Beauty enjoy a combination of excitement and coloristic leisure, although I do wish Karajan had been more expansive for the big waltz. The Panorama sequence, with its evocation of harp and diaphanous strings, possesses an allure I have relished ever since my first impression, from Andre Kostelanetz on an old Columbia CL series LP. The crispness of the Philharmonia players can be heard in the Puss-‘n-Boots excerpt, with its incisive string attacks and pointillistic woodwind entries. The grand Rose Adagio exhibits a tenderness we might not associate with the Karajan sound, and listen for the sustained horn punctuations underneath the string trills.
The F Minor Symphony sessions took place between July 4-16, 1953 at Kingsway Hall. This is the first of six inscriptions Karajan made of the F Minor. He constructs a slow, deliberate arch for the opening movement, his model being that of Furtwaengler. Tension lies deep in the string line while the woodwinds cavort high in the orchestral canopy. The fate motif rumbles through with grim determinism via tympani and horns, the bass fiddles palpably active. The first melodic period occurs just at 5:30, and Karajan affords the dreamy tissue the same linear flexibility and caresses Furtwaengler exacted from the Vienna Philharmonic. The more ferocious periods might remind some auditors of Igor Markevitch, given the level of excitement. The coda is a thing of beauty, graduated in warm, clear layers, the horn triplets furioso and the strings rising to a terrific peroration (a la Beethoven’s 5th), almost on a par with the great Russians. The Andantino in the mode of a song achieves a thick, fulsome resonance with carefully etched accents. The soft martial quality disarms one’s prejudgments of Karajan’s stolid solipsism. Wonderfully febrile tension for the pizzicati of the Scherzo, the lines clear and potent. The woodwinds provide a balletic, Mozartean serenade which evolves into a parodic march with high pipes. Great tympani and horn work keeps the Allegro con fuoco moving, not to mention the singular momentum demands of the Russian folksong. Whatever my reservations about Karajan, this reading demands a tipped hat, an acknowledgement that a master technician was at work, one who paid fine homage to Tchaikovsky. The Opus Kura restoration is astonishingly quiet and nuanced.
— Gary Lemco