Opus Kura OPK 7029, 72:51 (Distrib. Albany) ***:
Many collectors will agree that some of the best work recorded by Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) occurred during his post-war tenure with EMI’s Philharmonia of London, established by producer Walter Legge as a rival to Beecham’s Royal Philharmonic. The level of orchestral musicianship was quite superb, and this album wants to feature French horn superstar Dennis Brain (1921-1957) as its drawing card. And as magnificently as Brain performs his warm solo in the Tchaikovsky’s second movement, Karajan still steals the show.
The entire concept is eminently balletic; no forced monumentalisms, no overpowering brass tempests. But the steady pulsation, the rhetorical give-and-take within movements, is dazzlingly stylistic; one might, without knowing the conductor, attribute it to Markevitch. Karajan has permitted musical finesse to supplant his penchant for power, and the results are thoroughly musical. This is not to deny the exquisite craftsmanship of the individual Philharmonia choirs, where clarinet, bassoon, and flute each make their respective contributions. Seamless transitions between tempo changes in the last movement, played intact, without the unfortunate cuts that prevent my naming Mengelberg among my al-time favorites. Recorded in 1953, the transfer is delightfully clear of acoustic distractions, the miking pointed, the veneer of sound authentic without that oily gloss that later permeates Karajan’s DGG inscriptions. The Nutcracker (1952) is equally charmed, with some quick tempos to accentuate the virtuosity of the piece without its dancers to capture us visually. Certainly this one of the few Tchaikovsky Fifths I have auditioned in recent months that I wish to rehear as soon as possible.
— Gary Lemco