HERBERT VON KARAJAN
EMI Classics states this series features "great performances from legendary artists of the golden age....a unique historical glimpse into our classical heritage, presented on DVD for the very first time...lovingly restored, using the finest state-of-the-art technology...these generous, full-length programmes include complete musical performances, comprehensive booklets and rare bonus footage." Well, for the most part, indeed they do, except for playing time which is quite inconsistent, and the Karajan issue is much shorter than the other three mentioned. For sure, there are some treasures here, and some duds as well.
Starting with the most disappointing, we have the Karajan Berlioz filmed in color in a Paris studio June 25, 1970. Karajan had taken over "leadership" of the Orchestre de Paris a year earlier (meaning he agreed to conduct them for ten weeks a year). At his first concert with them at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July 1969 the program included Symphonie fantastique, a work he had been conducting since 1938. Always intrigued by filmed music performances, Karajan's basic egotistical nature led to a series of filmed performances most of which were with the Berlin Philharmonic. There were many of these, mostly basic repertory, and in them we had the privilege of viewing Karajan's chiseled features and coiffed hair, close-up ad nauseum. The Berlioz on this DVD is conducted entirely by Karajan with his eyes closed! The French orchestra seems a little perturbed about this; their playing is surely not on the level of the Berlin Phiharmonic. Karajan is usually seen against a red background, and sometimes he is viewed through the two harps. Roger Benamou directed this production and presumably is responsible for the Christmas-like reds and golds of the brass instruments, and the two huge bells heard in the "Witches' Sabbath," which seem to be spliced in—I couldn't seem them on the stage on the few occasions when the orchestra was shown. Layout of the orchestra was rather odd—crowded together with empty space on both sides. EMI's series always seems to include a "bonus," in this case a televised performance (black and white) from January 17, 1962. I have great respect for Sir John Barbirolli, but this is a rather untidy performance by the Hallé Orchestra of Le Corsaire and the many shots of the conductor show a surprising number of empty seats in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Not much of a "bonus" and playing time for the entire DVD is only 63 minutes.
Leopold Stokowski's video is terrific and fortunately filmed in color. From a concert in Fairfield Hall, Croydon, Sept. 8, 1969 we have two repertory staples, Beethoven's Fifth and Schubert's Unfinished, with the London Philharmonic, both works presented with the expected Stokowskian elegance as he conducted minus baton (he stopped using one in the '20s saying now he had ten instead of just one). From an important concert June 14, 1972 in Royal Festival Hall, we have Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger and Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun. This was a special occasion as it celebrated the conductor's 90th birthday (!) as well as the 60th anniversary of his debut with the London Symphony (the conductor died five years later). DVD notes point out that because there was no chance to rehearse the Wagner (Stokowski wanted to rehearse a number of encores saying to the orchestra they knew the Meistersinger anyway). He was the first to applaud after the performance! The Debussy, one of the conductor's showpieces, which he recorded five times commercially before this concert—the first time in 1924—is a glorious performance; the last one he ever gave. Camera work is superb, sound quite good as well. This DVD does have a valid "bonus": The 86-year old Pierre Monteux who had just been appointed principal conductor of the LSO, performing The Sorcerer's Apprentice in an unidentified London location. This is a black and white film with sound not as vivid as that afforded Stokowski. It is a treat to be able to see him conducting this jovial music so enthusiastically.
Igor Markevitch's DVD is a major release not so much for the fine Russian conductor but for the "bonus" which in this case is very special indeed: Igor Stravinsky conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1945 version of his Firebird from a concert in Royal Festival Hall Sept. 14, 1965, televised by the BBC. Stravinsky was 83 at the time (he died in 1971). It's fascinating to watch him. He really wasn't much of a conductor—he almost seems to be just beating time to keep with the orchestra, but he does give some very direct cues and it is quite an experience to watch him leading this music we all know and love. There's a tumultuous ovation at the end graciously acknowledged by Stravinsky. The camera is on him most of the time, and I don't mind it a bit—as I do Karajan's perverse self-agrandisement on his Berlioz DVD. In addition we have the opportunity to hear another major conductor of the past, Igor Markevitch, whose recordings for Philips of symphonies of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky as well as Stravinsky. His podium demeanor was gentle. Particularly effective are his Shostakovich and Stravinsky in which the pallid sound of the French National Radio Orchestra is less distracting than it is in the Wagner excerpts. Everything on this DVD is filmed in black and white; the BBC Stravinsky is best of all visually. EMI has kindly given us separate tracks for every movement including 12 just for Firebird. This is the most generous in playing time of the four DVDs listed here. A major release!
The DVD devoted to Carlo Maria Giulini shows the Italian conductor was a fiery podium personality during his earlier years. His volatile presence is a show in itself, although not as balletic as Leonard Bernstein's gyrations. Giulini's gestures didn't always seem to get results from the New Philharmonia, but part of this might be because of the dim sound, surprisingly restricted for the time of these live performances (1964-68). Once again the "bonus" is a knock-out: Guido Cantelli and Rossini's Semiramide Overture recorded during a rehearsal at Usher Hall, Edinburg in 1950. Actually we hear the final four minutes of the overture recorded when the La Scala Orchestra and Cantelli were on tour. It's a dynamite performance with sound better than what is heard on the Giulini videos. All of these are from BBC Archives, black and white. It's unfortunate more of Cantelli wasn't included—there would have been room.
R.E.B. (July 2003)