KARAJAN CONDUCTS CHORAL MUSIC
HERBERT VON KARAJAN - RUSSIAN MUSIC 1949 - 1960
HERBERT VON KARAJAN 1951 - 1960
Here are three more sets in Warner Classics' admirable Karajan series. This site mentioned three previous issues featuring Karajan with soloists, various opera overtures, and his first recording of the Beethoven symphonies (REVIEW). There were many treasures in the first three volumes, and there are many in these new sets. In some cases we have multiple recordings (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, one with Philharmonia the other with the Berlin Philharmonic). One boxed set is devoted to the conductor's major choral recordings, all of which have never left the catalog. In this set we also have a live performance of Four Last Songs with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the Philharmonia Orchestra from a concert in Royal Albert Hall in June 1956. Notes mention Karajan changed the order of the songs to end with "September" so the music would end with Dennis Brain's magnificent playing of the horn solo. The soprano made her famous recording with the Philharmonia orchestra directed by Otto Ackermann in 1953, and in 1965 would record the songs again with George Szell in Berlin. Karajan made his superb Berlin recording in 1974 with Gundula Janowitz, a performance many consider to be the finest ever made. In the live 1956 performance, Schwarzkopf sounds decidedly mannered, but collectors surely should own it.
The box devoted to Russian music focuses on Tchaikovsky, the two recordings of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances,Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, his Symphony No. 5 and three ballet suites. We also have the twin Polovtsian Dances performances and an oddity, Balakirev's Symphony No. 1, a second-rate work by any standards, given the plush Karajan treatment. The Mussorgsky opera excerpts are of interest, with Boris Christoff's exciting singing in the Varlaam's drinking song from Boris Godunov. And doubtless because high sales were expected, we have Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with Peter Ustinov at his best.
The 1951-1960 set offers standard symphonic repertory as listed above, radiant performances sounding better than ever before as remastered. Of particular interest is the Bruckner Symphony No. 8, a work close to the conductor. This recording with the Berlin Philharmonic was made in 1957. He also recorded it in 1988 with the Vienna Philharmonic, and we also have a magnificent video of a performance with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded in 1977 in a church in Linz (REVIEW). This massive symphony was a specialty of Karajan, and many collectors may not be aware that he recorded it in 1944. This was part of a series made by Berlin Radio which had been confiscated by the Soviets when they occupied Germany. Many recordings, including some conducted by Furrtwängler, had disappeared but showed up in in the mid-80's through a collaboration that included Moscow Radio. Details of the recording sessions are vague, but obviously they were tapes. Karajan's recordings included Beethoven's Eroica and the Bruckner Eighth. The tape of the first movement of the latter apparently has been lost, but the final three movements were issued on a Koch CD in 1991 (Koch 3-1448). The orchestra was Prerussische Staatskapelle Berlin, not a match for orchestras Karajan usually worked with, but it is fascinating to hear. Timings for the three movements are almost identical, movements 2 and 3 within seconds of each other, the finale less than a minute longer in the earlier version. It is amazing that the final movement was recorded in stereo (!!), surely one of the first stereo orchestral recordings ever made. The two-chnnel sound is effective presenting a realistic stereo image. This is a recording that deserves reissue.
All recordings in this massive Karajan reissue series have been remastered by top engineers who had access to original tapes, and sometimes were able to find alternate superior sources. Audio is outstanding throughout, and we can be certain we are hearing this music in sonic perfection.
R.E.B. (June 2014)