Among the volumes in the set is a collection of orchestral music from Wagner’s operas, which stems several concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic between the end of September and early October in 1974. (Originally released in 1975, the selections were remastered in 2001.) Since Karajan was noted as an interpreter of Wagner’s music, and his work with the Berlin Philharmonic is well known, this recording preserves several fine pieces that are rarely played with such consistent intensity, and one can imagine the immediate impact on the audience.
The Overture to Tannhaüser, the longest selection on this CD, makes use of the Paris version of the score, and it includes the chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, rather than the exclusively orchestra rendering something found on recordings of excerpts from Wagner’s operas. The balance between chorus and orchestra is effective, just as the shifts in orchestral color that are part of the Overture are achieved with smoothly. The solid string textures form a rich foundation for the sometimes exposed woodwind and brass playing in this piece, and the result is as vibrant as it was thirty years ago, when Karajan recorded it.
Likewise, the full string sounds with which the Prelude to Lohengrin opens are difficult to match. While some may quibble with Karajan’s tempos, which can be a little quicker than some would like, this performance is hardly willful: Karajan shows a clear direction as the piece grows in intensity and orchestral color before it subsides in the rich string sounds found in the opening measures. Such masterful direction is borne out in the Prelude to the third act of the same opera, where the prominent brass sonorities offer the kind of polished sound usually associated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti.
At the center of this recording is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, a work for which Karajan was respected in the opera house. Karajan’s performance of the Prelude is among his finest, as he renders the details of the score precisely and elicits the emotional pitch that this piece must have. The only caveat about this performance is the attaca that connects the orchestral version of Isolde’s “Liebestod” to the end of the Prelude to the first act. While this may work in concert, the banding on a CD should reflect the discrete pieces. With the two pieces connected in this way, the pathos that is essential to the Prelude maps directly onto the “Liebestod” from the end of the third act. Even without including the voice in this performance, Karajan draws the appropriate emotion from the instruments in his cantabile approach to this piece.
It is difficult to follow the music from Tristan und Isolde in this collection, except with something different, and the Overture to Der fliegende Holländer offers sufficient contrast. This selection is, again, a solid performance that evokes the mood of the opera itself. As with the other pieces on this CD the sound vividly captures the fine playing. Karjan’s tempos are compelling, and fit not only the score as Wagner left it, but also the level of playing of the Berlin Philharmonic. Nothing is out of place in this performance, with every detail sounding in place, as though the Orchestra were a single instrument – an achievement of “das Wunder Karajan.” Yet in the final piece on this recording, Karajan builds somewhat on tradition to offer a more paced and majestic reading of the Overture to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg. In this in this performance, the work even slows a bit near the ending to bring out the fanfares and string accompaniments that are often blurred on other recordings. As the tempos slow toward the final passages, the intensity of the playing increases, with dynamic, resonant sounds that culminate in the well-spaced chords at the conclusion of the Overture.
This recording is a fine collection on its own merits, but it even more impressive as part of EMI’s “Karajan Collection.” The liner notes by Richard Osborne give a synopsis of Karajan’s work with Wagner’s music, but could be enhanced with a discography of the conductor’s recordings. The distinctive look of the CD packaging identifies the volumes in this series, with a black-and-white photo presumably from the time of the recording against a brown-tan background. While a list of the CDs in the set is not part of this recording, those interested might consult the website www.emiclassics.com. It is a fine release on its own merits, and all the more impressive as part of the set being issue by EMI.
James L. Zychowicz