Recently in Recordings
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06 May 2008
Karajan: The Music, the Legend.
At the centenary of the birth of the conductor Herbert von Karajan various commemorations are occurring, an among them is the concise CD and DVD release by Deutsche Grammophon, with both discs bound into a booklet that includes a short prose tribute to the man illustrated with some well-chosen photographs from various parts of his career.
The audio selections on CD along with the videos on the DVD represent Karajan’s legacy on various recordings issued by Deutsche Grammophon, for which the conduct led many fine performances, along with some materials not previously released. While some of the music is presented in its entirety, as with the film of Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the recordings on CD of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (all with the Berlin Philharmonic), other pieces are self-contained. The Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, is just one example of Karjan’s exploration of Baroque music. While it does not reflect the kind of performance-practice in use at the end of the twentieth century, the recording demonstrates the approach Karajan would use to bring this music to the idiom in which he worked. As such, it also brings to mind other recordings he made, including a memorable St. Matthew Passion and also the B-minor Mass. Those, in turn, evoke memories of his treatment of choral forces in various performances – at different times in his career – of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
All in all, this compilation serves Karajan well illustrating some of his fine work with the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra with which he was associated for many years and which he helped to shape during his tenure as its director. Likewise, the video selections capture some fine images of Karajan at the podium from various points in his maturity, including a spirited performance of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which dates from 1973. The latter is just one example of the fine effort that Karajan brought in continuing the tradition of Romantic music, which he rendered with a sense of freshness and exuberance that made his concerts memorable.
As much as Karajan was a familiar figure in the concert hall, he was an equally impressive force in the pit of the opera house, where he led many fine performances of some of the major companies in the world. The DVD includes just two excerpts, critical scenes from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, but he performed many works that are preserved on film, including some exemplary performances of operas by Verdi and Mozart from the Salzburg Festival. While those latter works are not found on this set – it would be difficult to include samples of everything Karajan did well on just two discs without lapsing into the proverbial sound-bite – various DVDs are available to illustrate his contributions to the recorded legacy, including some stunning performances of Don Giovanni and Don Carlos. Those interested in investigating or, for some, revisiting, Karajan’s operas on DVD will find some excellent choices in the selected discography that is included in this release. The selection found on the DVD is a reminder of the videos that Karajan made and for those who are not yet familiar with them, offer a fitting introduction. The scene from the end of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is an excellent example of Karajan’s sometimes tacit presence on impressive DVD performances, and those who find it compelling may want to seek out other such recordings that hold up well. Beyond the filmed operas listed there, the CDs listed include a number of outstanding recordings, such as his famous Ring cycle, along with a still remarkable Parsifal. A cursory examination of the discography included in the booklet will reveal a list of solid recordings that merit further attention.
Preserved by Deutsche Grammophon, the sound on both discs is consistently well recorded and the reproduction fine. This is evident in the 1963 recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony that dates to over half a century ago and which remains attractive and dynamic. Other tracks found in this commemorative release are equally strong examples of Karajan’s lifelong commitment to his art, an element that has become integral to the recorded legacy of a generation. By including both sound examples and video ones in this two-disc set Deutsche Grammophon has created a fitting tribute to Karajan, and it serves the conductor well by having enough examples of sufficient length to reflect several aspects of his craft.
James L. Zychowicz