Rich Rewards From the Karajan Era

Herbert von Karajan has been dead less than a year, yet one might have believed otherwise from Deutsche Grammophon’s treatment of their top moneymaker, according him the reverence, in the form of retrospectives (that is, re-release packages), during his lifetime normally associated with the departed.

Karajan’s other employer, EMI/Angel, waited until his actual demise to go all-out. Their patience has produced a richly varied perspective on the career of the all-time leader in classical record sales: 150 million copies (and who knows how many dollars) in a recent estimate.

EMI had the advantage of Karajan’s services--and he of theirs--during the period immediately following World War II. His reputation was at a low ebb, a consequence of none too savory actions during the Hitler era and the opposition of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, then the most venerated figure in German music, although not without political liabilities of his own.

Walter Legge, the legendary EMI producer, didn’t discover Karajan but he alone promoted his cause after the war. Legge resurrected a career in shambles with a series of recordings made in war-ravaged Vienna under conditions that would have defeated less inspired and ambitious men than Legge and Karajan.


Particularly noteworthy among these recordings is the 1947 Brahms “Deutsches Requiem” (61010, mono), with the Vienna Philharmonic, Musikfreunde Chorus and soloists Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Hans Hotter: the first and still most potent and poignant of the five different recordings of that work the conductor was to make.

EMI/Angel’s “Karajan Edition” boxes--all, like the ‘Requiem, at midprice--continue to appear as well. Each set documents his work with a single orchestra, be it London’s Philharmonia (founded by Legge), the Vienna Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic, the three with which Karajan was most prominently associated.

A recent Philharmonia package (63316, four CDs, mono) contains a fascinating miscellany dating from 1950-1955, including material with which we wouldn’t normally identify the conductor.

There is such worthwhile esoterica as the Fourth Symphony of Albert Roussel and the First Symphony of Mily Balakirev as well as Stravinsky’s “Jeu de Cartes.” The symphonies display Karajan’s passion for balance and the elegant line but not, as would later be the case, at the expense of visceral excitement.

“Jeu de Cartes,” however, is so wrongheaded--all straight lines and lumpishness where the composer demands jagged edges, buoyancy and rhythmic thrust--as to suggest caricature. It is one of those rare, perversely treasurable recorded instances of a master so totally out of his element as to seem incompetent.

Elsewhere, there’s hyper-elegant Mozart--the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 297b, and the Clarinet Concerto, with the Philharmonia’s wind soloists including clarinetist Bernard Walton and hornist Dennis Brain; a spacious, handsomely executed Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique,” and a trio of Strauss tone poems, “Don Juan,” “Till Eulenspiegel” and “Death and Transfiguration,” all more vital, less obsessed with surface gloss than later remakes.

The four-disc Berlin Philharmonic package (63321) spans the years 1957-1980 and includes some late material that hardly honors the conductor’s memory: a torpid Dvorak Eighth Symphony, a ponderous Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, a somnolent Sibelius Sixth Symphony.

The 1957 Bruckner Eighth Symphony with the Berliners, however, the major item in a separate two-disc box (63469), is prime Karajan: rhythmically strong and flexible, mixing majestic calm and a touch of edginess beside which his more refined Deutsche Grammophon performance with the Vienna Philharmonic--his last recording, as it turned out--seems faintly precious.

Pre-godhead Karajan of the most appealing sort fills a Vienna Philharmonic program (63326, four CDs, mono) covering the years 1946 (including the first Legge-Karajan collaborations) through 1952. Notable here is the first commercial recording (1947) of Richard Strauss’ killingly beautiful “Metamorphosen”; an irresistibly mellow Brahms Second Symphony, and the most idiomatically dancey performances imaginable of music by the waltzing Strausses.

Add to this EMI’s superb remasterings and an affectionate, informative program note by Schwarzkopf, Legge’s widow, and you have what may well be the most valuable and humanizing document to date of the beginnings of the Karajan era.