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Friday, February 22, 2008

CD Survey: Karajan Gold, Karajan Pyrite

With a recording career that stretched over half a decade, Herbert von Karajan did much, in and out of the studio to shape the modern classical music industry. The fiery Austrian did good things (pioneering the CD format) and bad (declaring that CDs should be 72 minutes, the length of his interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.) Karajan worked with the biggest orchestras in Europe and recorded for three different major record labels. Here's the best of Karajan, on CD.

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra et. al., Vienna Philharmonic, (1959, Decca)
Here it is folks: the recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra that Stanley Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odyssey.. Accept no imitations--not even Karajan's 1974 Deutsche Grammophon remake with the Berlin Philharmonic. Here, the cosmic opening is underpinned with an enormous organ stop, recorded separately at Coventry Cathedral. The huge bells in the Night-wanderer's Song will wake up the entire house and possibly the neighbors. The disc also includes nice recordings of Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel, and the Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome.

Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1-9, Overtures Berlin Philharmonic (1963, Deutsche Grammophon)
Herbert von Karajan recorded the complete cycle of nine Beethoven symphonies four times in the stereo era. The 1963 cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic is a bargain that is never out of the catalogue. Recorded with crisp old-fashioned analogue sound and razor-sharp conducting, this set represents Karajan's best recorded work with his almighty Berliners. And it's a thousand times better than the ballyhooed Karajan Gold all-digital remakes made in the 1980s with the same orchestra. Note: This recording is available in two formats: a gold-and-maroon "doorstop" edition, as well as the newer, sleeker DG Collector's Edition set in a navy-and-white box with a black and white Karajan on the cover. They cost about the same.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Berlin Philharmonic (1972, EMI Classics)
Although props can be given to the Berlin Philharmonic Ring Cycle and the 1980 Parsifal, this EMI Tristan is probably the maestro's best Wagner on disc. With his big tenor voice and even bigger acting chops, Jon Vickers simply tears through the opera. Helga Dernesch is a little light-voiced for Isolde, but she was Karajan's choice. She sings radiantly in the Act II duet and achieves a special kind of transcendence in her Liebestod. Karl Ridderbusch is a sympathetic King Marke. The Philharmonic swoops and soars through Wagner's score. The third act is excruciating--Karajan draws out the music into long phrases that pulsate with genuine anguish. Less frenzied than Böhm's and better cast than Kleiber's, this is the best of the stereo Tristans.

Verdi: Otello, Vienna Philharmonic(1961, Decca)
This Otello is a masterwork of opera production that is guaranteed to knock you out. From the slam-bang opening chords to Mario del Monaco's gloriously over-the-top "Esultate!" this is a thrilling set that remains one of the best Otellos in the catalogue, and one of HvK's finest opera recordings. John Culshaw's production team creates all kinds of impressive aural effects, (as they did in an earlier Karajan Aida) including a deep organ bass note in the opening scene that requires a really good subwoofer to make the walls shake. Renata Tebaldi is a fantastic Desdemona. The only letdown is Aldo Protti as Iago--a mediocre baritone at best. In an era where opera recordings are repeatedly reissued and remastered, this Otello has never gotten the treatment--it stands on its own.

Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo: Pagliacci, La Scala Orchestra and Chorus (1966, Deutsche Grammophon)
The best opera recordings in the lengthy Karajan catalogue. Karajan's conducting brings out the breath of mystic wonder necessary for the religious processions in Cavalleria. You can practically smell the incense. In Pagliacci he digs out the psychological nuances and grotesque comic moments with a kind of Mahlerian gusto. Each opera stars mega-tenor Carlo Bergonzi, and that's worth price of purchase alone. But Karajan and the La Scala forces are the stars here. Unlike his classic Tosca and Aida, the conductor never felt the need to remake these for another record company. Note: Currently, these operas are available separately as DG Originals. Look for the three-disc box set version that includes both operas and a bonus disc of lovely opera intermezzi recorded with the Berlin forces in 1968--a Karajan rarity!

OK. Those are all good ones. Here's three to avoid:

Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6, Berlin Philharmonic (1980, Deutsche Grammophon)
The strangest orchestral recording of Bach music ever made. Played with a too-large orchestra, in sparkling hyper-precise digital sound. Under Karajan, the taut polyphony and crisp rhythms of the Brandenburgs turn to aural mush. Worse yet, the crucial harpsichord parts get drowned out by the big Berlin band.

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (1981, Deutsche Grammophon)
Another early '80s mistake. There is no reason other than corporate greed that a recording of Mozart's Magic Flute needs to be on three discs. Especially this one, beset with a bizarre cast (Karin Ott as the Queen of the Night? Jose van Dam as Sarastro?) and the crisp, tinkly ambiance of early digital stereo. If you must have a Karajan Flute stick with the 1950 mono recording on EMI.

Bizet: Carmen (1983, Deutsche Grammophon)
Another surefire "hit"--let down by strange casting decisions (Agnes Baltsa in the title role, a rapidly declining Jose Carreras as Don Jose) and haywire studio engineering. The biggest problem: bringing in different actors to read the spoken French dialogue, a common practice at DG. The result is one messy bullfight.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.