Karajan, Carmina Mystica, Beecham

[Guest contributor Louis Klonsky begins his second appearance championing, of all people, Herbert von Karajan! And I thought Scardanelli was odd! Ed.]

Louis Klonsky

[August 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:3.]

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (cond.). DG 289 453 097-2 (2CDs: 155:44).

Although it is almost ten years since the death of Herbert von Karajan, aside from the obvious lack of podium appearances to review, it is business as usual in the American and English press. Given a controversial interpretative style and an amoral personal history which was un-Hollywoodishly rewarded with an almost four-decade dominance of the European Classical Music scene, it is understandable that a significant number of critics go off the Mercalli scale when discussing the “Karajan Subject.” This is by no means unanimous, e.g., the Penguin Guide is a sort of mezzo forte antipode. Nevertheless, he is one of those major artists whose name elicits thunderbolts of vituperation from all directions. The zenith may have been reached in the chapter “The Karajan Case” in Norman Lebrecht’s book, The Maestro Myth, where Karajan was seen as the incarnation of Hitler, and his music making not several steps, but staircases below a Muzak tape.

As discussed, aside from ethical matters, there are concerns with Karajan’s style of interpretation. Norton Grove briefly describes it as “smoothness of line and luxuriance of sound.” Less generous folks have used descriptors such as hollow, anesthetizing, synthetic, and bland. As I recall, Karajan was aware of the various critiques, and when questioned about his smoothing of the musical line, responded something like, “I do as I do. He who likes it, likes it.” While one hoped for a grander exposition of the conducting art by one of its major practitioners, I suppose it was a more polite response than “Screw off.”

Which brings us to a glaring paradox in the “Karajan Subject.” While I am not privy to record sales statistics, judging by the number of Karajan CD’s and videos still available, as well as the constant flow of reissues, there appears to be a major disconnect between the wailing critics and the purchasing public. Although quantity rarely equates to quality, for whatever reasons, a large number of collectors apparently “likes it.” And after all, he didn’t achieve his status solely on the basis of his coifed hair — however nicely coifed it was.

Now the confessional. My purchasing preferences have contributed in a small way to the appearance of some of those reissues. Yes, for better and worse, a member of the Karajanophile Club. Not a card-carrying member perhaps, but, registered. True, I can’t imagine the Hamburg Ballet choreographing a celebration of Karajan, like their recent “Bernstein Dances.” (What would they call it? “Karajan Marches” or “Karajan Salutes”?) There are also some Big K recordings, e.g., the Brandenburg Concertos, which, to be kind, are dismal. But for composers like Bruckner, the overall conception, the building to and release of climaxes, and the glorious orchestral sounds, represent some of the highlights of my music listening.

With apologies for the long preamble, on to the music. DGG has just issued on their two-CD series a remastered version of The K’s 1977-78 recordings of Brahms’ symphonies. The recordings have undergone DGG’s “Original-Image Bit-Processing — Added presence and brilliance, greater spatial definition.” I believe this is the second of Karajan’s Deutsche Grammophon traversals, and to my mind the best, of the Brahms’ symphonies.

Generally speaking and as expected, the set is beautifully played, and the recorded sound is excellent. I have sometimes found DGG’s “Original-Image” sets to have a greater dynamic and frequency range than the original releases (on vinyl), at the expense of spatial definition. Not so in this case. All sonic aspects appear to have been handled well. As they are mostly concerned with the interpretations, the notes by Ivan March (of Penguin Guide fame) are not overly informative with regard to Brahms.

The First Symphony receives an excellent performance. Maybe not as angst-ridden a first movement as the composition calls for, but plenty of drama and tension nevertheless. From the opening chords, with the pounding timpani and blazing horns through the grandeur of the last movement, a fairly tight, but not hurried, reading. This is particularly evident when compared to Giulini’s recording with the Los Angles Philharmonic, where the work is almost revered to death.

Of the four performances, the Second comes off most successfully. The lyrical, darkly textured symphony best fits Karajan’s interpretive style. Tempos are fairly quick, especially in the finale (e.g., 15% faster than Bernstein). With Karajan, however, tempos usually don’t schlep; it is momentum that can falter. Not a problem in this run-through, where the music is well paced and executed.

The Third is not as satisfying. Inner movements, with their autumnal feel, come off best. It is the outer movements that lack the forward momentum that makes the final return of the opening theme sound so inevitable. For this symphony, I prefer Szell or Walter.

The Fourth Symphony was also something of a disappointment. The opening movement has one of those “over hill, over dale” approaches that have been documented in Karajan reviews. The sober Allegro is note perfect in execution, but the musicians merely sound as if they were going through the motions. The Andante, as expected, allows the Berlin strings to shine, the third movement fairly explodes with energy and there is some exquisite ensemble playing in the quiet sections of the passacaglia. But overall, the uninvolved opening movement mars the conception. For alternative choices, I recommend Carlos Kleiber as a starting point.

So, there we have it. Perhaps not a collection to send on Voyager, but if gorgeous orchestral sound, near-perfect execution, and low cost are crucial criteria, then this set is a top choice. Otherwise, best for Karajanophiles or those indecisively loitering outside the Club’s door.

CARMINA MYSTICA Choeur de chambre de Sofia1; Coro Exaudi de Cuba2; Ensemble William Byrd3; Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc4; Choeur d’enfants de Sofia5; Choeur de garcons de Vilnius6; Choeur de chambre de Riga7; Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Francois de Versailles8; Esolania de Montserrat9; Escolania de la Abbadia de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos10 ; JADE JACD57942-2 (73:26)

Choral works by: SCHUBERT1, SALAS Y CASTRO2, PALESTRINA3, VERDI1, CASALS4, PERGOLESI5, DURUFLE6, KILAR7, POULENC1, BIZET4, LULLY8, MENDELSSOHN9, SOLER10, EBEN4, CHARPENTIER8

As the accompanying notes to this CD proclaim: “From Palestrina to the contemporary Polish composer Wojcieck Kilar, this record offers an overall view of five centuries of Christian mystical inspiration in music.” To achieve this “overall view,” the fifteen short selections range from a cappella to full orchestral accompaniment, small to large choirs, boys choirs to….well, you get the picture. Some of the works are stand-alone, while others are sections of larger compositions (e.g., Laudi alla Vergine Maria from Verdi’s Quatro Pezzi Sacri). Finally, many, if not all of the tracks, have been previously released by Jade.

First, the nice stuff. The performances, in general, are serviceable to good. The Choeur de chambre de Sofia, in particular, is a refined group with a polished, blended sound. The CD also provides an opportunity to sample the work of some lesser known composers. For example, there is the three section Villancico, Oigan una nueva by Cuba’s first “serious” composer, Esteban Salas y Castro. While not profound, it makes a pleasant listen- at least for a few times. A brief Agnus Dei by the contemporary Polish film composer, Wojcieck Kilar (e.g., Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Portrait of a Lady), presents a different facet of his output. It is a dirge-like work for mixed chorus. The males sing a four note ostinato utilizing the four syllables of Agnus Dei. It is reminiscent of the beginning of the Lento e largo movement of Górecki’s Third Symphony. The ladies soon join by chanting melismatically on the syllable “Ah.” Depending on the listener’s background, similar small discoveries are sure to be found in the collection.

Now, the mean stuff. Obviously, it is impossible to give a coherent “overall view” to five hundred years of any type of music on one album. This collection’s almost random choice of music does not even try. However, for me, the real failure of this product is that it has the worst liner notes that I have ever encountered with a full-priced CD. The notes are two paragraphs long. The only reference to the composers is in the first sentence, quoted above. No description is made of any of the performing groups, nor are any lyrics included. No conductors, soloists or orchestras are listed for the individual track information. Even the coma causing “Chant” album has far better documentation than this spin-off.

The only remaining concern is what to do with this CD if someone gives it to you as a present. While it is not ecumenical enough to be played at Frank Costanza’s “Festivus” celebration, it could function as quiet background music for some somber Christmas parties. Better yet, quietly exchange it.

THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA LEGACY: VOLUME 1
Sir Thomas Beecham, cond Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Dutton CDLX 7027, mono (74:03)

BERLIOZ Overture, Le Corsaire. SIBELIUS Tapiola. MUSSORGSKY: Khovanschina: Dances of the Persian Slaves. DEBUSSY Printemps. BACH Christmas Oratorio: Sinfonia. SMETANA The Bartered Bride: Overture, Polka, Dance of the Comedians. CHABRIER Marche Joyeuse

A home containing two teenage daughters is always active, and in general, my wife and I are pleased with the products of our DNA pairings from over a decade ago. However, as my musical tastes differ greatly from theirs, occasionally our relations are a bit strained. Such was the case last weekend when I endured a sonic blasting of several hours, from a menagerie of rock groups like Screeching Weasel and Sprung Monkey (not ancestrally related to The Monkees). After that concert I needed something to aurally clean out the cages, and I turned to the above new release as the appropriate tool.

The CD under consideration is another remastering of 78 rpm pressings performed by Dutton Laboratories. As its title states, it is Volume 1 of what hopefully will be many more to come. The disc serves as both a historical record of Sir Thomas Beecham’s inaugural work with the Royal Philharmonic as well as providing the only CD issue of several compositions performed by these folks. The originals were recorded in late 1946 through late 1947. Liner notes by Lyndon Jenkins are informative about the orchestra and recording. The remastering effort by Dutton is excellent — seamless, and almost no hiss or pops. General recorded sound reveals its fifty-year age, but the ear adjusts quickly.

The opening track, Berlioz’ Le Corsaire Overture is the first commercially released recording by the Beecham/RPO team and it’s a dandy. Fleet and light are appropriate adjectives to describe it. There is a tendency for the recording balance to favor the woodwinds, but that is not a detriment here. The genial mood generated by the overture is abruptly halted by the second selection. This is Sibelius’ last major work, and probably the most significant work on the album, i.e., Tapiola. Although the same forces recorded this about nine years later in superior, stereo sound, and perhaps with better string playing, I feel this performance is superior, and almost mesmerizing in intensity. The Mussorgsky Dances are next, highlighted by the supple, sultry, cor anglais opening solo by Leonard Brain. He was the brother of the French Horn master, Dennis Brain, who was also a member of the RPO.

Continuing with other highlights, the “Très modéré” section of Debussy’s early composition, Printemps, is as delicate and magical a version that I have heard. This is Beecham’s only recording of the Suite and therefore, an all the more valuable rendition. The disc ends with Chabrier’s Marche Joyeuse, which is just that. One additional observation is that timings on this release are shorter than every other version of the works I have, but none of them here seem hurried.

Since only critics are “practically perfect in every way” (thank you, Mary Poppins), I do have a few kvetchings about the release. The musical selections do nothing to discount the argument that Beecham conducted only “light-weight” compositions. Although it is impressive how these works do sound in his hands, it would be nice to hear what he could do with more profound music. Perhaps subsequent volumes will address this. A minor disappointment is the sound of the “Overture” to The Bartered Bride. It is considerably lower quality than the rest of the release. There must have been a problem here, as the album footnotes indicate “best available source used” for this track. The final negative for me was the Bach Sinfonia. While I am not a purist on performance practice, this version is so out of whack with what I expect Bach to sound like that I could not enjoy it. Jenkins’ notes state that “treated purely as music and played in perfect style without historic associations, it becomes…a little gem.” Maybe ,for some, but I could not overcome the “historic associations.”

Sir Thomas Beecham’s recording career extended for almost fifty years, and he is fairly well represented in the catalogs. Nevertheless, this is a welcome addition to his discography. Good, mono sound, enjoyable compositions performed about as well as anyone has done them, and some unique additions to his recorded legacy, make this a worthy addition to almost anyone’s collection. I know that after listening to it, I felt good enough that I could sit down with the daughters and hear the new songfest from Squirrel Nut Zippers. Enough said.