Pristine Classical mines the archive
My first Beethoven Ninth Symphony – indeed the recording I came to know the work from – was Herbert von Karajan’s 1962 version for DG. To launch one of its beautifully presented reissue series (Accolade perhaps?), DG reissued this Ninth for £1.99 (or could it have been 99p?) sometime in the late 1970s – as an impecunious teenager I snapped the LP up and played it to bits. There were numerous things I loved (and still love) about it – the almost bell-like tone Karajan gets from the cellos in the Scherzo’s trio, the timeless quality of the Adagio and above all the extraordinary halo that Gundula Janowitz’s voice casts around her fellow soloists, almost luminous in its glow. (I enjoy Karajan's 1978 remake, am not so crazy about the digital Ninth and am slowing getting to grips with – and enjoying – the Philharmonia cycle: a series of performances that would be quite difficult to place if you only know the Berlin Karajan.)
So I was thrilled to see that Pristine Classical is issuing three programmes recorded in November 1958 when Karajan worked with the New York Phil and conducted eight concerts including the Ninth (the issues comprise this symphony; a concert of Webern’s Five Pieces, Mozart’s Jupiter and Beethoven’s First; and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben – the concerts have been reconfigured by Pristine: the two Beethovens actually shared the same concert).
To hear Karajan working with an American orchestra is a treat (he only ever conducted four in his entire life), and the New York Phil plays beautifully – only occasionally would a phrase have been more ‘rounded’ in Berlin. But the performance is very similar to the ’62 in conception, and the solo quartet (Leontyne Price, Maureen Forrester, Léopold Simoneau and Norman Scott) very classy; the choir is terrific (possibly better than Vienna’s Singverein to whom Karajan stayed extraordinarily loyal throughout his career). There's a terrific dynamism and vitality about the interpretation too.
The sound is fine, though for a 1958 recording could sound a load better – the recordings were made from an AM radio broadcast. But I found that I soon attuned to the slightly cramped sound (Pristine label it "SI" for Special Interest: maybe they’re being slightly cautious): only the opening of the finale is a bit of a mess aurally.
I found the performance fascinating: Karajan performed the Choral Symphony ten times during 1958 (four with the NYPO, three each with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics): no wonder that when he came to record it (and there’s also a live recording from the opening of the Philharmonie) there’s a confidence and total security in his vision. If you’re a Karajan admirer this is well worth a listen: you can sample the first movement and decide whether the sound is good enough for you on Pristine's site. (More on the Heldenleben – one of the first works I heard Karajan conduct live – anon.)