(A) Portrait of Herbert von Karajan

This Royal Classics conductors' cornucopia offers a series of fascinating bargains to the historically minded collector

Author: 
Ivan March

(A) Portrait of Herbert von Karajan

  • (Ein) Deutsches Requiem, 'German Requiem'
  • Serenade No. 13, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"
  • (Les) Contes d'Hoffmann, '(The) Tales of Hoffmann', Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour (Barcarolle)
  • España
  • Má vlast, Vltava, B111 (1874)
  • (The) Hebrides, 'Fingal's Cave'
  • Finlandia
  • 1812
  • (12) Concerti for Violin and Strings, '(Il) cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione', No. 1 in E, 'Spring', RV269
  • (12) Concerti for Violin and Strings, '(Il) cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione', No. 2 in G minor, 'Summer', RV315
  • (12) Concerti for Violin and Strings, '(Il) cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione', No. 3 in F, 'Autumn', RV293
  • (12) Concerti for Violin and Strings, '(Il) cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione', No. 4 in F minor, 'Winter', RV297
  • Concerto for 2 Violins and Strings
  • (4) Orchestral Suites, No. 3 in D, BWV1068 (2 oboes, 3 trumpets, strings
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • String Sextet No. 1, Andante ma moderato
  • Piano Trio No. 2, Andante con moto
  • Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 5, 'Spring', Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
  • Sylvia, Andante
  • Coppélia, Ballet de l'épi

With its excellent transfers of vintage EMI recordings, almost every one of these doubles is worth its asking price of less than £7. Barbirolli's portrait surely is, with its endearingly mellow VPO Brahms St Anthony Variations, and an almost mediterranean evocation of La mer (with the Orchestre de Paris) balanced by Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (with Dame Janet Baker singing gloriously). However, the highly charged reading of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and an amiable Dvorak Wind Serenade, Op 44 (both with the Halle), are not quite on this performance level, and the listed Brahms Double Concerto (with Campoli and Navarra) actually stops short after the first movement!
Barenboim's Faure Requiem (plus the Pavane) is both dramatically spontaneous and warmly atmospheric, and finds the soloists, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sheila Armstrong, at their freshest. Barenboim then turns to the piano for a strong and thoughtful Moonlight Sonata. A rather resonant Bizet First L'arlesienne Suite is offset by a gracefully urbane Dvorak String Serenade with the ECO, and it is they who provide the closing Jupiter Symphony of Mozart, very well played and made the more compelling by Barenboim's repeating both sections of the finale.
Apart from his mellow accompaniments for the more chimerical Previn in the Mozart C minor Concerto, K494, Boult gives us a satisfying Brahms Tragic Overture, expansive Wagner (Die Meistersinger and Fliegende Hollander overtures and Siegfried's Funeral March), plus a more vigorous Ride of the Valkyries. Predictably, the English string music is finest of all, a disarmingly pensive Serenade of Elgar and a Tallis Fantasia which combines real passion with a hauntingly ethereal cathedral-like aura for the solo string group.
Karajan's richly moulded Brahms German Requiem with Tomowa-Sintow, Jose van Dam and the Vienna Singverein, given superbly expansive sound, is the obvious highlight of a mainly Berlin Philharmonic programme which contains a rather charmless Eine kleine Nachtmusik, evocative, beautifully played accounts of Smetana's 'Vltava' and Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, plus a powerful Sibelius Finlandia alongside an infectious (Philharmonia) Chabrier Espana and elegant Offenbach 'Barcarolle'. The closing Tchaikovsky 1812 has a very Germanic climax with precise canon fire.
Klemperer's Bach is less resilient than Boult's, and his full-bodied Mozart Linz Symphony, beautifully played as it is, will not suit all tastes. The Beethoven Choral Fantasia (with Barenboim) and the unhurried Brahms Academic Festival Overture are much more successful. But Wagner's Parsifal Prelude, the glowingly lyrical Mendelssohn Italian Symphony and an uncompromising yet arch-romantic Schubert Unfinished are among his greatest performances on record, as is the closing 'Shepherd's thanksgiving' from Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.
If you admire Rudolf Kempe you may enjoy his sturdy and very well-played RPO Schubert Ninth, although the opening horn solo is curiously accented. The VPO Eine kleine Nachtmusik has a much lighter touch and considerably more charm than Karajan's; the Linz Symphony is livelier and fresher in texture than Klemperer's, and very well played, but in the last resort is not really distinctive. Nor is the unidiosyncratic Tchaikovsky Fourth which opens rather stoically and does not ever quite catch fire, although it has its moments.
Maazel proves an admirable accompanist for Gilels's prodigiously brilliant account of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Otherwise his finest performance here is the Mussorgsky, where the Philharmonia playing invites superlatives, the pictorialism is sharply etched and the finale spacious and thrilling. The Ravel Alborada, Bolero and the beautiful Pavane are also very successful and the portrait of Till Eulenspiegel is both affectionate and racily uninhibited. The one comparative failure is the set of Dvorak's eight Op 46 Slavonic Dances with the BPO, where there is undoubted excitement, but a complete absence of charm.
Marriner is one of the most successful recording conductors of all time and you can't go wrong with his Academy anthology. Whether in the elegantly stylish suite from Handel's Water music, Respighi's delightful neo-classical portraits of birds, Tchaikovsky's 'Andante cantabile', the ever-fresh Peer Gynt of Grieg, Wagner's beautiful Siegfried Idyll, the sparklingly light-hearted 'Dance of the Hours' of Ponchielli, or any of the other 10 items included here, Marriner's polished and spontaneous music-making is matched by EMI's finest engineering.
I would not place Menuhin's set of Vivaldi's Four Seasons high on my list, partly because his solo violin sounds shrill, while the accompaniment from the Camerata Lysy Gstaad is not very subtle. But Bach's Double Concerto (with Christian Ferras) is certainly worthwhile, as is the Third Orchestral Suite. However, piecemeal movements, mostly from chamber music, are also included, and the splendid Brahms Violin Concerto (with Kempe) is offered more attractively coupled elsewhere.
Andre Previn had a very fruitful EMI recording period with the LSO in the 1970s when virtually all these recordings were made. Barber's famous Adagio opens with great tenderness and reaches a thrillingly intense climax, Berlioz's Carnaval romain crackles with electricty, while Debussy's L'apres-midi is radiantly translucent and sensuous. L'apprenti sorcier, buoyantly paced, is unsurpassed in its humour and spectacle and Previn, directing charismatically from the piano, is completely at home in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The Tchaikovsky items (Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet) are hardly less enjoyable and the inclusion of Don Juan shows Previn achieving a similarly magnetic response from the VPO.
It is good to have Sargent's 1961 Eroica to show how alive and sympathetic his Beethoven conducting was, especially when the RPO plays so well for him. Tension is strongly held, and the slow movement, while not monumental, is genuinely moving. Sargent's traditional nobilmente reading of Elgar's Enigma has stood the test of time, and he includes the organ in the finale. The String Serenade is also affectionately done, and if Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia is less inspired than Boult's, the Philharmonia string playing is superb. Even more welcome is the 1957 recording of the Serenade to Music, so beautifully balanced, with Elsie Morison and Marjorie Thomas leading the soloists. The early stereo is of amazing quality throughout.
What a pity the Silvestri compilation did not include his famous recording of Elgar's In the South. As it is we are offered a collection of orchestral showpieces, some of which, including the exciting and indeed alluring Scheherazade, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio italien and 1812, were recorded in EMI's top-heavy Studio Two system. There is plenty of charisma and the remarkable virtuosity of the Bournemouth orchestra is always tangible. But the two most memorable items are primarily evocative, Saint-Saens's Danse macabre and a glowingly romantic account of Borodin's magical In the Steppes of Central Asia.'

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