Beethoven Symphony No 4; Strauss, R (Ein) Heldenleben
For this particular reviewer few orchestral concerts have remained so vividly in the memory as the one given by Karajan’s incomparable Berlin Philharmonic in London’s Royal Festival Hall on April 27, 1985. The surprises began with the conductor’s own physical frailty. Edging unsteadily towards the rostrum and propping himself up against the railing, he adopted the peculiar posture that enabled him to remain upright and in command notwithstanding a debilitating spinal condition. In truth the Beethoven was and is a gift to his many detractors. With the maestro unwilling or unable to lift his arms, the band turns in its patented imitation of a gramophone record. Surfaces are immaculate but it’s like being trapped in a pudding without air in the texture. Phrases, even whole sections glide by with no intake of breath and the first two movements in particular may induce feelings of claustrophobia in younger listeners. They should persevere. No superlatives can convey the inevitability, conviction and sweep of Karajan’s Heldenleben which makes even this notoriously shrill-sounding venue resound in glory. The original BBC sound team of producer Misha Donat and balance engineer John McCulloch capture a paradoxical sonority, rich yet transparent, “lambent in its beauty, never cloying or opaque” as described by Richard Osborne in his characteristically generous booklet-notes. The battle scene may be slow but was it ever more incisively chronicled?
Karajan’s final London appearance came in October 1988 with an extra frisson. The Berliners’ instruments were being transported by road from strike-bound France and the concert could not begin until 9pm. While there are those for whom Verklärte Nacht will always be a chamber piece, when performed by a big band this is surely the way to do it, without apology and with a certain theatricality. Sadly the depth and glamour of the string tone is not always faithfully conveyed. Karajan performed and recorded Brahms’s First Symphony on numerous occasions without perhaps nailing the piece in the way he intended. He does so here with clarity and passion though again the high-level transfer has moments of coarseness. Testament has paid the bill for these digital remasters and the Strauss at least is indispensable.