In Praise of Herbert von Karajan, with a Selective Critical Discography

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Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan

My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.

I bought those 1962-63 Beethoven symphonies, too, which by the way are in such bad sound that three remasterings later, including the most recent in SACD, they remain boomy and muddy. I’m not sure where you heard them praised. But Karajan’s quasi-hypnotizing style didn’t appeal to me back then. I dropped out until the mid-80s. Since then — don’t be shocked — I’ve bought his entire EMI output from 1947 until the early Eighties, all his Decca recordings (which are relatively few), a huge chunk of his DG catalogue, and many highlights from the historical archives. As a result, I incline toward his English biographer, Richard Osborne, in believing that Karajan was among the greatest conductors of the century. And not just in the Fifties, that canard notwithstanding.

Since a reverential regard for Karajan was common in his heyday but sneered at now — not by you but by taste-benumbed pygmies like Norman Lebrecht — I won’t fight upstream. Time levels out these matters. Sheerly in the interest of offering your readers access to less well known great recordings, along with many that belong on every serious collector’s shelf, here’s a long list of my favorites. Its length may convince you that I suffer from Karajan monomania. Not at all. I rarely turn to Karajan’s Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Bartók, or Stravinsky (with a few exceptions like his wonderful Haydn Creation). I’m distressed by his later Beethoven cycles from the 70s and 80s, which as you point out sound slick and bored. I’m not often convinced by Karajan as accompanist for Mutter, Weissenberg, Anda, Ferras, Kremer, Kissin, and other soloists he favored (again, with some outstanding exceptions like the Beethoven Triple Concerto with three great Russians).

Carlos Kleiber used to get enraged when he heard anyone disparage “the Karajan sound,” insisting that such a profound musical mind had to be judged one performance at a time. I beg of you and other detractors to stop branding Karajan as at best a careerist and at worst a semi-charlatan. Subordinate your prejudices to the high opinion that you have of Kleiber, a vast admirer of the older master. (One could also fill a volume of encomiums from all the great singers who considered Karajan the pre-eminent opera conductor of his generation.)

Now to the list. It’s not an olla podrida. I’ve limited it to Karajan’s very best — in my opinion, of course.

Bach: B minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion (historical, EMI)

Beethoven: Sym. #9 (with the Vienna Phil, historical, EMI)

Nine symphonies (first stereo cycle, 1962-63, DG — the best remastering is the latest hybrid SACD)

Egmont incidental music (DG)

Piano Concertos #4 and 5 (with Walter Gieseking, historical, EMI)

Triple Concerto (with Richter, Oistrakh, and Rostropovich, EMI)

Missa Solemnis (a Karajan speciality, available in multiple versions on DG and EMI, plus some live accounts, the best being from the 1958 Salzburg Festival on EMI)

Fidelio (with Vickers and Dernesch, EMI)

Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra (DG)

Brahms: Four symphonies (multiple cycles, with great performances in all of them, beginning in the immediate post-war era with Sym. #2, a speciality that he recorded at least six times, for EMI, Decca, and DG. I greatly admire Karajan’s way with Sym. #3, also)

German Requiem (another speciality, beginning with perhaps the greatest, a post-war historical issue from Vienna, on EMI)

Bruckner: Nine symphonies (many duplications for DG and EMI, beginning with a historical Sym #8 — the work he repeated most often, ending with a sublime valedictory performance from Vienna just before he died, on DG. Unmissable, too, are the Fourth and Seventh on EMI, and especially an incomparable Ninth from the Sixties, on DG)

Te Deum (DG)

Debussy: La Mer (analogue, not digital, DG)

Pélléas et Mélisande (EMI)

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (live, with Maria Callas, EMI)

Dvorak: Cello Concerto (with Rostropovich, DG)

Grieg: Piano concerto (with Walter Gieseking, historical, EMI)

Haydn: Die Schöpfung (two contemporary readings, studio and live from Salzburg, DG)

Holst: The Planets (two stunning versions in demonstration sound, DG and Decca)

Humperdinck: Hansel und Gretel (with Schwarzkopf and Grummer, historical, EMI — a smiling, utterly charming account but in rather poor sound)

Mahler: Sym. #9 (two readings, studio and live, done within a year of each other, DG)

Mendelssohn: Five symphonies (great across the board, DG)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in C, K. 467 (with Dinu Lipatti, historical, EMI)

Marriage of Figaro (two unsatisfactory studio accounts, one historical without dialogue for EMI, the other a humorless drudge in stereo for Decca, give little hint of the vivacious, quick-witted, and amazingly accurate live account pirated from the Vienna State Opera, with Freni and Van Dam at their best — it’s cheap and reasonably good-sounding on Opera d’Oro)

Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (with Nicolai Ghiaurov, in the Rimsky-Korsakov edition, Decca)

Prokofiev: Sym. #5 (a great one-off performance, DG)

Ravel: Orchestral works (exquisitely done for EMI)

Puccini: Madame Butterfly and La Boheme (glorious accounts with Pavarotti and Freni, Decca)

Madame Butterfly (historical, with Maria Callas, EMI)

Tosca (with Leontyne Price, Decca, later with Ricciarelli and Domingo, DG)

Turandot (a magnificent account on DG, despite Ricciarelli’s painful title role)

Schoenberg: Orchestral works (brilliant, large-scale accounts of Verklärte Nacht, the Five Pieces, the Variations for Orchestra, the chamber symphonies, etc., DG)

Shostakovich: Sym. #10 (the only work Karajan recorded, in two magnificent versions, analogue and digital, DG)

Schumann: Four symphonies (great across the board, DG)

Piano concerto (with Walter Gieseking, historical, EMI, along with an equally great issue with Dinu Lipatti, EMI)

Sibelius: Seven symphonies (masterful throughout Karajan’s career, beginning with a historical Fourth praised by the composer as the greatest he had ever heard. Nearly complete cycles exist on DG and EMI — for unstated reasons, Karajan never recorded the Third)

Tone poems (DG and EMI)

Strauss, Johann: Waltzes, polkas, etc. (Karajan was a natural, vivacious, high-spirited conductor of the Strauss family, with incomparable collections spanning every phase of his career, beginning in post-war Vienna, EMI, Decca, and DG)

New Year’s Day concert, 1987 (live, with Kathleen Battle in Vienna, DG — Karajan’s valedictory to the Strauss family and a touching memento)

Strauss, Richard: Tone poems (a vast and sumptuous recorded output, beginning with the first Metamorphosen on LP, continuing almost to the end of Karajan’s career. The Also Sprach Zarathustra used in “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains an exceptional reading, now remastered on Decca. But all the Strauss done for Decca, recorded in the Sofiensaal with the Vienna Phil., ranks high in Karajan’s discography. Add to that the Don Quixote with Rostropovich on EMI and a stunning Alpine Symphony on DG from the early digital era, best heard in the remastered “Karajan Gold” series)

Ariadne auf Naxos (with Schwarzkopf, historical, EMI — one of Karajan’s two or three greatest opera sets)

Der Rosenkavalier (with Schwarzkopf, EMI — a groundbreaking set from the early stereo era)

Salome (with the young Behrens, EMI)

Die Frau ohne Schatten (somewhat abridged, live from the Vienna State Opera, DG)

Four Last Songs (with Janowitz, DG)

Oboe Concerto (DG)

Stravinsky: Apollo (DG)

Tchaikovsky: Ballet excerpts (two sumptuous collections, on Decca and DG)

Rococo Variations (with Rostropovich, DG)

Sym. #6 “Pathetique” (another Karajan speciality, recorded at least six times, beginning in the historical era. I especially like an early stereo version with the Philharmonia Orch., EMI)

1812 Overture (DG)

Verdi: Otello (with Vickers and Freni, EMI)

Falstaff (with Gobbi and Schwarzkopf, historical, EMI — equalled only by Toscanini’s classic account)

Il Trovatore (with Callas and Di Stefano, historical, EMI — one of Callas’s greatest Verdi roles. Plus a live Vienna State Opera performance with Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli, best heard on DG)

The following operas are not always with the best casts but rate high for Karajan’s contribution:

Don Carlo (with Carreras and Freni, EMI)

Aida (with Carreras and Freni, EMI, or with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, Decca)

Otello (with Del Monaco and Tebaldi, Decca))

Messa da Requiem (a Karajan speciality, recorded multiple times for EMI, DG, and various live accounts. The best live one is from Salzburg with Leonie Rysanek, best heard on EMI. Unfortunately, a glorious one with Leontyne Price and the young Pavarotti is in poor sound on a VHS tape, now transferred to an equally poor DVD)

Overtures and preludes (DG)

Wagner: Overtures and preludes (many versions throughout Karajan’s career, the most spectacular being on EMI with the Berliners. Also a live concert with Jessye Norman on DG, Karajan’s valedictory to Wagner on disc)

Die Walküre, Act III (with Astrid Varnay, historical from Bayreuth, EMI)

Die Meistersinger (with Schwarzkopf, historical from Bayreuth, in rather poor sound, EMI)

Tristan und Isolde (with Martha Mödl and Ramon Vinay, historical from Bayreuth, best heard on Orfeo, which obtained the master tapes from Bavarian Radio. A magnificent and underrated stereo account with Vickers and Dernesch is on EMI)

Parsifal (two accounts, studio and live. The live one is from the Vienna State Opera on RCA/BMG with a great cast despite a less than thrilling Fritz Uhl in the title role and rather dull sound. The studio one also features a strained Peter Hoffmann as Parsifal but is in every other respect one of Karajan’s greatest opera recordings, DG)

Ring cycle (done almost parallel with Solti’s famed cycle for Decca, Karajan’s for DG was uneven in the extreme. But the Walkure is to my mind the greatest on disc in the modern era, and the Rheingold nearly equals it, despite an over-parted Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan)

Webern: Orchestral works (DG)

Et al. — Two almost unknown facets of Karajan’s talent were ballet (a complete Giselle on Decca) and light pops (mostly with the Philharmonia for EMI — try a sparkling Chabrier’s Espana). Because of EMI’s English roots, he also did some odd one-offs of British composers: Walton Sym. #1– live from Italy! — Vaughan Williams Tallis Variations, and a smattering of Britten from London).

His Stravinsky was inexplicably sparse — no Petrushka, for example, and two ill-conceived Le Sacres, plus a live Oedipus Rex from Italy in dim pirated sound. He never explored Berlioz much beyond Symphonie Fantastique, which he recorded three times, none very successful to my ears, although some critics favor the first account with the Philharmonia, on EMI.

As for opera, one of Karajan’s strongest suits, there are tantalizing but dim-sounding pirated versions of La Traviata and Elektra, two works he never took into the studio. He was admired in operetta, but the stereo Merry Widow done for DG seems flat and humorless, and Die Fledermaus for Decca, acclaimed in its day, feels too weighty now. Three recordings of Carmen all fell short for various reasons, the best being a live 1954 account done in concert, yet it, too, lacks for stage drama and features Simionato as an Italian heroine clearly uneasy with French style. But it’s hard to resist one guilty pleasure — Leontyne Price as a sultry, smoky Carmen paired with a sobbing Franco Corelli whose French is so bad that it seems like an unknown language.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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