Mozart, Ravel & Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Works / Karajan

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Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra sometimes had a tense working relationship, especially during the period of their US tour in the autumn of 1955 and the beginning of their European one in January 1956. Yet, as these live broadcasts repeatedly demonstrate, that tension resulted in music-making of astonishing power, scorching intensity and unrivalled beauty. The tensions became a trend in Karajan’s later career, too. It happened with the Vienna Philharmonic at Salzburg in the mid-1960s, and it happened again towards the very end of his tenure with the Berlin Philharmonic, but rarely were the results as magical as those he achieved in the 1950s with the Philharmonia.

Karajan and Tchaikovsky have never struck me as particularly suited to one another (all of his studio recordings have, in one way or another, left me wondering if he really understood the music). And this really goes to the root of the Karajan problem for many listeners: There are two Karajans, one bound to the precisions of the recording studio, the other completely – and unidiomatically – improvising on the concert platform. I find many live Karajan performances to have such a deep sense of inner conflict it is almost impossible to take any one performance out of the context of what preceded it, and this is certainly true of the 1955 Tchaikovsky Fourth we have here. We do not have the Sibelius Fourth which came before it, but the turbulence, urgency, passion and drama of the Tchaikovsky are uncommonly vivid; it is a performance that is as much about the composer as it is about the conductor.

Karajan struggled with Sibelius’s Fourth throughout his career (indeed, he rarely programmed the symphony), and the only live recording I have ever heard of him doing the work (in January 1978, released on Fachmann or, more readily available, on Palexa) is the most devastating and bleak performance imaginable (not unlike his remarkable Philharmonia studio recording of the work). Karajan drives the Philharmonia in the Tchaikovsky into quite dark territory – climaxes are more like moments of crisis, the instrumental narrative seems closer to a psychological confession, and though there is much beauty to the phrasing and playing, it is so taut and angular as if the music has been stitched together with razor wire. There are eruptions in this performance that are dazzling, and the virtuosity is just on the side of effortless. It is fluid, yet volcanic, without sounding mannered as Karajan sometimes could be under studio conditions. And the improvisation he manages is replicated by players who are given the space to phrase their notes with genuine character, though the interpretation is not for one moment stretched out or slow. One can certainly listen to this Tchaikovsky Fourth on its own terms, though given how radically different it is to any of his studio recordings, how much darker and more tragic it sounds, the bleakness of the unknown Sibelius hangs over Karajan’s performance of it like none other by this conductor, in my view. It is absolutely compelling, and shattering.

The Philharmonia were always exceptional in French music – and the Ravel which completes the first CD is ravishing. It is not just the precision of the playing which is so marvellous, it is the breath-taking quality of their dynamic range. The mezzo forte of the opening Prélude is beyond criticism, as are the gloriously muted strings of the Philharmonia. For a conductor who could sometimes seem passive and ambivalent about rhythm, the flamenco and Habanera are rather sensual, and the Feria is a joy.

The second CD of this set is given over to a Mozart concert from 6th February 1956, the last concert the Philharmonia gave with Karajan as part of their European Mozart bi-centenary tour. The ‘Haffner’ had opened the huge programme of three symphonies, which included the Tchaikovsky Fourth, back in July 1955, and here we have the work again, coupled with the great Clara Haskil in the K488 and Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’, a symphony which Karajan seemed to have abandoned in the studio during his late August 1953 recording sessions with the orchestra at Kingsway Hall (a Beethoven Fifth suffered a similar fate the same month). Karajan’s Mozart certainly could not be called HIP, though these Philharmonia performances are much less imposing than live recordings from either Berlin or Salzburg. This is not just because the sound of the Philharmonia is so much leaner, and more tensile; Karajan himself is much more flexible than he later became in Mozart. The K488 with Haskil, a pianist of extraordinary sensitivity, which in part was necessitated by her physical frailty, is intensely poetic – very different from the masculine, urbane recording that Karajan and the Philharmonia made with Gieseking in 1951. The two Mozart symphonies are both beautifully played, fleet enough with tempos to just escape sounding heavy.

These are important additions to Karajan’s Philharmonia discography, in more than tolerable sound. One sometimes has to remember that the Philharmonia Orchestra was principally founded to make recordings and concerts came a distant second. Karajan, it seems, only conducted the orchestra about a hundred times in concert (from 1948 to 1960) – less than twenty of those concerts being in London, and six at the Edinburgh Festival. The rest were conducted in Europe and the United States. Whilst a Don Juan, from Turin, and a Tallis Fantasia, from Naples, both from the October 1954 European tour exist, little else does. The Tchaikovsky we have here is stunning, the Haskil Mozart a minor miracle… but I do rather think one would have killed to get hold of a live Philharmonia/Karajan Sibelius Fourth too!

– MusicWeb International (Marc Bridle)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 20, 2017

  • UPC: 5060244551428

  • Catalog Number: ICAC5142

  • Label: Ica Classics

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Maurice Ravel, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

  • Conductor: Herbert von Karajan

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Philharmonia Orchestra

  • Performer: Clara Haskil