Monthly Archives: February 2011

Back to Basics: Beethoven’s 5th

A friend tonight reminded me that I don’t often allow myself the Beethoven 5, as it is among the high sacraments for those of us for whom music is our church.

So when I did decide to delve in, I began with Karajan’s 1963 Berlin version. It is the sine qua non, and in the original Alle hersteller pressing absolutely astounding in its sonics, a performance with momentum bordering on desperation that cuts to the heart of Beethoven’s passion but avoids any paltry romanticism. This is conducting of immediacy, not convenience. Those final hammer notes in the first movement are stunning, even as the solace of the Andante creaps calmly along; the horns of the third movement are shock-and-awe brilliant in the glory of DGG’s early stereo years and the resounding acoustics of the Jesus-Christus Kirche.

The rest of HvK’s 1960’s cycle never really stuck with me, despite the fact that I was raised on them. But this 5th is a towering monument. And the acoustics are simply stunning, the touch of the cellos in the third movement reverberating in vivid color, a reading of certainty but not domination, as Karajan’s critics often accuse. The chorus of the finale bespeaks no hesitation and unfolds as a realization of the humanistic vision that Beethoven wrote for us. Anyone who says Karajan lacked Furtwängler’s dynamism or intensity has not listened to this closely. With or without its scratches. The finale is emblazoned, there is no other word.

Contrast I: The 1977 revision. It is like a master’s copy of the Mona Lisa, clearer in its lines, more perfect. It is not only overwhelming, but it is so rich in its coloration that it positively glistens. This is a 5th that celebrates more than struggles. The cellos do not so much dig for truth in that first paraphrase, as they dig for richness. It is a glistening sermon, seamless. The Maestro has woven the web of this conflicted, impassioned work into a more consistent document. As on the cover of the original album, it is a 5th on a pedestal. The sonics astound, though cannot match the vividness of the 1965 version (at least being spoiled with a first pressing as I am!) As a music critic friend once commented to me, this is the Hollywood version, with its gleam and polish. Not to undersell it, though, this 5th flows effortlessly like a wave, washing over you with its power and intensity. Yet it lacks the dynamic power and conflict of the 1965. In its moments of recompense, however, the beauty of the Berlin sound cannot be compared.

Contrast II: Carlos Keliber, 1975, in a recording that divides opinion still to this day. The Vienna Philharmonic make a glorious noise, and the acoustics are bar none. As this endlessly fascinating man did, he made the work his own: The tripletizing of the opening figure, an approach I’ve heard from no one since, on record or otherwise. It is an urgent interpretation, and energetic, but ultimately too smooth and superficial, without gravitas. The Vienna strings do not match Berlin’s depth or passion. We can’t blame too much of this on the recording, since the 1975 era and recording team were identical to Karajan’s version described above. For all of his gusto Kleiber is here seemingly most concerned with recording the Kleiber Version. His emphasis on rhythm is far more suited to the 7th, a work he performed more often with the VPO and elsewhere. He bounds along through the finale, but while this is a happy and energized reading, there is none of the genuine sense of humanistic triumph we get in Karajan’s first or second BPO recordings. It is novel, but not definitive by any stretch. For we audiophiles, I would mention that I am working off of a first pressing, with the original rare foil jacket.

Contrast III: Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia, on EMI/Angel. This is a different animal altogether, an echo of another era. Klemperer hits us hard with those first notes, and is slower and infinitely more strenuous than Kleiber decades later. This is sturm und drang Beethoven, weighty and insistent. Unlike either HvK or Kleiber, Klemperer is the model of measured tempi, pressing forward with a relentless and disciplined style. The orchestra responds to every nuance, though, and the performace is the farthest thing from mechanical. The Philharmonia in this era was a glorious insturment, and Walter Legge’s brilliant engineering belies the limitation of monophonic sound. The decrescendos at the end of the first movement are stunningly dynamic, the IV. finale marches along brilliantly, and the richness of the string texture is actually far more vivid than the monochromatic DGG sound in the Kleiber or later HvK. This is a 5th for purists, strong and proud.

Contrast IV: Karajan with the Philharmonia, from the same vintage. Both of these EMI mono pressings I am listening to are heavy vinyl, UK “sitting angel” labels and boom with the stunning single-mic sound Abbey Road produced in this era. My copy of the Karajan is even more astounding in the sound it’s putting out as compared to the Klemperer, and I can say that sadly the CD transfers of both do no service to the originals. Having not listened to this particular record in a while, I am also struck by what I wrote recently of HvK’s Haydn Variations from the same year: It is a distinctly English interpretation. This is an energetic, rhythmic Beethoven (a-la Kleiber) but yet dramatically attuned and connected from beginning to end, thematically and narratively linked. There is a lightness to the tempi, and a dramatic punch that differentiates from Klemperer. I end my post here with the conclusion that Karajan knew more than any other conductor on record how to blend Beethoven’s impassioned romanticism with his rhythmic dynamism, and not sacrifice one to the other. And the Philarmonia sound….it does not match Berlin’s power or profundity; but it has such vibrancy, and to hear Dennis Brain’s horn soaring above the room is a gift we are lucky to inherit. This early Philharmonia recording is an important reading, melodic and dynamic, but it still stands primarily as the precursor to the Berlin 1963.


Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

I discvovered this work about ten years ago in a rather unlikely place: at 30,000 feet en route from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas. I usually eschew the hodgepodge Classical in-flight radio channel in favor of my own library, but I think my batteries must have gone out. I was captivated immediately by the piece’s neoclassical symmetry, its bright lines and transitions from eery, atonal dirge to buoyant, litlting dance. The particular version was from one Angela Duczmal and the Polish Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. It took some time to track down the CD — I think it was already out of print 10 years ago, and it remains so today. It’s a 1994 recording, brilliantly captured with a satisfying resonance that in particular allows the piano obbligato to echo over the orchestra.

All I’d ever heard from Bloch before were the cello concertante works, which I’ve never responded to and still strike me as impossibly glum. Not so with this piece. I went on to explore other recordings, especially once made the transition to vinyl.

The usual pick of the critics is Howard Hanson’s early stereo version on Mercury Living Presence, and the first press often fetches $50 or so on eBay. I acquired a copy a few years ago for rather less than that at a local used record shop, and found it disappointing for both the sonics (cramped) and the performance (rigid). Especially compared to Duczmal, who seems to be positively enjoying every moment of the music making. I suppose that for some, neo-classical should imply an impersonal idiom (I’m thinking of late Stravinsky, for example) but why not give the music more life? Why not play this little piece as though it was a masterwork of the highest order? I think it was Robert Layton who wrote about the ability of some conductors to do just this (he was talking specifically about Stokowski and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini).

So Hanson went into the eBay pile. I later gave him a second shot when I came across the Golden Imports re-issue, some of which I’d found to have improved sonics. Not so here; as I recall it just sounded streamlined. And the performance still struck me as impersonal.

As it happens, I’ve discovered a new favorite, in keeping with my recent forays into the mono era. I recently picked up a bunch of mono LPs at a thrift shop, including the Karajan disc I last blogged about. They were all in pristene condition and play unusually well for the era.

On this occasion the new favorite is Kubelik and Chicago, on pre-Living Presence Mercury, MG-50027, recorded 1952. The Hindemith is good, but the Bloch is superb. The interpretation has all of the life and vigor of Duczmal, but with a bigger band and a decidedly more Romantic reading, the piece comes off with even more drama and, especially in the soaring finale, an unforgettable sense of exaltation. The bad news: It is unavailable on CD in the US — Naxos has issued it in the rest of the world on their historical label, which I suppose there are creative ways to obtain. There are a few copies of the original issue up on eBay for reasonable amounts, but I know from past experience that finding tolerable copies from the days of the sapphire (or metal) needle is well-nigh impossible. I lucked out here: The sound on my copy is rich, resonant, without any hint of surface noise. It appears from this Kubelik discography site that there are several later Mercury iterations, but I can’t vouch for the sound. If I were more technologically advanced, and had the equipment, I’d try to create an MP3 of this and put it on YouTube. For now, I’m blogging….and that’s more than some thought would ever happen! Kubelik conducts Bloch and Hindemith


A New Favorite: The 1957 Karajan Haydn Variations

Rarely do I discover a recording of a work that completely replaces my prior understanding of the piece, and becomes the “new favorite.” It’s happening now, with the 1957 Haydn Variations that is the b-side of the Karajan Schubert Unfinished I blogged about a couple of days ago.

The Philharmonia recordings from this era all have a special feel to them, not just in the sonics, but also the bouyancy of the music making. Brahms here is distinctly English, noble but not heavy or wrought wrought with Romantic Sehnsucht — the emotional longing that characterizes the German art of the age.

This is more like Elgar and Enigma, with each Variation a unique personality, with the original theme woven in and around it, in a far more precise and elegant way here than in any of HvK’s three Berlin recordings, though prior to finding this Philharmonia version I favored the 1976. In Variation VI, there is Dennis Brain soaring above the orchestra, propelling the music forward. How much of this is melodic (and instrumental) clarity we owe to Walter Legge’s engineering magicianship one cannot say. But that this 54 year old piece of plastic is producing such glorious noise is truly a wonder. (By comparison, Barbirolli in Vienna, a decade later, sounds overbearing and heavy…in the Sofiensaal!)

HvK and the Philharmonia give us an absolutely glorious, joyous final Variation — a completely different experience than it become under him in Berlin, where drama and Sehnsucht took over. I cannot help imagine that the British band is channeling Elgar and Enigma and the final Variation there: Not a finale, but a some of the parts.


Schubert’s Unfinished: The Alzheimers Symphony?

I have long been fascinated by Schubert’s 8th, and today listened through the entire LP of Karajan’s mono recording with the Philharmonia which I recently acquired. But my gold standard is the Sinopoli, with the same orchestra, recorded decades later, in the digital era.

Sinopoli, an M.D. by training, is one of my favorite conductors, and it is tragic we lost him so early in life. His writings on music are deeply insightful and in this case, he perceived in the Unfinished a conception of “Dream and Memory” which parallels the experiences my family has had in coping with my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Were Sinopoli alive, I would certainly be writing him a letter after re-reading his notes on this piece. In my peripatetic record hunting, I managed to come across an autographed copy of his essay on the Unfinished, which I am including at the end of this post…he writes:

“The music of the b minor Symphony reflects the stages that occur between the ‘apparition’ of the ‘beloved good’ as dream or memory and the howl of ‘blinding’, of loss.”

This is the essence of Alzheimer’s, as it robs a person of memory, and yet, somehow clarifies the nature of humanity, as Sinopoli interperts the Symphony: “There are wandering melodies in which the desire to sing is stronger than any idea of will or structural development. This breeds an ineffable sadness, and the divine; the celestial thing about Schubert’s music is its freedom from temporality.”

Alzheimers knows no temporality, as any caregiver could tell you. Alzheimers lives in the ineffable present, in the dream that was memory. Sinopoli’s Philharmonia recording captures this in a positively haunting way. It is unparalleled.

So back to Karajan, with the same orchestra, decades earlier. Perhaps he prepared them for what was to come.

It’s a UK sitting angel pressing, which was surprisingly free of surface noise. As with many other Philharmonia recordings of this period, made possible by Walter Legge’s one-microphone wizardry, the sound is eery and echoes with a resonance that befits the character of the piece.

I am reminded of HvK’s Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, one of my absolute favorite recordings of all time, where the same thing is at work: Legge’s masterful sonics pairing with the dramatic and haunting score. I have a first pressing on HMV, but the CD transfer does it full justice. With the Schubert, HvK’s first movement was intense and sublime at moments, foreshadowing his later BPO recording, and also his Bruckner. The second movement was disappointing, too light and jumpy, not fitting with the tenor of the work.

It should capture more of the dream and memory, as Sinopoli writes.

“The whole work is poised on the edge of nothingness,” he writes. So too is my beloved mother. She taught me to appreciate classical music, and so in a way all things come full circle….but are yet “Unfinished.”