Tag Archives: Karajan

Saint-Saëns: A Grump Who Wrote Some Perfectly Delightful Music

One of the mysteries of all art is often the disconnect between the artist and their works (or conductors and theirs), a discussion that will never end and isn’t my focus here — except to say that sometimes it’s not all super serious conversations like Wagner and his antisemitism, or Ansermet and his, or people like the lately departed James Levine, who despite being a pretty well confirmed chronic sexual criminal, was inexplicable lauded in obits by people like Tim Page (whose editor, Marty Baron, should have spiked this piece, which aside from the headline, and a couple of sentences, whitewashed Levine’s horrid lifetime of pretty well substantiated criminal abuse).

But enough about that. Here I thought I’d offer some lighter material, but also concerning a composer whose temperament, by all accounts, didn’t really match the tenor of his works, which range of course. From the weighty 8B6F80DB-423A-40C6-BBF5-139476D4E6C1_1_201_aand powerful, but also to the downright jolly and delightful, which is where I’d like to focus for a little. With Saint-Saëns you have to acknowledge the biggies, of course, mostly the monumental Organ Symphony, which deserves all its accolades for being both a bravura showpiece and just a good fun listen. I’ve got a few favorites (this is a piece where it’s really hard to talk about a “definitive” recording — but forE8C9FB9E-55E5-437F-A22E-4E7FA44A0BC7_1_201_a me the Paray and the Pretre, both pretty early recordings with astounding sonics, which this piece almost demands, especially given the whopper finale where the organ pipes in (sorry). Karajan’s digital record is also pretty fantastic, especially for its final 3C5F512D-8C95-4B3B-B255-42CAF3F6B01A_1_201_aquickening at the very end — and despite that the Organ used, which was the Notre Dame — was recorded separately and edited in (it sounds fine to me, and it’s a little curmudgeonly to bemoan such things, but oh well). It really should be a burst of joy, not a misplaced Also Sprach opening, and ironically I really do think it’s HvK who gets this right for all the claptrap about him and his one-size-fits-all approach (a total canard, obvious to anyone who takes the time to actually listen to his records.

This symphony, with all its sonic boom, made for a natural choice for the quadraphonic format, and it was RCA that387A2C95-3012-434C-AAA7-3D1630512796 put it down in 4 channel, using Ormandy and the Phildelphians (a natural choice) with good old E. Power Biggs on organ. I’ve got in on 8 track, where the channel separation and the overall impact are great fun. (And you have to love the wacky circus cover art.) Ormandy returned again to the piece in one of his last records for Telarc, which is another audiophile favorite, though it doesn’t stand up for me as a performance. If you want audiophile for this work, and you want boring old stereo, go with Paray. That one, from decades earlier (1958!) holds up and sounds just as fantastic on my original FR1. 22A81361-936A-4A41-A8D5-ACD951D4F18E_1_201_aMartinon also recorded a quad version an disc for EMI, which is perfectly good, and plays great, although the separation — as ironically is almost always the case — is better on 8 track, disastrous design aside!

The piano concertos include both a similarly weighty popular work, the Second, which is not alone in the cycle in 0EBFFC68-6A21-4EE8-BB0C-C46A8A8C9C81_1_201_ahaving some delightfully airy movements. Here I favor Dutoit and Rogé, and I have a German Decca box that sounds great. In the Second we get this side of the composer’s style in the second movement, but it’s found throughout the other concertos all over the place. Rubinstein recorded the9C6C21C0-D5E8-474F-A4C9-19B21711BFBE Second (only) for RCA, and I’ve also got that on quad 8 track, in one of the odd examples of how these early Living Stereo records were recorded in multichannel before the

engineers actually understood how stereo would work, and so years later we actually got those recordings in true multichannel. The recording above, though, is from an interesting live performance he gave of the work at almost the same time as the RCA studio one, and is even a bit more spontaneous.

And speaking of piano works, of course there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which (case in point) despite probably being the composer’s most well known piece, was suppressed by him, ostensibly because it was written only to be performed by his friends — but also probably because he deemed it insufficiently serious for his persona (which E0580D85-47CB-4994-AE08-8FD507C8D2E1_1_201_agrew ever more grumpy as he aged and his contemporaries abandoned the classical forms he preferred). My favorite here is an unusual choice, the Peter Katin and Philip Fowke version on EMI/Classics for Pleasure, still available on CD apparently. It beats any of the big name recordings, including Previn and Argerich and all the rest, for its sheer delight and joy. The dinosaurs never sounded to jolly, nor the aquarium so shimmering and other-worldly. The finale is an outburst of joy from players, channeling something from this composer who otherwise seemed almost afraid to let us know he had this in him. (I’ll leave the who closeted-sexual orientation business out of it.)

Another example of how Saint-Saëns let his guard down and just wrote good old fashioned happy music is on one of his most prized discs among audiophiles, the 1980 Dutoit Danse Macabre on Decca/London, which totally deserves its reputation for amazing pre-digital (barely) sound and acoustics, but also a completely seamless ensemble8206F797-4873-444D-9E3A-14D43FC6B511_1_201_a performance throughout and flawless direction in east of the pieces. My pick isn’t the Danse, though, and not because it’s recorded so often, but the first track, Phaeton, which has only been put down on disc (vinyl or CD) a handful of times. I haven’t bothered with any of the others because Dutoit’s is such a joy, real joie de vivre material if ever there was. And since I mentioned the Danse, I should mention my favorite there, which is a classic early

stereo, on a Martinon Decca/London 6ABA3348-5787-4AF6-BFD6-9E6EE02A5AD5_1_201_acompilation of French works. Mine’s a UK Treasury reissue but sounds great.

Lastly an almost completely unknown, and almost completely unrecorded piece, also a pure delight, the old grump’s Piano Trio No. 1. He wrote two, but the first it more coherent and just a better piece overall. The first movement in particular captures the same spirit in the Carnival and in some of those piano concerto allegros and prestos. I’m pretty sure there only one (!) version on disc, a totally

disappointing and clearly underrehearsed recording on Vox. But this one on Naxos shows what the work can be, and why it deserves to be heard more often.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto

After a long hiatus I’ve decided to take up the blog again, in part because the pandemic has me on leave from teaching and among the silver linings (such as they are) is more time to listen to music. So I’m going to give it a crack here again for my friends and everyone else out there who might find my observations and amateur criticisms interesting or even helpful. Feel free as always to offer your comments. My record samplings come from my own collection, friends, and occasionally a performance I know from CD or more recent material — but mostly classic vinyl. My first post here is fitting in a way, as in my last one a few years ago I mentioned how this recording was one of the last my mom was still able to not only recognize but air-conduct even when she’d basically lost virtually all cognitive abilities. We’re still unlocking how Alzheimer’s works, but it’s certainly been noted in lots of places that music retains a place in the mind that often survives the ravages of the disease, and it did for her, with this piece in particular.


The clear choice — it always has been for me, is Rostropovich and Karajan. Hardly controversial of course, not just because of the soloist, who remains unmatched in every respect, but because this was Berlin at the height of its power, and power is what is conveyed. This is a performance of strength and intensity, and Rostropovich’s uniquely rich and deep sound is a perfect fit. As the three fillers go, this one is the clear winner, and also a classic in its own right, probably unmatched in the catalogue, before or since. My copy is a promo, NOS, 1ED, the first couple line label, which does actually have a minimal impact of sonic richness. 

Readily available on CD as part of the first issue of the DG “Originals.”


The audiophile favorite of course is Starker and Dorati. The sound lives up to its legendary status, here on a promo RFR2/3 that is pretty well close to perfect. If Berlin is sheer power, the LSO here are rhythmic and even light at times, with quicker tempi and a undeniable lilt that just wasn’t in Karajan’s vocabulary but works here, if you prefer this piece to sound more like the Slavonic Dances, fitting the composer’s style as a whole — if with a bit less gravitas in the piece for my taste. The Mercury sound does capture individual soloists as though they’re front and center, in the typical way for the classic era of these recordings. Starker himself has always struck me as a bit thin, particularly in the lower registers, but that’s only because my standard is Rostropovich’s solid baritone. The soloists and orchestra and direction are perfectly matched, for sure, with rhythm and momentum building seamlessly from start to finish. It’s a glorious performance, just different in overall impact from Slava and HvK. This is purely a matter of taste, and mine’s always been clear.

Lastly we have to consider Jackie Du Pre, who was has her own special way with the instrument. The overall sound is a bit less impactful than either the Karajan or Dorati, probably due to venue and engineering; and the orchestral accompaniment also a little lacking in personality — nothing against Barenboim, but this strikes one as a4beb2460-41c4-41b2-9a56-10aa9ce855b8_1_201_a performance in the service of the soloist, not a complete work. Tempi are also more erratic at times and can come off as less balanced. Du Pre is a wizard, there can be no doubt, and she is just flying around with this piece, less attentive to overall direction and melodic line that Rostropovich and Karajan (a strength for Karajan in general — he always has a great feel for a work’s gestalt). This is a recording is a showcase, less a sum of its parts than three separate happy and joyful exposes of the brilliance of the instrument in this woman’s hands. The tone, for me, is a lot closer to Slava than Starker, but still has an airiness to it that allows it to take flight at times, but still stay grounded when it needs to

The clear comparison for Du Pre is her Elgar, where the difference is all in the conducting and, much like Karajan, a far better (in this case, masterful) conception of the work as a whole. Her theatrics are in the service of the work as a whole here, and the LSO is with her step for step, both in mood and in overall carriage of the journey from start to 1d95e582-5b18-4df2-becd-db249493bac9_1_201_a-3finish, so vital with this composer even more than Dvorak — and perhaps one reason good Elgar conductors (and thus performances) are so hard to find. I don’t know if Sir John ever led her in the Dvorak — perhaps there’s a live version out there somewhere — but he certainly did enjoy the composer, and it’s a shame they never set the work down in the studio alongside this masterpiece. My copy here is the ED2, but honestly I’ve heard the first half moon issue and have never been able to tell the difference!

Continue reading

Beethoven’s 4th

Probably the least performed and well-known of Beethoven’s symphonies, the 4th: What to do with this odd bridge 100_0504between the towering heights of the Eroica and the 5th, as if dual shadows are cast on its place in the sequence? For that reason I’ve always liked the original album art from Karajan’s 1970s cycle, which shows a backlit number 4 illuminated by nighttime stars. I have three of Karajan’s four recordings of the 4th in my collection, all except the 1950s Philharmonia version. Beginning with the famous 1964 record Karajan treats the work with a breadth of phrase that evokes the 3rd but self-consciously points toward the rhythmic obsession of the 5th. (My copy of 138-803 is a first issue hersteller label, and lives up to the reputation for its sound.) This kind of linear, historicized view of Beethoven’s 100_0501symphonic development was a part of Karajan’s broader musical view and is hard to miss; the 1977 album art on 2531-104 adds the visual component as well as could be rendered. This second Berlin record is, to employ an overused term, more “streamlined” in its sound and approach; timings are marginally faster in 1964 but somehow “feel” faster because of the overall approach. A fellow Karajan enthusiast once described the 1977 cycle as having a “Hollywood” feel to it, and I don’t disagree: And why not? This is big, bold music, and Berlin at its apogee under the Maestro could pack a punch like no other band ever has. But in the 4th, along with the 1st and 2nd, don’t 100_0509really benefit from the soundstage approach. Likewise, Karajan’s final 1983 record (415-121) involves an almost identical interpretation — tempi are stunningly identical — and is sonically interesting mostly because on vinyl the early digital is not at all as horrible as the first iterations of these performances on CD; I read recently that new mastering has cleaned up the sound so that the current issue of this final Karajan/Unitel cycle more approximates what it sounds like on vinyl. Of the three Karajans here, the 1964 version is the winner, for sound as well as performance. Vinyl never sounded better than in these Beethoven records. Though I hasten to add that the capstone, the 9th, was indeed exceeded in the 1977 cycle. And 7 and 8 were quite particularly outstanding in HvK’s last recording. As a postscript, Karajan pupil Christian Thieleman has a rendition with the Vienna Phil. that could be interestingly described as a hybrid of his mentor and Jochum (more below). At times listening to Thielemann one could sample in the 1983 Karajan record and not hear the difference, except for odd moments when he slows the tempi too noticeably.

My two non-Karajan comparisons of the 4th involve yet another Berlin DGG record, Jochum’s 1961 (138-964). Karajan hadn’t completely put his imprint onto the band yet, and there is still something Furwangler-ish lingering in the rubatos here, though only at the margins. Overall the interpretation is most intriguing for the great Brucknerian’s sense of 100_0512melodic line, the more varied tempi do not sound affected at all. In this approach he corresponds to Karajan but is more intimate and particular. The orchestra can’t have been any different in size and composition than it was for Karajan three years later, but it positively sounds smaller. Jochum had that gift, though, an uncanny ability to make massive sound feel intimate. On CD it’s apparently only currently available as a larger box set with his mono Brahms cycle (superb) and the landmark Bruckner.

The last-but-certainly-not-least mention is Mravinsky, a conductor I hardly knew anything of beyond my dad’s box set of the Tchaikovsky 4/5/6 until RCA was able to get some of his Melodiya recordings marketed on a more mainstream scale. I recently 100_0514picked up his 1973 Beethoven 4th, with Leningrad of course, which is the version included on CD on the Mravinsky edition along with a stellar Tchaikovsky 5th from the same period. The original Melodiya LP (18171), issued in 1983, is of surprising quality — the Soviets weren’t known for their vinyl — and the performance is a sine qua non. Tempi are fast and furious, probably not to the liking of all, but give the piece a totally different feel, more of the Angry Young Man anticipating the 5th here than contemplative artistic development as Karajan would suggest. Phrases are shaped in a way 180 degrees apart from either Karajan or Jochum, in a completely stereotype-defying manner at that: There is warth and passion here, not cold Soviet realism. By the time we get to the finale things are nearly out of control, running away with themselves — a different kind of foreshadowing struck me in Schiller’s verse “Laufet Brüder” from the 9th.  Listen here.

La Mer

One of the most famous Impressionist works, Debussy’s La Mer has been recorded countless ties by a plethora of artists; I’m surveying a few of the many that I have in my collection — some much well known than others. First on many critics’ lists is 100_0364the 1964 RCA record from Munch and the Bostonians, one of the most highly sought after Living Stereo issues. I’ve heard several copies, and my usual skepticism about the LSC sound has proved true again; still can’t see what all the fuss is about. Hence my surprise when I found a clean copy of the reissue on the Victrola label, the first plum label, heavy vinyl with groove. I don’t know if they did anything to clean up the mix inbetween the initial LSC issue and this one (VICS-1041) but it sure sounds better to my ears. The strings are are crisp and clear, but lacking the lush sweep of Karajan and the Berliners, in their recording from almost the same exact time (1963). Munch’s pacing is superb, rubatos subtle enough so as to be hardly to be noticeable. The sonic range is outstanding, and the quiet moments, so elemental to this work, are delicate and clear. The acoustic, though amazingly clear and unclouded, still fails to deliver the voluptuousness of the Berliners. This deserves its status as a reference performance, with nothing really to fault; yet it is still somewhat clinical. There’s not as much personality here as I like in works of this period; it’s almost too perfect.

The VICS issue has less glamourous cover art, but as I said, better sonics to my mind. There have been other reissues and incarnations on CD including multichannel SuperAudio, which I experimented with for a while, but found I not only preferred straight vinyl, but the surround effect on (gasp) 8 track tape. Many of the early Living stereos were indeed recorded on multichannel tape — this was when they were truly figuring out how stereo was going to work — and many of the LSC’s were issued in the 1970s as quads. I don’t think La Mer ever was, so no comparison to be made. There are quad versions of La Mer, a couple of which I have in my collection and discuss below.

As Munch moves through the three movements, not much changes in terms of the pacing, it’s sure and steady, but the finale third movement is more workmanlike than exultory, not anything close to the mystical voyage we get from Karajan (who is known to have been somewhat obsessed with the work and recorded it at least four times I know of (Philharmonia, and thrice with the BPO). I had the Philharmonia on CD years ago, and regrettably didn’t save it on my iTunes when I ditched CDs for good, and am looking for a vinyl copy.

Karajan’s 1964 version is also critically acclaimed, even among his detractors, both for the interpretation and the stunning sonics, which result from the Jesus-Christus Kirche in Berlin — the effect is wholly different from Boston’s famed acoustics, 100_0365which are indeed nothing short of astounding. But the open resonance of the church setting produces a completely different textual feel for this work (and the many others the BPO recorded here before the Philharmonie was finished and became the venue of choice). From the very first bars the ebb and flow of the strings is far more homogenous — that notorious word that HvK’s foes toss around constantly — but when trying for the desired effect of a seascape it is not only appropriate but stunningly evocative. The rising and falling crescendos truly make one “feel” the oceanic currents. I’m paraphrasing from something I’m quite sure I read in one of Robert Layton’s books on Karajan that this work was not “about the sea,” but “was the sea.” I’m lucky to have found — after much trial and error — a pristine first issue of the vinyl with no surface noise at all, hersteller label etc. (138-923) which can easily be found in various iterations on CD.

Unlike Munch, Karajan fluctuates tempi noticeably and intentionally, forcing the listener to almost feel seasick (or undertow, at least) by the third movement, the lower and upper registers undulating in turn, constantly driving to the tumultuous finale. To paraphrase Layton again (can’t say exactly where), this recording shows that every now and again Karajan still felt comfortable unleashing the old Furtwängler-esque frenzy the band was used to and capable of — the comparison I’m making with Layton is how he described the final bars of the 1978 Beethoven 9th, which is, like the end of La Mer here, totally unforgettable in its urgency and ecstasy (youtube clip below of the third movement.)

Almost 15 years later Karajan returned to the work after the advent of quadraphonic sound, and produced a second rendition of the work which similarly meets with almost universal critical acclaim. The sonics here, now in the Philharmonie, are no less effective, though the 4-channel effect renders something different yet again. MFSL has this one on their list, though in 2-channel only. I don’t have a copy, but it’s on my list. I’m using the standard 1977 EMI/Angel issue (37438), and unfortunately when EMI put out its limited run of 45rpms from this era, they included the Bolero from this album but not La Mer. On CD one finds innumerable versions, again including SACD which I can’t speak to.

The pacing of the 1977 record is noticeably slower than of the rocky waters heard in the classic version, but the effect no less evocative; if I were to get metaphorical we’re taking a swim and drifting now rather than navigating through the waves. The 100_0369four channel effect is very effective; I don’t know how the DGG tonmeisters set things up, but one hears the violins and winds quite clearly apart from the deeper strings and percussion sections in the back, creating the unique quad effect of sitting discretely in the middle of things rather than just having them envelop you overall as is the result of the synthesized effect (which is impressive) that my old Sansui receiver can produce with some stereo records, including the 1963 La Mer. The homogenized “Karajan Sound” is now more evolved in this later record; though not to the deleterious effect of maestro’s final 1985 rendition which was primarily recorded for his Unitel video concerts, now available from Sony. One noticeable effect on the quad record, even more so than in 1963, is the truly stunning piannisimos achieved by the Orchestra for sustained passages, particularly in the third movement. The sonic range is nothing short of stunning and the crescendos the score affords produce a truly cinematic effect that is wholly different from either the earlier Karajan record or, certainly, the straight-ahead Munch version.

The second quad record I have is from Martinon’s complete survey with the French National Radio Orchestra, this being Album 4 (370670) on Angel. I’ve heard the German pressed versions, from the full box set, and find the four channel effect far 100_0372more effective on the American version. Martinon is, characteristically, more lyrical in his overall approach, not as precise as Munch or as controlling as Karajan. The result is a looser feel, more flowing. Tempi vary constantly, but in an entirely comfortable way, with the overall effect being a delight of sound rather than a particular evocation as with a traditional tone-poem. There is a glowing happiness to the music making that distinguishes this reading, and Martinon’s style in general, in his conducting of French works in particular. Here, where Karajan’s undertows can be genuinely menacing, Martinon’s tides are glistening splendidly in the Mediterranean sun (which was, after all, where the composer sat while writing these lines).

I conclude with some lesser known records in my collection, first with a very early stereo record (1957) from Manuel Rosenthal and the Orchestre du Theatre National de L’Opera on Vega (10.137). The performance is something of a blend of Munch’s straight delineation and Martinon’s shimmering, warm, and bright (to borrow a phrase). There are magical moments 100_0374in this performance rather than overall effects — not surprising from a band used to performing opera accompaniments. In this sense the work is presented more as a poem, with certain phrases and lines consciously lifter out, standing apart and on their own, pauses emphasized more, and separations allowed to linger with a delicacy I’ve not heard in any other rendering. A very memorable performance for some very different reasons than any of the more famous records discussed above. On CD, apparently, most or all of Rosenthal’s early stereo Debussy has been remastered on SACD by the small Praga label. It’s worth noting that La Mer on vinyl was often paired with the Nocturnes (the Martinon does this but Karajan does not, in either case — he never recorded the work). For what it’s worth, Rosenthal’s flip side has one of the most beguiling versions of Nuages I’ve ever encountered, and I hunted this record down initially for that reason after hearing the recording in the superb (contemporary) French film Red Lights. One wonders if it was purely by accident — or by plan — that the sound producers chose this 1957 recording for the soundtrack in a film made 47 years later. Goodness knows they had other options!

Also with Rosenthal’s reading one can’t help but sense an air of discovery, as with many of these first generation stereo records, in which one can’t help but feel the musicians had to feel they were playing these popular works for the first time.

Of theater digital versions available on vinyl, only one is on my shelf, and it’s a fairly obscure (and hard to find) performance 100_0376from Geoffrey Simon (Cala 1001), which more than anything else is notable for its kaleidoscopic color. The conducting is, like Munch, fairly straight-ahead, but what lingers is a magical richness. Again here it was the Nocturnes that drew me to these performances (Cala 1002) but Simon’s abbreviated Debussy survey is a spectral delight. I initially had these on CD, still available. Tempi are quicker, and this version is more of a showpiece per se. What one might imagine as a modern-day Stokowski. (A Stokowski in his prime, to be clear — his later Phase 4/London LSO dates from his Indian Summer where much of the old magic was gone.)

There are others — Previn’s LSO and Haitink’s Concertgebouw, for example — neither of which make much of impression, and on CD we find them not surprisingly on budget discs only.

Lastly is my one idiosyncratic favorite, where I stand very much alone against the critics, who by all accounts have panned Victor de Sabata’s 1948 Debussy recordings with the Santa Cecilia (Rome) Orchestra, of which La Mer went unpublished until EMI’s Testament CD label, video below. Listen for yourself. Critics pretty much universally view the Nocturnes (on the same disc) as erratic and disorganized, but for me it is a totally unique juggernaut of the senses. Like father, like son, the Kleibers have a way of making music we all know entirely their own.

Honegger’s 2nd and 3rd

I’m not a dedicated fan of 20th Century music in general, but enjoy many of the French and German works that came out of the pre-war and interwar years, including Les Six. I was introduced to Honegger’s 2nd and 3rd via Karajan’s standard setting 1973 recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, finding them eery, melancholy, and spooky– sounding very much like soundtracks to contemporary horror films. I remember loaning the CD of this classic disc to a friend in high school and her telling me that whilst listening to it late at night her main reaction was that there were “strange sounds coming from my stereo.”

HvK’s approach is intense and integrated, as always. The strange sounds are controlled and frightening. Making them beautiful in the way he felt all music could be…. The sound on my first pressing virgin vinyl (2530-068) is superb, rippling and flowing, with a cool, appropriately echoed acoustic. I didn’t think there was much else to it. I still love this record. The Gramophone thought very highly of it at the time, comparing it only Ansermet’s OSR record, which was relatively unimpressive to my ears — as I usually feel about him — heresy thought that may be.

They might have compared it to Serge Baudo’s 1962 Czech Philharmonic Supraphon record of the same two Symphonies (50027). Their original review, gives short shrift to the music in general and in comparison with the Karajan review of 10 years later, shows how mainstream record critics had come to consider music of this period.

This is one to give to the Karajan critics who don’t like the DGG production of the time, and I’m surprised the Gramophone editors didn’t seize on this in ’73. Had I been at the table, I would have conceded fully. Compared to the bold, immediate Supraphon sound, DGG is smoothed-out, not raw enough to convey the point of the music’s impact. The degree of depth between the two versions in sonics, let alone visceral emotion, is tangible. Karajan is Hollywood; Baudo is anything but — he’s all angst and emotion, especially in the 3rd.

I cannot vouch for the CD version comparisons, but on vinyl the difference is night and day. Two very different, and differently engaging, readings of some great modern music.

Hindemith’s Metamorphoses

I’ve always enjoyed the theme-and-variations format, and hearing composers re-work material, as in the Barhms Haydn Variations I’ve written about before. It’s a bit different in this case, with Hindemith drawing on varied short theme of Von Weber in his “Symphonic Metamophosis.” I confess to having heard none of the original Weber pieces in their original piano format. It would make an interesting experiment — how the composer here went from short piano works to this explosive showpiece. I am reminded of

It’s a bravura work, and the one time I heard it live is completely unforgettable, despite not being able to take my seat (late arrival) and having to stand in the back row of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as Slatkin and his vastly improved National Symphony drove the piece home in a spectactular fourth movement.

By comparison I have two favorite Philadelphia recordings, one on Vinyl, EMI 37536, one of his last recordings (1979). Alongside this is Sawallisch from 1995. The acoustic is comparably warmer, less precise than Ormandy on vinyl. Horns are prone to more European vibrato, and placing Ormandy alongside makes the Bavarian maestro seem just a bit looser and rhythmic, more Romantic (sounding almost like a French impressionist in the slow movement) — than Modern. The entry of the horns in the final movement is more measured, with less bite. The effect is complete and effective, if perhaps a too much Hollywood-soundtrack in its feel. Until 3:09, that is, when the bouncy woodwind re-entry makes its appearance, crescendo and descrescedo flowing in wave upon wave until the final sweep of melody and most memorable of concluding passages in the last 60 seconds. If you listen to Sawallisch, have patience and wait for him to get here. He delivers in the end. No one I’ve heard manages the undulating tuba and trombone lines better in those last bars.

Ormandy’s 1979 displays a gusto that clearly shows his inside-and-out knowledge of the piece and the composer, which he featured throughout his long tenure in Philadelphia. It also boasts top rate sonics, as best an example of vinyl of this era as one could find. (I know his contemporarily recorded Sibelius disc made TAS; this one deserved it too if it did not. Though perhaps they have a rule against duplicating permances, with Ormandy’s earlier CBS MS-6562, which I discarded after finding the later EMI here.) Compared to the Sawallisch digital CD from 1995 Ormandy’s 1979 sound is cleared, more vivid, and richer in range. It also lacks the Hollywood sheen that blurs Sawallisch’s Philadelphians. Ormandy rollocks along, playing the music for what it is (Gebrauchsmusik, after all) giving us vim and vigor and energy, rather than romantic storytelling.

Lastly, a recent acquisition that probably makes the first time I have every truly responded to a record by George Szell. In reading up online, I found that critics including David Hurwitz have indeed said it places in their top ten tier for both performance and sonics. I was lucky to find an original dark 2-eye CBS 7166, a superb copy. The 1964 sound is crystal clear, though (to my ear) limited in its acoustic range compared to the 1979 Ormandy, but understandably so. I’ve never been to Severance Hall, and perhaps the difference in reverberation and that all-elusive “warmth” is simply less than Philadelphia where both of the above recordings were set down.

Szell always has seemed too stern for me in his famed Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, too much a perfectionist and working with an orchestral sound which my (admittedly perfectionist) other favorite von Karajan also was criticized for. But compared to Berlin under HvK, who never recorded this work, Cleveland sounds too analytical. In this composition, though, the modernist aesthetic its composer desired fits the sound of the band. It is an energized performance which, to my surprize, bounces and snaps along almost playfully at times. Szell moves quicker than either of the Philadelphians and the orchestral response is indeed a marvel. The finale is propelled not just by energy but, in after the woodwind entry mentioned above, by a genuine joie de vivre that is totally unique and makes for a happy, not just a powerful, close to a spectacular composition.

As a footnote, the work is featured on an early Mercury mono LP ( I reviewed here some weeks ago for its other side, Bloch’s Concerto Grosso. Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony give a good performance, but to my mind it is decidedly pedestrian compared to any of the competitors here (or to the superb Bloch on side 2). Tempi are slower and almost entirely uniform; crescedi are ineffective, and fortissimos are overused. Plus…in some cases, you simply cannot fully experience an orchestral showpiece in monophonic sound.

Karajan and Boult’s Quadraphonic Wagner on EMI

As an enthusiast of quadraphonic sound, the 1970’s on EMI/HMV were the golden age. By far the best SQ quad sound I’ve heard comes from their records of this era, particularly those engineered by Christopher Palmer and Christopher Bishop (for example, the Elgar Coronation Ode). But the BPO was in on the act under HvK as well, and many of his 1970’s EMI records provide excellent examples of four channel sound — not to mention the Berliners being at the top of their game.

HvK recorded the Wagner preludes and overtures many times, including two volumes with EMI in quadraphonic in 1974/75. The engineers were unfortunately not the two Christophers, but rather HvK’s usual EMI team of Glotz and Gülich. The performances themselves are stunning, Wagnerian richness in all its opulence, and with the unmatched power of the BPO driving the drama home.

The sonics are interesting to a further degree. I am comparing a U.S. quadraphonic Golden Clouds label 37097, with a Japanese Toshiba EAC-80149, straight stereo. The U.S. quad pressing is roomier, with more of sense of space as the big choruses open up, particularly in the unparalleled reading of the Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanale. The sound is bass-heavy, as HvK wanted it to be, but the opulence of the strings and horns warm into a genuinely enveloping sound that represents the best of what quadraphonic was — though in contrast to the Toshiba pressing, there is a lack of clean delineation in sound, a homogeneity that HvK’s critics always harped on. Switching between the true SQ decoder on my Sansui 7001 and the “synthesizer surround” function, the brightness perks up, but the three-dimensionality evaporates. And the treble boosts in an uncomfortable way.

Switch to the Toshiba pressing. Gliding silence in the opening of Tannhäuser, but fast-forward to the castanets in the Bacchanale and some of the warmth is gone; in comparison this is almost too clinical, and not without depth — this record is certainly more vivid in the instrumental sectional separation. I have no idea how the master tapes were manipulated in these different pressings but the results are distinctly different in their effect. How the engineers moved between the four channel masters and two channel issues was surely a puzzle (including how they were converted to CD, where many of these recordings come up sounding completely flat). It also seems clear in this case, as with other Toshibas, that the vinyl is simply of superior grade and the surface noise approaches a very impressive zero. It is a rare case where I genuinely can’t choose between the two pressings, and regard them almost as different performances because of the way the reproduce, in four channel or in stereo.

Of the U.K. HMV pressings of these Karajan recordings I have only the Vol. 2 to compare, unfortunately, so can’t directly speak to the dramatic contrasts of Tannhäuser. But in general it is noteworthy that the quadraphonic effect is superior to the U.S. EMI/Angel, in a sense a melding of the stereo Toshiba’s clarity and the EMI quad’s warmth. This is a first pressing, color dog-in-stamp label, and in Meistersinger, for example, the much maligned homogeneity is nowhere to be heard; the melodic line flows seamlessly but not without clarity and distinctness with the emphases on each dramatic turn. (Though that U.S. press has something of a “boom” to it that isn’t here either.) I’ve been actively searching for a Vol. 1 pressing of this same U.K. quad label, to compare that stunning Bacchanale to the two others I describe above.

By way of comparison I turn to Boult, who also recorded the Wagner preludes on EMI/HMV during this same era. His different style is immediately apparent, more straightforward, more even in string phrasing; less emotive than HvK’s soaring crescendos, booming timpani, and heart-wrenching descrescendos, as in the finale to the Meistersinger Overture here. In contrast Boult is noble but decidedly un-Germanic. As I’ve written about his interpretations of other German romantics including Brahms in the Haydn Variations, he feels almost to be channeling Elgar: broad, deep, but ultimately restrained and at key moments, understated.

The pressing I’m listening to here illustrates the best quadraphonic sound of all examples I’ve discussed, which is something of a surprise given that it is a German EMI “Quadraphonie” pressing, 063-02-274. In my experience these German quad pressings do not typically manifest the best of four-channel sound. But as all of this goes to show, the various iterations of this era’s recordings, in and out of four or two-channel, and with varying qualities of vinyl, produced markedly different results. Perhaps this is the exception that proves the rule. The sound genuinely surrounds, and the sense of space is in a completely different category than traditional two-speaker listening. The performances do not match Karajan for drama or excitement, but they inhabit their own distinct, memorable world and are delivered with unparalleled sonics.

A last mention. Backtracking from the quadraphonic era to the early days of stereo, I pulled out my DGG Kubelik record of the Siegfried Idyll (best there is, by the way) which also features some of the shared works on the HvK EMI discs and Boult’s. (The details: DGG 136-228, 1963 recording). I searched long and hard to find a first Hersteller pressing, and one with no noise at all. It could be said that comparing the depth and richness of these early 180 gram pressings to quadraphonic magic is unfair. Listening to this Meistersinger is a very different experience, but the clarity and richness of the BPO is every bid as opulent and redolent as in the 1975 version under their future director. Kubelik finds a blend of Boult’s directness and HvK’s romanticism, which was of course not so much his as it was his orchestra’s, the legacy of Furtwängler and everyone who came before. Culture matters, and just as no orchestra will ever play Johann Strauss as the Vienna Philharmonic, no orchestra will ever play Wagner like Berlin. It is in their musical DNA, their interpretive culture, and the recordings let us share in that genetic, interpretive process.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

I knew this work from childhood, in the classic Heifetz version from RCA. As I’ve grown into a more mature critic, my opinions have migrated.

Mutter/KarajanFor a long time I was under the spell of Karajan and Mutter, who dig into the work with a serioso unmatched by the field. The tempi are slower, but perhaps the drama more exposed. And there is the overwhelming sound of the BPO, in all its richness, capturing every nuance of sonic dimension. But not the emotion. We are firmly in HvK’s world, with Mutter, but in comparison to several others….it is lacking.

Campoli, with Boult. An English touch, somehow both rich and light; Elgarian. Noble, not Germanic and heavy in its impact. Campoli’s tone delves deeper than Perlman or Francescatti, and Boult manages an ebb and flow that keeps the music flowing in a dramatic, but also delightful way with the accompaniment. There is less symphonic weight here compared to Karajan, but more storytelling. In the London Stereo Treasury pressing, there is also far more sonic depth and richness than the DGG digital press with HvK. It is astoundingly vivid. As with many of these later orange label reissues. This will not go into the eBay pile. And it presents a contrast not just with Mutter, but with Milstein, whose EMI I only recently got to know. Campoli appears to be available on CD only in an out-of-print specialty release. Hard to believe.

So now to Milstein. His EMI recordings were not issued early on CD, when I worked at Tower Records, and on LP they are among the most difficult to acquire. (He re-recorded the concerto with Claudio Abbado years later, in a much less compelling reading.) My copy of the EMI is a US Angel pressing, the prized Triangle stamper. Sound is absolutely pristene, with less surface noise than either the Campoli or the Mutter from later decades, though less sonic depth than the Campoli. Milstein floats with his light vibrato, a bit much at times perhaps, but ultimately conveying an elegance that blends with the drama of the work. This is a positively seductive reading, the violin tone drawing one in like a lover….in a way that that those of us who are vulnerable to the beauty of sound makes us literally weep. The second movement is a personal appeal, not a performance. There is a reason Milstein is different.

And then in the final movement he zips along…as capable of showing joy and exuberance as he is the intangibles of internal emotion.

I played this for my father some weeks ago, who raised me on the Classics, and he too was stunned. He knows the work but is not in the business of criticism. He knew nothing of Milstein. But after it passed all he had to say was “Bravo.”

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.”