Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Karajan and Dvorak

Karajan and Dvorak's Eighth: 
A Drama in Three Acts

Dvorak's rhapsodic, elegiac and wistful Eighth Symphony is one of the very, very few works which Karajan recorded for all three of his (more or less literally) recording companies (DECCA, EMI, DG) and with his (more or less literally) two favourite orchestras (the Berliner and the Wiener Philharmoniker). No three recordings of the same symphony by the same conductor could be more different. Karajan buffs, to whom I shamelessly belong, would want to have all of them, of course. For those who don't particularly care for Karajan (it's alright, nobody's perfect), there is/are (a) clear-cut winner(s).

DECCA, 1961-3, VPO.
DECCA Originals. Remastered.
Old DECCA edition

Complete Orchestral Recordings for DECCA.
Contains the remastered version of Dvorak's Eighth.
This is by far the wildest and most vividly recorded of the three versions. Karajan made many now legendary recordings during those heady years (1959-65) with the Wiener Philharmoniker; in later years he recorded mostly complete operas, at least until the 1980s when many fine orchestral recordings – but for DG – were also made (see below). Now this Eighth is nearly apocalyptic, and even such mythical masters of the recorded sound as DECCA didn't always capture orchestral sonority with such startling presence. Later Karajan recordings sound tame and slick in comparison. On the other hand, this one is now and then quite a bit rough, as if Karajan's celebrated perfectionism had taken a day off. But boy, is it exciting!

EMI, 1979, BPO.
The Karajan Collection (EMI)
This is by far the most disappointing of the three recordings. It often verges on the chaotic (please note that this is very different than "apocalyptic"). This wasn't that unusual for Karajan in the late 1970s, perhaps the first really serious health problems in his life had scared him stiff and he wanted to compensate (or did so unconsciously) with some unusually ebullient music-making. Parts from his Don Carlo and Il Trovatore for EMI from that time, also parts from his Brahms symphonies for DG, are positively hysterical. Back to Dvorak's Eighth, there is nothing more to be said about it except that it is only for die-hard Karajan fans. The sound is rather disappointing, too. Some prefer EMI's more natural, live-in-the-concert-hall like, sound than DG's polished perfection, but I can't say I am one of these fellows. And in this particular case Wolfgang Güllich, Karajan's favourite recording engineer for EMI, seems to have had some off-days, too.

DG, 1985, VPO. 
Karajan Collection (DG)
This is the best of the lot, at least in terms of elegance and poise and charm. I wouldn't want to be without the furious rendition for DECCA, but this late recording is rather special. The 1980s, partly due to lots of bad blood between the conductor and the BPO, were very productive for Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker: Dvorak's Eighth and Ninth, Bruckner's Seventh and Eighth, the 1987 New Year's Concert, and quite a few others. All are among Karajan's finest achievements in his fifty years or so long recording career. Yet Dvorak's Eighth stands out. It's more mellow and relaxed than most. It suits the music to perfection.

This last Eighth has been released on DVD at least twice by SONY. The old edition I have never seen or heard; it's been out-of-print for ages but can still be found occasionally second-hand. The new edition is much cheaper but the sound is much poorer than the one on the CD, especially the remastered version in the Karajan Collection which sounds wonderful; as a special bonus you get tremendous recording of Dvorak's Ninth from the same time. But that's another story for another review.

New DVD edition
Old DVD edition
In short, the earliest or the latest recording is much preferable for those who want only one Karajan's take of Dvorak's Eighth. Which one you'll choose depends on what you like more: exciting semi-brutality (DECCA) or subdued lyricism (DG). Those seriously interested in Karajan would do well to have all three recordings. It's a lot of fun to "compare" them.

Karajan and Dvorak's Ninth: 
A Study in Lifelong Obsession

It's not very easy to determine how many recordings of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony Karajan made. A more or less accurate answer would be six: four audio (1940, 1958, 1964, 1979), one video (1966), and one which was released in both mediums (1985).

The early attempts may be dismissed as valuable only for incorrigible Karajan fans. They are mostly of historical interest. The 1940 take (BPO, DG) was one of Karajan's earliest recordings. It is certainly one of his worst. The finale is horribly rushed and sounds like a caricature. The 1958 attempt (EMI, BPO) is far better but still inferior to all later remakes; and in the late 1950s EMI gave Karajan horrible sonics (witness his otherwise magnificent Bruckner's Eighth). I'm actually not sure if this recording has ever been released on CD at all; if it has, it's pretty rare. The 1966 video recording is also largely experimental, shot in black-and-white and to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Nevertheless, it's a fine performance in its own, though visually rather crude by Karajan's later standards. Recommended only for Karajan buffs.

The other three recordings – 1964, 1979, 1985 – deserve more elaboration than that. At least the outer ones may, I think, be recommended to everybody who loves Dvorak's most popular – and indeed greatest – symphony.

1964, DG, BPO. 
Karajan Collection (DG). 
This is the most straightforward and literal performance of the trio. It's more Dvorak than Karajan (normally conductor and composer should be equally represented; don't give me this nonsense that the former should be a servant to the latter) but there is enough Karajan to guarantee a sense of uniqueness. It's a powerful, robust, exhilarating rendition, captured in excellent vintage stereo. Be sure to get the remastered version on the Karajan Collection.

1977, EMI, BPO. 
The Karajan Collection (EMI)
This is only for Karajan fans. Like Dvorak's Eighth from the same sessions, this is a messy, rough-and-ready performance in subpar for its time sound. Even the latest remastering, great improvement as it is, can't really help much. There are some interesting differences in the interpretation, especially the rather loud timpani, but overall this is a dispensable recording.

1985, DG, VPO.
Karajan Gold (DG). 
This recording is even more idiosyncratic yet much better balanced and more convincing as well. It sure has some of the most glorious trumpets ever recorded. The sound, except for the somewhat muffled trombones, is stellar, very clean but with depth and without any digital "edge" or "artificiality". It is not to everybody's taste, but if you like it, it will stay with you for good.

Old DVD edition 
This last Ninth also exists as an excellent video. Typically for his last years, Karajan looks frail and is rather static, certainly much more so than in his Unitel videos from the 1970s where his vigorous acrobatics all but match Lenny's. Yet, unlike many others, I do not find the viewing experience distressing. On the contrary, it is perfectly fascinating, especially since Karajan's mesmerising blue eyes are now wide open all the time (in the aforementioned Unitel films they are constantly closed). The early edition of this movie is stupendous sound-wise, the later one somewhat less so due to the dubious practice of playing and re-recording the stuff at the original venues. Still, this new video edition of the Ninth is far better than the complete mess SONY did with Dvorak's Eighth on the same DVD (see above) and recorded at the same time: it definitely sounds way better on the CD.

Bonus Tracks

Karajan recorded little Dvorak besides the last two symphonies, but the greatest Czech composer always brought out the best in him. There are five Slavonic Dances (Op. 46 Nos. 1, 3 & 7 & Op. 72 Nos. 2 & 8) from 1959 played with dazzling bravura. They are available on DG Originals with the 1971 recording of the "unstoppably inventive" (Richard Osborne) Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66, a sadly neglected masterwork. The Cello Concerto with Rostropovich (1968), coupled with Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations and also available on DG Originals, has become one of Karajan's best-known recordings with soloists. Last but not least, Karajan made an excellent recordings of Dvorak's magnificent Serenade for Strings (1980). So far as I know, this has never been remastered, but the original CD edition (coupled with Tchaikovsky's gem for the same forces) is still available. 

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