Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Review: Bizet - L'Arlesienne Suites, Carmen Suite - Karajan - DG, 1984

Karajan's best Bizet, suite-wise

I am no fan of Eliette von Karajan's landscapes, one of which is supposed to grace the front cover of this album, but her husband's way with Bizet is another matter. This disc is yet another proof, if any more is needed, that Karajan's digital period was far from the sad decline some "experts" try to make it out.

These sumptuously recorded accounts of the two suites from L'Arlésienne are easily Karajan's best. The obscure 1958 recording with Philharmonia (EMI) is only of historical interest, the one from 1970 with the Berliners (DG) has possibly the worst sound in Karajan's entire discography. A considerably faster but still very fine Second Suite was recorded live on video during the 1978 New Year's Concert with the BPO (but without the Minuet!), and even a studio recording for EMI from the beginning of 1979 exists (with the Minuet!), but neither measures up to the digital remake.

The 1984 renditions on this disc are, on the whole, slower and more meditative, but by no means lacking in drama: the opening of the Intermezzo and the finale of the Farandole are as hair-raising as ever. The lyrical passages are meltingly beautiful. I don't know who Daniel Deffayet was, but he certainly did a miraculous job with the sax solos. He is rightly credited in bold on the back cover. Karajan's recording schedule during the 1980s was gruesome; probably it would have killed a lesser man much sooner. I am very glad he found the time to re-record Bizet's lovely tone poem in eight parts.

The Carmen Suite on this disc is taken from the complete recording made in 1982-83. It supersedes the same early attempts (1958, PO, EMI; 1970, BPO, DG) with a vengeance. Contrary to what you might have heard, there is nothing soporific about Karajan's last recording of "Carmen". The preludes to the outer acts have all the passion and verve that are required, those to the inner ones all the tenderness and charm that are demanded. As an interesting side-note, the four "movements" are arranged as they are in the opera, while in the early recording with Philharmonia the order is reversed. I confess I like the reversed order better. With the possible exception of the 1963 complete recording, from which the suite has never been extracted (I think), this is Karajan's best "Carmen", suite-wise.

These digital recordings, so far as I know, have never been remastered. This is probably for the better. The sound on this 1985 CD release is rich, natural and crystal clear. It doesn't get much better than that. The only drawback is the miserable total timing. The crafty fellows from DG carefully refrain from mentioning it anywhere on the cover or in the booklet. Roughly calculated, it's a little over 40 minutes. This is a hard bargain at full price, but second-hand copies can be obtained for a pittance and are well worth having. Get one, turn up the volume, relax in the armchair, and see what happens.

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