Saturday, 31 January 2015

Karajan and Brahms’ Four: A Brief Comparison

The symphonies of Johannes Brahms form a curious quartet. The First may not be “Beethoven’s Tenth”, as Hans von Bülow dubbed it, but it’s a journey of epic proportions all the same. The Second may have been Brahms’ most inspired symphony, but I have always found it the least memorable. The Third, by turns wistful and grand, may be the most unjustly underrated symphonic work by a major composer in the standard repertoire. The Fourth is a perfect masterpiece. For once, Johannes let his hair down and surpassed himself.

Karajan conducted the symphonies for more than 50 years, from the 1930s to 1988, though by no means equally often. The First was his greatest favourite (143 performances), followed closely by the Second (134 performances). The Third and the Fourth managed only 50 and 61 performances, respectively. He recorded them as a set on three occasions, always with the Berlin Philharmonic for DG, in 1963-64, in 1977-78, and in 1987-88. The difference in the sound is considerable, and though Karajan was genetically incapable of playing Brahms badly, at least one set fails to reach the greatest artistic heights.

The 60s set is splendid. Unlike Karajan’s first take of Beethoven’s symphonies, which is overrated for historical reasons, this one really is one of the Brahmsian summits of his recorded legacy. The sound is sumptuous and spacious, remarkable for its age and little dated by modern standards; occasionally there is a slight shrillness in the strings and the brass, but nothing to make fuss about. Add to this the compelling musicianship, as exciting as a live concert or even a dress rehearsal, and you have a no-brainer. Essential set for Karajan and Brahms aficionados alike. The First is the superstar. It may be the finest Karajan ever did. There is a sense of spontaneity he didn’t always achieve in this elusive work. From the arresting opening (one of the greatest in the symphonic repertoire) to the sweeping conclusion, it flows as smoothly as it almost never does.

The only problem with this set is that it’s not available as a set. I don’t know about old editions, but the new remasters are spread on three different CDs. The Second and the Third are collected together. The First is coupled with Schumann’s First from 1971 in Originals series. The Fourth can be found on the Karajan: The Music, The Legend twofer (CD+DVD) or, if you don’t mind the repetition or the trouble of acquiring it, the Japanese edition of the Third and the Fourth. DG really should consider re-issuing these recordings as a handsome set. They deserve it. They sure have earned it.

The 70s set is strange. Interpretation-wise, the unbridled approach, so exhilarating in the 60s, has degenerated into questionable histrionics and tense, debilitating urgency. Occasionally, as in the finale of the Fourth for instance, this is refreshing. But for the most part it is plain awkward. It might benefit Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss or even Beethoven, but certainly not a timid creature like the good old Johannes. Worse than that, the late analogue sound is dreadful. I wonder how it was approved for release. Flat, harsh, arid and right-up-your-face, it is nearly unlistenable. The strings and the brass have a metallic edge that grates on the ear. In short, it is the epitome of “manipulated”, “doctored”, etc. sound. I don’t mind it’s artificial; every recording is. I just don’t think the music is well served by it.

Ironically enough, this is most easily available set. It has been released on two or three discs (together with the Tragic Overture and the Haydn Variations) countless times, including in the so-called “Karajan Symphony Edition”. Avoid it anyway.

The 80s set is magnificent. I suspect I am not even in the minority here. I am probably the only person in the world who considers this set Karajan’s best. But as my favourite writer says: “Nor does it greatly disturb me to discover that my judgement is at variance with that of the majority. I have a certain confidence in my instinct.” If I am forced to choose between them, I will be very sorry to part with the 60s set, but I will not hesitate to do so.

The digital set has not a single weakness. The sound is stupendous, almost as rich and sensuous as the one from the 60s, but with marked improvement in terms of clarity and dynamics. The interpretations have matured and mellowed. They are slower and weightier, too. The near-hysteria of the 70s is toned down and there is a polish absent in the 60s set. Yet there is nothing slack or slick, nothing pretentious or soporific, in these performances. On the contrary, the dramatic intensity is shattering; the brass and the timpani are more prominent, often to a great effect, and the strings, though less lush than in the 60s, boast unheard-of commitment and precision. Just listen to the development in the first movement, or to whole finale, of the Third. The First may not be quite up to the landmark from 60s, but neither is much inferior to it. The Fourth is the superstar. It is by far the finest Karajan ever did. Note the stunning finale of the first movement where he creates something that must be heard to be believed. The trombones in the finale for once don’t blare, and the effect is chilling. In case you wondered, the good old Johannes does thrive on subtlety and sensitivity.

 Getting this set as a set isn’t easy, either. The old 1991 edition is very nice, on three discs and including the Tragic Overture and the Haydn Variations (both from 1983). It’s been out of print for ages but cheap second-hand copies can still be found (for example, here). There once was a Japanese version of this set, but it must by now be even scarcer and considerably more expensive than the original. Fairly recently, in 2001, DG released, for the first time ever, the four symphonies squeezed on two CDs in their DUO series. For some obscure reason, this is not available on the Amazons. If you search hard enough online, you may still find it reasonably priced. Look for a green cover with the young Johannes on it.

Miscellaneous recordings. Karajan first recorded the First in 1943 with the Concertgebouw. Richard Osborne has gone as far as suggesting that this is the finest of his six studio recordings. He must have smoked something really strong! The Philharmonia years yielded recordings of the First (1952), the Second (1955) and the Fourth (1955). Only the Second, recorded in marvellously vivid early stereo, can stand comparison with the Berlin remakes. (The same goes for the Unfinished from the same year with the same orchestra, also on EMI in the same superb stereo.) The Fourth is an interesting apprentice recording (in mono, by the way), but neither Karajan nor the orchestra seem to have been ready for it. If you are in love with the “Decca Sound”, the First (1960) and the Third (1960) with the Vienna Philharmonic are not to be missed.

Video recordings. The first two symphonies from the digital set have been released on DVD. How much they overlap with the audio versions is debatable, but the performances are terrific all the same; no quibbles about the sound or the picture. If we are to believe John Hunt, Karajan’s most conscientious discographer, the Third and the Fourth were also recorded on video. Why they have never been released is an enduring mystery. The Unitel DVD that was released in 2008 for Karajan’s Centenary collects incandescent live performances with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1973. Very much worth seeing and hearing!

Bottom line. Depending on your personal preferences in terms of sound and vision, the choice is between the 60s and the 80s set. The old set is rightly and lavishly praised. I don’t really know why the digital one has had such a bad press. The 70s set is for Karajan collectors only. Even if you happen to like the interpretation, the sound alone disqualifies it. The one set that everybody must avoid is the travesty in Karajan The Collection which collects the first three symphonies from the 80s and the Fourth from the 70s. The difference in the sound alone is jarring and very, very unpleasant. From the miscellaneous recordings, only the Second with Philharmonia is really indispensable. 

The set to be avoided!

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