Following on from last year’s 1960s box, here are Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic’s recordings for the yellow label from the 1970s, minus the operas. By this time Karajan was the dominating force behind the Salzburg Easter Festival and a towering figure in Austro-German musical circles. He was even more prolific as a recording artist than during the preceding decade. Like the 60s box this set boasts 82 discs, but Karajan also returned to EMI at this time to record with other orchestras as well as his Berliners.
He enjoyed the freedom to rerecord some of his core repertoire, namely the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Beethovens, especially Nos 3, 6 and 7, are broader than their 1960s counterparts: stirring performances, but beginning to exhibit the glacial grandeur that the conductor was later accused of overdoing. The historically informed movement had not yet reached Beethoven, but it had reached Bach. Karajan continued to program Bach, Vivaldi and other Baroque masters, and his modern instrument readings sound leaner than might be expected (notably his 1978 set of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, though not his B Minor Mass or St Matthew Passion). In the ‘70s the conductor expanded into Bruckner, Mahler and the Second Viennese school. This collection includes Bruckner’s Symphonies 4 to 9,Mahler’s Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde (with Christa Ludwig and René Kollo). The notable recordings are those of Bruckner’s Eighth, with which Karajan passionately identified, and Mahler’s Ninth. The latter is lovingly shaped and performed with the utmost beauty and purity – but the emotion is underplayed, as Karajan tacitly acknowledged by authorising the release of a live performance four years later.
His Schoenberg, Berg and Webern sound lovely. At the time these recordings were panned in some
quarters for being too beautiful, but that is to presume Schoenberg wanted an unpolished sound. Why would he? These composers sprang from the same orchestral tradition as Karajan. Other highlights include two discs of Verdi Overtures, reminding us that Karajan remained a man of theatre, plus the teenage Anne-Sophie Mutter in Beethoven’s Violin and Triple Concertos, and Janowitz’s melting rendition of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. There are quirky inclusions too: two discs of Austrian and Prussian marches for wind band, and one of European national anthems.
Christian Thielemann may have attracted some unfavourable headlines in his time – fallings out with big opera companies and run-ins with Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim – but there’s no doubting he’s a worthy keeper of the flame when it comes to the core Austro-German repertoire. The boyish-looking 55-year-old’s new “dream job” as chief conductor of Staatskapelle Dresden is already producing treasures with this DVD set of Brahms’s four symphonies. The live performances in Dresden and Tokyo are compelling viewing and listening with the orchestra’s famed soft and burnished sound ideal for this material. Thielemann is authoritative and punctilious throughout, setting excellent tempi and showing us how well he absorbed his work experience jobs with Karajan in Berlin and Barenboim at Bayreuth. An added bonus is a fascinating documentary in which the conductor is a companion on this journey through the symphonies. He shows us each work’s distinctive character and points out pitfalls for the unwary. He says the third symphony is the most enigmatic, mainly because it “implodes” rather than ending in a blaze of triumph. “There’s a kind of archaic violence that emanates from Brahms… if violence can be positive then it is in Brahms,” he concludes. You may not…