I’m sure everyone has a favourite Karajan recording – no doubt he’s a regular in this feature. But my pick isn’t a Beethoven or a Mahler Symphony, nor is it mighty Wagner. No, I’m a sucker for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Baroque – and I don’t even mean their Four Seasons. One of my all-time favourite recordings is a very modest 1987 Deutsche Grammophon compilation of random Baroque gems, most of them Italian.
This CD has been a part of my life since childhood – and surely all good classic recordings have an element of nostalgia attached to them. But what I find most endearing about Karajan’s Baroque is the orchestra’s sumptuous, full tone (boosted by generous helpings of vibrato). These recordings were made between 1970 and 1972, at a time when the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement was picking up in Europe and specialist ensembles were being founded all over the place to give us authentic readings of all that early repertoire.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love contemporary approaches to early music performance, and I’m usually for the ‘less is more’ approach when it comes to vibrato. But there’s something about the way the Berlin Phil’s playing never betrays the so-called “Karajan sound”. You just wouldn’t get to hear performances like the ones on this disc today. The beautiful, lyrical melodies seem longer and more rounded than those you hear now from specialist Baroque ensembles. The music has a different kind of soul – more full-bodied and rich, perhaps?
The disc opens with the famous Albinoni Adagio for Organ and Strings in G Minor. It’s not Baroque in the strictest sense, as it was actually arranged in the 20th Century from a small fragment by Albinoni biographer Remo Giazotto. The slow, plodding pizzicato bass line and lament-like violin melody, cushioned by those soft organ chords, makes for one of the most hauntingly beautiful introductions around. The solo violin’s romantic lines and the dramatic harmonic build-up towards the end of the work still make me shiver.
Next up is Archangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. This work demonstrates the composer’s winning attributes: gorgeous melodies, driving rhythms and excruciatingly beautiful harmonic tension. This master of the violin was a huge inspiration when I was a young student. I am almost guaranteed to cry when I listen to the Berlin Phil’s rendition of the heavenly, cascading passage at the end of the Adagio movement.
Two violin concertos by Vivaldi follow, the G Major alla rustica, and the E Major l’amoroso. This Vivaldi glows under Karajan, whether it’s the spirited dash of the alla rustica, or the lilting, sighing strains of the l’amoroso. Thomas Brandis’s solo violin is simply joyous.
All I’ll say about the next track is: don’t think less of me for adoring a CD with Pachelbel’s Canon on it. I don’t care if it’s overplayed, I can’t get enough of it. And to finish, we have another Christmas Concerto, this one by the lesser-known Francesco Manfredini. It makes a heart-warming end to this favourite disc of mine.