Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reports of “Spectacular” Karajan have Been Exaggerated

The month of July has given me a generous amount of time to catch up on listening to recordings that have accumulated in my collection. That has included getting back to traversing the thirteen box sets compiled by Warner Classics for their Karajan Official Remastered Edition. This project has been languishing in 1949 since my last dispatch on the third box in the set. The title of the fourth box is Herbert von Karajan: Orchestral Spectaculars 1949–1960; and, once again, it is necessary to provide some background information on the saga of career development that Karajan shared with Walter Legge.

Reader may recall that Karajan made his first recordings for Legge as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. However, Legge’s heart was in England, where he had been Thomas Beecham’s assistant at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. After the conclusion of that war, Legge set about to found an new orchestra, which he called the Philharmonia Orchestra. He had hoped that Beecham would be the Music Director; but (as might be guessed) Beecham refused to take a position that would place him as Legge’s employee.

Fortunately, Legge had no trouble recruiting other conductors; and, while Karajan never had an official title, he was closely associated with the Philharmonia. Nevertheless, he was far from the only conductor to take the ensemble’s podium. Some of the most memorable of the others included Arturo Toscanini, Richard Strauss, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. However, Karajan’s association with the Philharmonia was firmly associated with the EMI recordings he made, which continued even after he had been named Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1954. As a result, of the thirteen CDs in the fourth box of the Warner Classics series, eleven of them, along with 21 (of 25) tracks of the twelfth, present the Philharmonia, leaving the remaining tracks of the twelfth CD and all of the thirteenth to the Berlin Philharmonic.

Furthermore, this is far from a comprehensive account of the full breadth of EMI accomplishments that Karajan achieved with the Philharmonia. Such an account would have to include the following three boxes in this collection, which amount to another 25 CDs. For better or worse, Warner Classics chose to distinguish the fourth box as consisting of “orchestral spectaculars” or, if you read the “long form” on the front of the box, “orchestral spectaculars from Handel to Bartók.”

This promises considerable breadth; but there are quite a few selections across the thirteen CDs in this box that definitely challenge that attribute of “spectacular.” Consider, for example, the CD that consists entirely of overtures by Gioachino Rossini, each of which has its own capacity to delight but would hardly be described as “spectacular.” The same could be said of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ fantasia on the music of Thomas Tallis or Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teacher Frank Bridge. Even more challenging is Jean Sibelius’ enigmatic Opus 63 (fourth) symphony in A minor, which, in my mind, only really succeeds when it leaves the listener with the disturbing feeling that some critical elements are decidedly out of joint.

One might also wish to take issue with George Frideric Handel being the earliest composer in the collection. The box includes two recordings of a piece identified as Water Music Suite, thus offering interpretations by both the Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic; but the title itself refers to an arrangement that Hamilton Harty made of selections from the three suites that Handel himself had called Water Music. Harty compiled this suite in 1922, a time when audiences felt that Handel was too old-fashioned and needed to be spruced up a bit. (Harty was far from the only one to “improve upon” Handel for the sake of those audiences. Other partners in this crime included Leopold Stokowski and Harty’s countryman Beecham.)

To be fair, when I was a high school student (in the early Sixties) Stokowski’s aesthetic was still going strong in the Philadelphia Orchestra. I had been fortunate enough to find a recording of Boyd Neel conducting the music as Handel had written it, putting me out in the forefront of those who would later reject Harty’s efforts as “historically misinformed.” Given how much attention there is to pre-Classical music in my home town of San Francisco, I suspect it would be almost impossible for me to find anyone capable of listening to Hardy’s arrangement of Handel without cringing.

Mind you, there are any number of instances of recordings that live up to that “spectacular” attribute. Indeed, there is an entire CD of the music of Hector Berlioz that fills the bill very nicely. Nevertheless, Karajan comes across as a conductor that is decidedly more interested in discipline rather than spectacle. What one admires most is the precision that he could elicit from his players; and, for an orchestra like the Philharmonia that was just getting off the ground, that is no small matter. However, precision does not necessarily result in the listener jumping out of his/her seat in revelatory astonishment. Rather, the impact is one of a satisfactory account of the score that never seems to take the sort of rhetorical stance that would leave the impression of a memorable performance.

From a more pragmatic point of view, on the other hand, Legge’s highest priority was probably his balance sheets. Going back to those high school days, I can remember browsing the shelves of Penn Records in Philadelphia. They were filled with the Angel vinyls of the selections in this box. Furthermore, if I were to ask one of the salesmen on the floor (yes, they were all men at the time) for a recording of something like Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“New World”) symphony in E minor, the odds were high that he would pull one of those Angel vinyls on the shelf and ask if I wanted anything else. Legge definitely knew how to engage the power of EMI recordings for the betterment of the Philharmonia; and Karajan was instrumental (so to speak) in milking that cash cow for all it was worth.