Friday, March 10, 2017

Initial Thoughts About Remastering Karajan’s EMI Recordings

About three years ago Warner Classics began a project called the Karajan Official Remastered Edition. This was described as “a series of 13 box sets containing official remastering of the finest recordings he made for EMI between 1946 and 1984.” If nothing else, this is a significant memorial effort. However, it is necessary to appreciate that the conductor Herbert von Karajan is not the only one being memorialized, since this collection owes as much to the efforts of EMI producer Walter Legge as it does to any of the performers (including conductors) on the recordings he produced.

Those efforts began shortly after the end of the Second World War. While EMI was a British company (whose recordings were distributed in the United States under the Angel label), Legge decided to set up a base of operations in Vienna when it was still a divided city occupied by the Allies. (Those unfamiliar with this background would do well to consult Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man.) Legge’s objective was to sign up both German and Austrian artists at a time when very little work was available. It goes without saying that many (if not most, or, for that matter, all) of these artists were members of the Nazi Party; and Karajan was definitely one of them. (He joined in Salzburg on April 8, 1933 and was assigned membership number 1,607,525.) However, it is most likely the case that all of those artists had been discharged by the Austrian denazification process; and Karajan was discharged on March 18, 1946.

Nevertheless, the resumption of Karajan’s career was not an easy matter. He gave a concert in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic shortly after his discharge. The Soviet occupation authorities decided to ban him from further activities, and his participation in the following Salzburg Festival was anonymous. One of the most interesting features of the Warner remastering project is that it includes Karajan’s first public concert after that ban was lifted. On October 28, 1947 he conducted a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45, A German Requiem, in the “Great Hall” (Großer Saal) of the Musikverein, the concert hall in Vienna run by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (society of friends of music). The Gesellschaft had its own concert choir, the Wiener Singverein, which performed with the Vienna Philharmonic. The soloists were soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (who would eventually marry Legge in 1953) and bass-baritone Hans Hotter.

All this is a way of saying that there is a long and rich history, which involves far more than music, behind the recordings that Warner collected. Thus, when all thirteen of the boxes from the project were released in a single 101-CD box set this past September, it became possible to enjoy the fruits of Warner’s efforts in a single package. However, whatever the virtues of this collection may be, it is worth pointing out a few of the flaws that may have an impact on those who take their listening practices seriously.

Most importantly the reader is directed to that quotation in the opening paragraph, particularly the phrase “the finest recordings.” This is in no way a complete account of Karajan’s relationship with EMI, the relationship that did much to establish his international reputation until he made the move to Deutsche Grammophon. This will be of particular importance to opera lovers, since, as far as I can tell from my perusal of the content listing, there are none of the complete opera recordings he made for EMI in this collection.

This leads to the second issue, which has to do with my use of the phrase “as far as I can tell.” There is no useful index for the entire collection. The packaging consists of one large box that encloses the thirteen box sets that were initially released independently. The back of that large box lists all of the music included in the collection:

from the Web page

(Those concerned that the fine print on this image is illegible should not be dismayed. Clicking on it will bring up the source JPEG file. All the text is perfectly legible in that version, although it may require a JPEG reader that permits enlargement!) The list is organized according to which orchestra Karajan was conducting and then alphabetically by composer in each of those sections. However, I have yet to find any way to get from that list to a specific box, let alone a specific CD in that box. As far as I can tell, if I want to do selective listening, I shall have to build my own index!

Thus far my listening has taken in only the first box in the collection, entitled Choral Music 1947–1958. The contents are not ordered chronologically; but, since there are only five CDs in this box, that poses no great problem for those interested in the historical chronology. Brahms’ Opus 45 is preceded by Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232, usually called Mass in B Minor; and that recording was made in 1952. The other major recording is of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 123 Missa Solemnis, made in 1958. This requires nine tracks on the fourth CD and another two on the fifth. That latter CD is then filled out; but only one choral selection is part of the “filling,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 618 “Ave Verum Corpus.” The remainder of the CD features Schwarzkopf singing more Beethoven and Richard Strauss’ four “last” songs.

With regard to the collection as a whole, I must confess to a personal bias that has nothing to do with Karajan. I have been a rabid fan of the Wiener Singverein ever since I encountered them on my very first long-playing recording of Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony, where they were conducted by Jascha Horenstein. They are the only choral resource in this box, even though the Beethoven Opus 123 recording was made with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Whatever one may say about Karajan performances being cringe-inducing, particularly those interested in historically-informed interpretations, I cannot resist being blown away by the technical precision and polished blending of the Wiener Singverein; and they definitely make this box “worth the price of admission” (with apologies to P. T. Barnum).

As to Karajan’s role in this process, it is best just to accept him on his own terms. When those terms take in excesses of interpretation that are out of fashion today, we need to remember that those practices were normative when these recordings were made. There is nothing wrong with accepting them in the context of the times. These recordings come from a particular period in world history (not just music history) when both Karajan and Legge had a shared mission to make more of the “standard repertoire” available to more listeners around the world. It is hard to fault how they fulfilled this mission where the repertoire in this first box is concerned.

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