Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Karajan’s EMI Concerto Recordings: The First Round

A little less than a month ago, I filed my first dispatch on my traversal of the thirteen box sets compiled by Warner Classics for their Karajan Official Remastered Edition. I have now completed the second box in the collection entitled Herbert von Karajan and his Soloists 1948–1958. I have to begin by getting my reaction to that possessive pronoun off of my chest. I find it very difficult to think of any concertante soloist as being a “possession” of the conductor, no matter how strong an authority that conductor may be. I prefer to think of the relationship as a “partnership of ideas;” and if either side tries to be too authoritative (everyone knows about the encounter between George Szell and Glenn Gould), the prospect for making music worth listening to becomes very dim.

It is thus worth noting that three of the eight CDs in this box are devoted to the pianist Walter Gieseking, who was over a decade older than Karajan. However, I would also hold up Hans Richter-Haaser to make my point. Richter-Haaser was Karajan’s contemporary. By today’s standards his recording legacy is relatively modest, but in the middle of the last century it was not to be dismissed lightly. In his case only one of those recordings was made with Karajan.

I single out those two pianists because they were a primary focus of my attention. This was particularly true of Richter-Haaser, whom I really knew only by his name. The last CD in this box is his recording of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. The recording was made with the Berlin Philharmonic on September 30, 1958.

I am not surprised by how seldom I have encountered concert performances of this concerto, because it is such a massive undertaking. Only the second movement scherzo tends to run less than ten minutes, and the opening movement frequently pushes twenty. Furthermore, there is an intense relationship between the piano and many of the individual instrumental voices that can be almost as intimate as any of the chamber music that Brahms wrote for piano and other instruments.

Fortunately, Karajan was as much in his element with this concerto as he was with the Opus 45 A German Requiem in the Choral Music 1947–1958 box. Similarly, Richter-Haaser had a solid command of the full and wide spectrum of technical demands placed upon the soloist. Yet, while always keeping his technique in line, he always had “mental cycles” available to establish intimate relationships with instruments in the ensemble when Brahms called for them. It is not easy to find recordings of this concerto that leave the knowledgeable and attentive listener duly satisfied, but this is one of them.

Where Gieseking is concerned, I tend to associate him primarily with solo recordings of the music of Claude Debussy; and those were clearly not within the scope of this particularly Warner project! The closest we get is one of Debussy’s teachers, César Franck. (To be fair, Debussy studied organ, rather than composition, with Franck.) The “Symphonic Variations” in F-sharp minor holds the center position in the last of the three Gieseking CDs in the box. It is sandwiched between Robert Schumann’s Opus 54 concerto in A minor and Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 concerto, which is also in A minor; and those do not provide the best of contexts to listening to Franck. (All three of these performances were recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra.) Nevertheless, this is a performance that reminds us of how expressive Franck could be through a process that endowed each of a set of variations on a relatively simple theme with its own “personalized” identity. Gieseking was definitely the right pianist for this music, and this recording makes me regret that few of today’s pianists have the requisite sensitivity for this particular composition.

Gieseking also had a solid command of Ludwig van Beethoven. That can be found on the CD of the last two of the five concertos, Opus 58 in G major and Opus 73 (“Emperor”) in E-flat major. These recordings were also made with the Philharmonia Orchestra. They are clearly solid accounts, but the sense is that this is Karajan’s Beethoven, rather than that aforementioned “partnership of ideas.” More problematic is the CD of two concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 488 in A major and K. 491 in C minor, again with the Philharmonia Orchestra. K. 491 holds up well under Karajan’s late-nineteenth-century-dramatic approach … K. 488 not so much. If Gieseking had his own thoughts about how to play Mozart, it is unclear that they can be detected on this CD.

The other two pianists in the box are Dinu Lipati (another Schumann recording and Mozart’s K. 467 concerto in C major with Lipati’s own cadenza) and Kurt Leimer playing two of his own piano concertos. Following the Second World War Leimer was known for having written a concerto for the left hand inspired by the wartime injuries of his fellow Germans in the Wehrmacht. Karajan premiered this concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1953 and then recorded it with the Philharmonia Orchestra the following year. The C minor concerto on the same CD suggests that Leimer took great interest in the music that George Gershwin wrote for piano and orchestra.

From a historical point of view, the other memorable recording in this box is the CD of Mozart’s four horn concertos with Dennis Brain as soloist. There is no question that Brain was the horn player during the middle of the twentieth century, at least until his passion for sports cars led to his tragic death on September 1, 1957. It was late at night when he drove off the road and into a tree. His Mozart recording is still memorable, but those interested in period instruments are likely to find it a bit too polished. There are also several places in which Mozart was clearly in a humorous mood, but neither Brain nor Karajan seemed receptive to that mood.

On a personal note (pun intended) I played clarinet during my years in secondary school. Even though most of my time was spent in a band, I wanted to work on Mozart’s K. 622 clarinet concerto in A major. The recording I used as a point of reference was the Angel vinyl of Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra with soloist Bernard Walton. That recording is included in this collection, and it definitely brought back pleasant memories!

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