When this site discussed Herbert von Karajan: Orchestral Spectaculars 1949–1960 a week ago, that discussion observed that Warner Classics had compiled four boxes in its Karajan Official Remastered Edition to account for Karajan’s work with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestral Spectaculars was the first of those four boxes, and I made no effort to conceal my lukewarm reaction. The title of the second of those two boxes is Herbert von Karajan: Russian Music 1949–1960, and the box as a whole left me feeling a bit more sanguine. The primary reason is that, of the seven CDs in the box, three are devoted entirely to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; and Tchaikovsky selections are included on two more.
This may puzzle some readers. Given that Walter Legge seemed to be in the process of providing the Philharmonia with a cash cow through the production and distribution of a massive library of EMI recordings, it is no surprise that Tchaikovsky would figure significantly in that library. On the other hand, when one considered the “cult factor” of Karajan’s personality traits, the prospect of his taking on Tchaikovsky may seem like a departure from his comfort zone.
Whether or not that was actually the case, Karajan emerges on these recordings as a conductor who understood what made Tchaikovsky’s music tick. I came to appreciate that quality while reading Richard Osborne’s Conversations with Von Karajan (discussed yesterday), when I encountered the following Karajan remark, which arose while he was reflecting on Arturo Toscanini conducting Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor:
I realized then that no music is vulgar unless the performance makes it so.
There are any number of conductors who seem to find it impossible to resist a descent into vulgarity when taking on Tchaikovsky, particularly where his last three symphonies are concerned, Opus 36 in F minor, Opus 64 in E minor, and Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) in B minor. The music critic Julius Korngold is said to have taken his son, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to task for “bathing” in the music he wrote, rather than composing it. From that point of view, there are too many conductors that view the scores of these symphonies as an “invitation to bathe.” There are even video documents of some of them that are not shy is displaying the vulgarity of such bathing tactics.
Listening to the Karajan recordings in this Russian Music box, one quickly appreciates that he resists the temptation to bathe by virtue of a comprehensive understanding of the musical qualities of each of those three symphonies. Even the Opus 49 “1812 Overture” benefits from this treatment, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate that there is more to this music than cannon fire! Furthermore, one gets to appreciate Karajan’s approach to Opus 36 twice, once with the Philharmonia and once with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Nevertheless, there are weak spots in this collection. The two most salient arise from a misconception of what is actually Russian. The most troubling is Karajan’s approach to Igor Stravinsky’s score for George Balanchine’s ballet “Jeu de cartes” (card game). Balanchine created this ballet for the American Ballet, the first professional ballet company he created in the United States; and, regardless of his Georgian and Russian background, Balanchine had no trouble creating a “red-blooded American” ballet based on a deck of cards. Stravinsky followed suit (so to speak) admirably; and about the only sign of European influence can be found in a passing reference to Gioachino Rossini. Unfortunately, Karajan never really catches on to the American spirit of this music; and what emerges is an overly formal reading with no trace of the wit in either Balanchine’s scenario or Stravinsky’s recognition of that wit in his music.
The other misconception concerns the suite Pictures at an Exhibition. One can definitely appreciate the Russian qualities of the piano composition that Modest Mussorgsky wrote under this title. However, by the time Maurice Ravel was done with his orchestration efforts, the overall rhetoric had migrated gracefully from Russia to France. Thus, while Pictures is not quite as out of place as “Jeu de cartes” is, many of the qualities that make Ravel’s orchestration so memorable seem to have eluded Karajan’s approach to the score.
On the other hand there is far more spirit to Karajan’s Ravel than there is in his approach to Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 67 “Peter and the Wolf.” This is a recording that was clearly made for its “family appeal.” However, it just as clearly was not in Karajan’s comfort zone. For that matter Peter Ustinov’s virtues as a narrator are better appreciated by adults, and even he seemed to feel out of place on this recording. (He seemed much happier with his account of Babar set to music by Francis Poulenc, even if he is speaking French on the recording he made.)
Make no mistake, Tchaikovsky is the “main attraction” in the Russian Music box; and anyone serious about listening to Tchaikovsky’s music will not be disappointed by Karajan’s interpretations.