The title of the last of the four boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition that covers the work of Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra is even more nondescript than that of the third box. It states nothing more than Herbert von Karajan: 1951–1960. The reason is that this box covers the period of time during which Karajan was dividing his time between the Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic; and, as far as content is concerned, it is basically an “everything else” collection that pulls together music not covered in the first three boxes. On the Philharmonia side, the latest recording sessions took place in September of 1960, while the earliest Berlin sessions took place in April of 1957.
It does not take much to appreciate the distinction between the two ensembles, but the bias of that distinction may be surprising. While Karajan was not officially the founding conductor of the Philharmonia, he had a close and significant relationship with the group, as should be evident from the four boxes that cover that relationship. Thus, while Legge may be credited with bringing together a first-rate gathering of musicians capable of responding to Karajan in a manner that a first-rate conductor deserves, it would be fair to say that Karajan was the “prime mover” in establishing the orchestra’s identity.
The core of that identity involved a technical responsiveness to pretty much the full breadth of “standard repertoire” composers. One may thus say that the “heroes” of this fourth box are as much the individual Philharmonia players as they are Karajan himself. Perhaps even more so, since there tends to be more evidence of growth among the orchestra members than there is in Karajan’s approaches to interpretation.
Indeed, it is through the Berlin recordings that one is more aware of Karajan’s limitations. Ironically, it is in this portion of the box that he is more ambitious. The selections include Anton Bruckner’s eighth symphony in C minor (which usually comes out as his longest symphony in clock-time) and the symphony that Paul Hindemith composed based on music from his opera Mathis der Maler. The problem is that it is difficult to listen to either of these performances (or, for that matter, any of the other Berlin performances in this collection) without thinking about what other conductors, including those from the period of these recordings, might have done. That would include both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Sergiu Celibidache. For that matter those who have been following me since my Examiner.com days may recall my writing about a recording of Hindemith conducting Bruckner’s seventh symphony, which leads me to believe that Hindemith himself would have summoned a more red-blooded account of his Mathis der Maler symphony.
Where Karajan seems to find his most secure footing in Berlin is with his Wagner recordings. I have to confess to having been a bit amused to discover that Tannhäuser is represented only by its overture in Berlin and only by the Venusberg music with the Philharmonia. It is almost as if Karajan turned to Berlin for solemnity and to London for Wagner at his most sensuous! Nevertheless, while I find myself satisfied with both of these Tannhäuser accounts, I also find it hard to shake my preference for the “Furtwängler-Celibidache axis,” particularly in light of the track record that both of these conductors had with EMI.