Thursday, August 31, 2017

Karajan with Soloists: The Second Round

The title of the eighth box in the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is Herbert von Karajan and his Soloists 1969–1984. This may be taken as the “sequel” to the second box, which had the same title but covered the years between 1948 and 1958. The earlier collection consisted almost entirely of recordings made with the Philharmonia Orchestra, while the principal orchestra in this later collection is the Berlin Philharmonic.

As with the Philharmonia collection, I feel a need to question again the use of that possessive pronoun. Yes, there are a few recordings that feature members of the Berlin Philharmonic serving as concerto soloists. The most notable of these would be James Galway, who served as that ensemble’s Principal Flute from 1969 to 1975; but he is now better known by virtue of the solo career he subsequently established. The soloists listed on the cover of the box are Gidon Kremer, Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Alexis Weissenberg. Of these, the one coming closest to a “possessive” relationship would be Mutter, whom Karajan invited to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1975, when she was only thirteen years old; and she made her first recording at the age of fifteen, playing two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s violin concertos with Karajan and the Berlin.

Nevertheless, the soloist that dominates this collection is Weissenberg, since he was part of Karajan’s project to record the five piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven. His recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor with Karajan and the Berlin is also included in this box. For the record (pun sort of intended) Weissenberg’s first concert appearance with the Berlin under Karajan took place in 1966; and the concerto was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor. This is earlier than the scope of this box, and the recording of Opus 23 was made in 1970 with the Orchestre de Paris. These concertos are offered back-to-back on a single CD in the box.

Weissenberg brought both solid technique and informed expressiveness to his performances. Late in life he succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease, and he died at the age of 82 on January 8, 2012. However, since that time his legacy of recordings has received relatively little exposure through either broadcasting or reissues of his catalog. One possible explanation may be found in the Beethoven recordings included in this box.

For better or worse, it is difficult to avoid comparing this “Beethoven cycle” with that of the nine symphonies found in the sixth box in the Warner Classics’ collection. Once again, we are confronted with a series of performances whose attention to structural logic and grammar cannot be faulted; but there is a strong sense that Weissenberg has chosen to side with Karajan in sidelining matters of rhetoric. The result is, again, what I previously called “a score-followers dream;” but that same result is just not particularly persuasive in commanding the focused attention of the listener.

Indeed, that result seems to extend over pretty much all of the concerto selections in this box. Consequently, the recording that fares best is that of César Franck’s “Symphonic Variations.” Like Weissenberg himself, this is music that has been unfairly neglected throughout the current circulation of the recorded repertoire. Both Weissenberg and Karajan clearly understood what makes this relatively brief (about a quarter of an hour in duration) composition tick; and the ticking itself is enough to draw in the attention of the curious listener.

It is also interesting to observe that the CD for this selection also includes Richard Strauss’ Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote.” Unless I am mistaken, this is the only Strauss tone poem for which the composer provided a subtitle: “Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters” (fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character). One of the nice things about CD production is that it is easier to guide the listener through the structure of this piece, providing individual tracks for the initial statement of the theme, the ten variations, and the opening introduction and concluding finale. As a result, the listener just making acquaintance with this music will find just the right guidance in identifying the themes that characterize both that “man of la Mancha" (represented by the cello line played by Rostropovich) and the viola representation (played by Ulrich Koch) of his page, Sancho Panza.

What is missing in the packaging of this particular CD, however, are all of the text descriptions that Strauss provided for each of the sections. One can appreciate this omission as a consequence of lack of adequate space on the CD jacket. Given that all of this information can be found on the Wikipedia page for this composition, the omission is not a serious one.

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