Thursday, September 28, 2017

Choral Music from Karajan’s Berlin Period

The twelfth of the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition returns to the subject matter of the very first box but has advanced about a quarter century in time. The title of the box is Herbert von Karajan: Choral Music 1972–1976, which distinguishes it from the time span between 1947 and 1958 in the first box. There are only three compositions performed on the five CDs in this box, two of which had also appeared in the first box. In chronological order of composition these are Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 123 Missa Solemnis and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45, A German Requiem.

Readers may recall that, in the first box, the Brahms selection came from the first public concert that Karajan gave after the ban imposed due to his Nazi membership was lifted. That concert took place on October 28, 1947. The recording in the twelfth box, on the other hand, was the result of a series of recording sessions with the Berlin Philharmonic (rather than the Vienna Philharmonic), which took place in both September and October of 1976. However, on both of these occasions, the choral resources were those of the Wiener Singverein, which is also the choir for Beethoven’s Opus 123.

The only other selection in the twelfth box is Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/3 oratorio, The Seasons. For these recording sessions, made in November of 1972, Karajan drew upon the choral resources of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. While both of these boxes offered up an impressive array of vocal soloists, it is clear that, at both of these periods in his career, Karajan was at the top of his game when working with the resources of a large choir and a large orchestra.

This brings us to the factor that matters the most in the twelfth box and pervades most of the span of Karajan’s Berlin recordings. This is the factor of advances in recording technology, which enabled the capture of a far wider dynamic range than had been available to Karajan during his years with the Philharmonia Orchestra in England. That breadth of dynamic levels is evident particularly in the Beethoven and Brahms selections. One might almost say that it is evident with a vengeance.

The question that I continue to wrestle with, however (and I have been wrestling with it for over half a decade), is whether “higher fidelity” in reproduction makes a significant difference. When we sit in a concert hall, we appreciate a listening experience that takes in both the intensity associated with barely audible sounds and the intimidating fury of full-out fortissimo. However, most of us do not have living rooms that are up to accommodating that wide breadth of dynamic levels; and, for better or worse, too many of us are now listening to music through earbuds, rather than loudspeakers judiciously placed in a suitably-sized room. For that matter the first time I went to a complete performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) in Seattle, I met a woman who had driven up from the Bay Area. Along the way she had been stopped for speeding while listening to the “Ride of the Valkyries” in her car!

The point is, to reword that old joke about bad behavior, what happens in the concert hall/opera house, should stay in the concert hall/opera house. Recordings can prepare us to have fuller experiences in those settings; but, when it comes to experiencing all the virtues of performance itself, no recording will ever cut that proverbial mustard. As a result, what matters most about the recordings in this box is whether they will play a role in our becoming better-informed listeners in any concert hall/opera house. My feeling about Karajan is definitely affirmative when it comes to both the Beethoven and the Brahms selections.

About Haydn, however, I feel less confident. I do not think this should reflect on the fact that the chorus is different. Rather, it involves Karajan’s efforts to endow Haydn with the same “majesty” one encounters in his approaches to both Beethoven and Brahms. After all The Seasons is a secular work, and its texts have more do to with entertaining aspects of life on earth than on any sacred matters. Having heard performances of Haydn in more intimate settings, I have little patience with Karajan’s approach to The Seasons, which tends to put everything Haydn has done under a magnifying glass that is totally unnecessary.

To be fair, however, the idea of a “historically-informed performance” had not really enjoyed extended public favor in 1972. My personal opinion is that the world had to wait for the arrival of CD technology before public opinion could begin to appreciate the virtues of that alternative approach. By the time that technology had become commonplace, Karajan was too set in his ways to worry about changing them.

There is an old joke that still gets repeated from time to time about an encounter between Wanda Landowska and Pablo Casals. Suffice it to say that the two of them had radical disagreement over the value of a historical perspective. It is said that Landowska ended one of their arguments by saying, “Very well, Pablo, you play Bach your way; and I’ll play it his.” Karajan may not be conducting according to “Haydn’s way;” but one should be able to understand “Karajan’s way” well enough to recognize what he felt were its virtues.

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