Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Karajan and the First Viennese School in Berlin

The title of the tenth box in the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is Herbert von Karajan: Haydn • Mozart • Schubert 1970–1981. These are three of the four composers generally associated with the so-called First Viennese School (a category that probably only began to take after the label “Second Viennese School” was assigned to Arnold Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern). The “missing composer” on this box is, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven.

It goes without saying that Beethoven has hardly been ignored in the overall contents of these remastered recordings. Indeed, the “Berlin” version of Karajan and his Soloists included all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos featuring pianist Alexis Weissenberg. This is as comprehensive a collection of repertoire as was the box that featured the nine symphonies performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Presumably, the absence of those symphonies in the time span covered by the tenth box has to do with the fact that Karajan had recorded the complete cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon throughout 1962 (actually beginning in December of 1961).

For those interested in “complete lists,” the major asset of this tenth box is that it accounts for the eight Schubert symphonies that have sufficient material for performance. These are given the numbers one through six, followed by eight and nine. The seventh (D. 729 in E major) never progressed beyond sketches that were never printed. D. 759 in B minor (numbered as the eighth) is, of course, usually called the “Unfinished;” but it consists of two completed movements.

As was the case with the ninth box, also consisting primarily of Berlin Philharmonic performances, these are recordings that benefit from the wider dynamic range of improved recording technology. By all rights this should have served Schubert very well, particularly when one considers the rhetorical impact of his wide swings in dynamic level that can be found in his piano and chamber music. Sadly, Schubert fares no better in this tenth box than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky did in the ninth.

One of the lessons learned from reading Karajan’s own words in Richard Osborne’s book Conversations with Von Karajan is that this was a conductor who believed that there was never such as thing as too many string players. In Osborne’s book Karajan talks about using more than the specified 23 strings that Richard Strauss required for his “Metamorphosen.” Karajan claims he had a mutual friend ask Strauss about using a larger ensemble for recording the piece; and Strauss’ reply was “If he’s got the strings, let him do it!”

Alas, Schubert was no Strauss, nor was he meant to be. Ours is an age that has become used to listening to not only Schubert but also Haydn and Mozart performed with reduced (sometimes extremely reduced) numbers of string players. This makes for greater transparency, enhancing the ability of the attentive listener to pick up on subtleties in counterpoint and sometimes even in harmonic progression that tend to get lost in the “wash of decibels.” As a result, when subjected to Karajan’s aesthetic, the impact of soft dynamics in the music of all three of these composers tends to be seriously weakened, while the loud dynamics rant and rage, doing even more damage to the First Viennese School than they did to those Tchaikovsky symphonies that had been given such sensitive readings in the recordings made with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Mind you, aesthetic opinions about the interpretation of music constitute a pendulum that will continue to swing back and forth. Ours is a generation of listeners that has no trouble enjoying the merits of the early orchestral music of Johannes Brahms being played by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on historical instruments under the baton of Nicholas McGegan. Such listeners cannot help restraining the urge to cringe in the face of Karajan’s bombast. On the other hand there is no telling when loud will be back in fashion again. Consider, for example, the opinions expressed on this site about the current San Francisco Opera production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Those reading these comments may yet experience the day when it is accepted that Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert are due the same treatment as Puccini!

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