Monday, September 25, 2017

Karajan’s Twilight of the Nineteenth Century

Like the tenth box, the eleventh of the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition has a title that reflects the composer that are included, Herbert von Karajan: Brahms • Bruckner • Wagner • R. Strauss 1970–1981. These are all composers associated with the final years of the nineteenth century, and they are not the only composers represented in this particular collection. The others are Johan Strauss II, Franz Schmidt, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

It is in this historical period that Karajan appears to find his most extensive comfort zone with the Berlin Philharmonic. This is most evident in his approach to the two symphonies by Anton Bruckner that are included, the fourth (“Romantic”) in E-flat major and the seventh in E major. In both cases Karajan works from scores edited by Robert Haas for the first critical edition of Bruckner’s works. This edition fell out of favor following the end of the Second World War, since Haas himself was a member of the Nazi party. Most likely, however, these were the scores from which the young Karajan learned his Bruckner; and he apparently saw no reason to compare them with subsequent scholarly efforts.

Unless I am mistaken, the fourth and the seventh are the only two Bruckner symphonies that I have encountered in performance. Between those concert experiences and the recordings about which I have written, I feel as if I have settled into a comfortable acquaintance with both of them. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to pick on flaws, whether they involve a structural logic that never tends to go very far beneath the surface or harmonic progressions that take a long time and do not advance very far.

From a rhetorical point of view, however, the sympathetic listener should have no trouble recognizing, if not appreciating, the extent to which Bruckner, who may have been happiest when his job involved serving as church organist, could summon musical expressiveness as a means to communicate the personal conviction of his faith. One might think that this might not be the best match for a conductor like Karajan, who tended to present audiences with a basically secular disposition. However, if Karajan never sought to be as devout as Bruckner, as an interpreter he seemed to grasp what it would take to “let Bruckner be Bruckner;” and both of these recordings succeed through Karajan’s ability to convey how he went about doing so. Bruckner experts may chafe at some of Karajan’s approaches to interpretation; but, for those with little background listening experience, these recordings definitely make for a good way to get to know this composer.

Equally satisfying are the orchestral excerpts from the operas of Richard Wagner. This should not be a big surprise. If, as has already been observed, Karajan served up some of his best chemistry when working with the Wiener Singverein, then he could be just as stimulating in his contributions to opera production, not only for his work in the orchestra pit but also for his consummate skill in working with vocalists. All of the Wagner excerpts involve the use of an instrumental ensemble either to set the context for the narrative of the opera or to reflect on it. For that matter the satisfaction that one can take in his approach to Wagner can also be found in his interpretation of the overture to Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel.

It would probably also be fair to say that, through his understanding of opera, Karajan could be more successful than others in negotiating the narrative threads of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. That skill can be appreciated in the recordings of both “Ein Heldenleben” and “Symphonia domestica,” whatever the shortcomings of the narratives themselves may be. As a result, the only real weaknesses in this box can be found in Karajan’s approaches to Johannes Brahms; but it has already been observed that Karajan was more in his element with Brahms’ choral music than he was with the orchestral repertoire.

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