Saturday, April 15, 2017

Walter Legge’s Initial Recording Projects with Herbert von Karajan

The third of the thirteen box sets compiled by Warner Classics for their Karajan Official Remastered Edition is entitled Herbert von Karajan: Wiener Philharmoniker 1946–1949. This is the collection that takes us back to the very beginning of the relationship between Walter Legge and Karajan and the EMI recordings that would result from that relationship. The early chronology begins in January of 1946 with the arrival of Legge in Vienna, dispatched by EMI to sign up both German and Austrian artists. Karajan was one of the first artists that Legge contacted, and by February Legge was already informing EMI of recording projects. However, as was previously observed, Karajan would not be discharged from the Austrian denazification process until March 18, 1946. Furthermore, even though he gave a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic shortly after that discharge, the Soviet occupation authorities banned him from further activities; and that ban held until after the summer of 1947.

Nevertheless, Karajan made his very first recordings for Legge in September of 1946 after returning from the Salzburg Festival where his participation had been anonymous. It is unclear whether or not the Soviets were aware of these recording sessions. Either Legge was very successful in concealing his activities from the Soviets (which I am inclined to doubt); or the Soviets decided that what the British chose to record was their own business, as long as those recordings did not find their way into Soviet territory. In any event those first recording sessions took place on September 13, 14, and 15 in the Great Hall (Großer Saal) of the Musikverein. The music recorded was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 93 (eighth) symphony in F major.

70 years later this recording provides a valuable object lesson for just how much our thinking about Beethoven has changed. These days it is not difficult to find conductors who approach Opus 93 as the lightest of Beethoven’s symphonies, making an excellent case that his capacity for wit did not have to be limited to the more intimate confines of chamber music or solo keyboard music. If there is any playfulness in Karajan’s reading, it is the play of a colossal divinity unaware of what may be crushed as he goes about his prancing. This recording amounts to a not-too-gentle reminder that changes in aesthetic perspective can sometimes be for the better, no matter how much respect we may wish to show to the past.

Does Karajan ever lighten his touch in this collection of ten CDs? The answer is that he does, and he does so where even he is willing to admit it is most needed. Karajan knew that the recovering city of Vienna needed to be reminded of when times were better; and, as far as he was concerned, the best recollection of those times could come from the music of Johann Strauss II. Thus, at the very end (specifically the last two days) of that month of September, Karajan shifted his attention to that composer’s waltzes and polkas, as well as the overture for his operetta The Gypsy Baron. These were pieces that would continue to be sweet spots throughout Karajan’s career, but his approach in these 1946 recordings comes very close to suggesting that Karajan saw the performance of the Strauss repertoire as necessary “social therapy.”

Nevertheless, whether one is listening to the symphonic recordings or the opera excerpts in this box, it is hard to avoid the impression of celebrated musicians struggling to get their act back together again. As a result, it is easy to see how those of us listening 70 years later are likely to find these efforts disappointing. The good news is that many of the artists from that time did not take long to resume climbing the learning curve. Perhaps the real value of this collection is that it reminds us of just how dark things were before “a new day would dawn.”

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