Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Karajan on Decca: First Viennese School

from the Amazon.com Web page for the collection being discussed

Last Friday I filed my first account of the 35-CD Sony Classical release of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin entitled The Complete RCA Album Collection. That happened to be the day on which the latest anthology of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan on 33 CDs entitled The Complete Decca Recordings was released by Universal Music Group. As in the past I plan to take a piecemeal approach to both of these collections, writing separate articles guided primarily by eras of music history. (I also have a shorter anthology, which I shall probably add to this interleaving process; but that account will probably consist of only a single article.)

Those that have followed me for some time know that my enthusiasm for Karajan rarely rises above lukewarm. Nevertheless, his impact on the recording industry (not to mention how many performances he conducted before an audience) is too great to pretend that it does not exist. Indeed, I can even confess that there are performances that impress me more on follow-up listenings than they do with their first impressions. So, what I mean by “lukewarm” is that there are a relatively small number of Karajan recordings in my collection that I am likely to avoid for some time to come.

Still, the question remains of whether this new release has anything to offer other than “more of the same” encountered in previous anthologies. The answer is significantly affirmative, since the Decca release provide me with my first efforts to survey Karajan’s approaches to recording full-length opera performances in a repertoire that consists of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end and Giacomo Puccini at the other. In this context I shall begin with an account of the First Viennese School composers, including Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven along with Mozart.

The instrumental selections in this category are, to say the least, modest. Beethoven is represented only by his Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, while both Mozart and Haydn are allotted two symphonies, both from their respective “late periods.” The Mozart symphonies are K. 550 in G minor and K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major; and those of Haydn are Hoboken I/103 (“Drumroll”) in E-flat major and Hoboken I/104 (“London”) in D major. The only opera in this category is Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro (and I have to say, as an aside, that I miss the opportunity to listen to Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio in this collection, having heard Karajan’s impressive approach to this opera’s overture).

The recording sessions for K. 492 took place in April and May of 1978. This predates by a few years my own efforts to pay more attention to opera performances. My first subscription to the Metropolitan Opera began in the fall of 1981, and I greatly appreciated the following years during which I cultivated a broad knowledge based on staged performances of the opera repertoire. Nevertheless, by 1978 I had seen at least one video Figaro on PBS, and the impressions made by Hermann Prey’s account of the title role are about all I can remember form that experience.

Karajan’s Figaro on this recording is José van Dam, complemented by Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna. Their pairing is, in turn, complemented by Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Countess Rosina Almaviva and Tom Krause as her philandering husband. The other particularly welcome name in the cast is Frederica von Stade in the role of Cherubino. (She now lives on the other side of the Bay in Alameda.)

Mozart’s score is given a complete account. (The arias for Marcellina and Basilio in the fourth act are frequently cut in performances.) Curiously, “Dove sono” precedes the sextet in which the details of Figaro’s parents are disclosed. If this was Karajan’s decision, then I applaud it, since it makes for a better flow of the overall narrative in the opera’s third act. What I miss, however, is what I often miss in opera recordings, vocal deliveries that disclose character traits underlying both the music and the words. This is particularly critical with all of the disguises behind the narrative of the fourth act. On the other hand, the respective arias for Figaro and Count Almaviva are delivered under Karajan’s direction in a context of underlying traits of the respective characters.

I also have a minor quibble with recording levels. The amplitude of all of the recitative sections is decidedly lower than the rest of the sections of the score. This may have something to do with not trying to amplify the harpsichord continuo performance by Konrad Leitner too much. It may also have to do with the fact that most listeners are not interested in the recitative sections and just want to get on with the “real music.” Given how much of the narrative is disclosed in recitative form, I feel that the decision to drop the volume for them tends to undermine the narrative itself.

Whatever its shortcomings, K. 492 is the most satisfying of the First Viennese School offerings in this collection. The symphonies of both Mozart and Haydn are given “business as usual” treatment; and the Beethoven account is not much more compelling. The orchestra for all of these selections (including the opera) is the Vienna Philharmonic, which is certainly a well-disciplined ensemble. However, in terms of available recordings, there is a lot of competition for all five of the symphonies that Karajan conducts; and my personal tastes tend to go for one of the competitors for each of these pieces.

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