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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Festival overture in E flat major, op.49 "1812" (1880) [17:24]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Hungarian march from The damnation of Faust, op.24 (1846) [4:26]
Overture caratéristique Le carnaval Romain, op.9 (1844) [9:25]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 in C sharp minor S.244/2 (1847, orch. Müller-Berghaus 1853) [11:13]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Valse triste, op.44 (1904) [6:12]
Finlandia, op.26 (1899) [9:08]
Carl Maria VON WEBER (1786-1826)
Invitation to the dance, op.65 (1819, orch. Berlioz 1841) [8:48]
Overture Der Freischütz, op.77 (1821) [10:37]
Philharmonia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Weber op.77)/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, and Grünewaldkirche, Berlin (Weber op.77); 9 January 1958 (Berlioz), 9-10 January 1958 (Liszt), 9 and 18 January 1958 (Weber op.65), 16 January 1958 (Sibelius op.44), 17-18 January 1958 (Tchaikovsky), 5-6 January 1959 (Sibelius op.26) and 16-19 September 1960 (Weber op.77)
MINUET RECORDS 428420 [77:13]

The commonly-heard statement "They don't make them like that any more" sometimes conveys a definite sense of relief. It begs to have the words "And thank goodness for that!" tacked onto the end of it. We're surely pleased, for instance, that we no longer have to put up with such unfondly-remembered lemons as dodgy British Leyland cars, tasteless instant mashed potato or "mobile" phones as big and hefty as breeze blocks.

More often, however, those particular words are uttered with an air of wistful nostalgia, suggesting a sense of longing for a semi-mythical Golden Age where things were done rather differently - and, sometimes, by implication, somewhat better - than they are today. I suspect that many listeners will be tempted to make such an observation about this disc of orchestral lollipops.

The 1950s may have been the last decade when there was a really substantial market for discs of almost randomly selected popular classics. The 1959 Columbia release 33CX 1517 provided a fairly typical example of the genre. It offered Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, Berlioz's Hungarian march, Liszt's Hungarian rhapsody no.2, Sibelius's Valse triste and the orchestrated version of Weber's Invitation to the dance. That disc is reproduced here in full but, to fill out the running time of a modern CD, those five tracks have been supplemented by some extra Berlioz, Sibelius and Weber. It is given further interest by the fact that while seven items showcase Karajan leading London's Philharmonia Orchestra, the eighth and final one features his "other" band, the Berlin Philharmonic, giving us the opportunity to compare and contrast the two as conducted at roughly the same point in the conductor's career.

All of the pieces on this disc have been recorded many times over the years, so that the repertoire is probably its least interesting feature. Nonetheless, the first track, 1812, is a somewhat intriguing entry in the Karajan discography, simply because it's heard quite "straight". Eight years later the conductor was to re-record the piece with his Berlin orchestra (now on DG 463 614-2) but, on that occasion, brought in the Don Cossack Choir to sing the invocation O Lord, save thy people at the piece's opening. That 1966 account has become the better remembered of Karajan's 1812s, even though it's not generally well regarded. MusicWeb reviewers Harry Downey and Arthur Baker, for example, both thought the conductor somewhat disengaged from the music (review). It's worth noting too that Karajan's biographer Richard Osborne lends support to that assessment: in his booklet notes to the recording's current CD incarnation, he strongly implies that the genesis of that 1966 version was less the conductor's regard for the piece itself than his desire to work with the Don Cossacks, a choir that he had long admired. Both Harry and Arthur also criticised Deutsche Grammophon's recording for failing to make the most of its sonic opportunities and, having just re-listened to it, I find myself in complete agreement. Indeed, the impression conveyed by the overture's climactic artillery cannonades is less that of the mighty, invincible army of Holy Mother Russia rolling inexorably forward than of a company or two of poorly equipped Ruritanian conscripts on night exercise.

The earlier Philharmonia version of 1812 as heard on the disc under review is, however, a different matter entirely. While it's hard to deny the assertion that the piece is something of a meretricious potboiler, this is one of the more convincing and involving - as well as more spaciously delivered - performances that I've encountered. Even its bombastic final peroration is notably successful. Not having heard it before, I'd anticipated finding a bass drum in place of cannon shots, but, even though I can find no confirmation (Mr Osborne's magisterial Herbert von Karajan: a life in music [London, 1998] makes no mention of the recording) it does actually sound as though a tape of real weaponry has been very skilfully superimposed over the orchestra. The integration of the massed bells is, to my ears, more successfully achieved here than in Antal Dorati's much better known and spectacularly best-selling Mercury Living Presence recording (434 360-2) - which Karajan's predated by three months – even though the American artillery contribution remains in a class of its own. This Tchaikovsky track certainly gets the disc off to a very fine start.

By the way, while I'm on the subject of 1812, anyone with a guilty taste for over-the-top performances should check out a long-deleted one on Orchid ORCD 11004 that can occasionally be found second-hand. The Mexican State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the well-respected Eduardo Diazmuñoz offers a perfectly decent orchestral contribution, even if the bells are not as triumphantly in your face as I'd like. Two other elements raise this particular performance, however, to uniquely dizzy heights. Firstly, there's a barrage of finale artillery that sounds like the Tsarist army must have possessed a few early prototypes of a guided missile; and secondly there's an unforgettable contribution from Russell Brydon, resident organist at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas, who enthusiastically throws his substantial instrument's massive firepower into the already heady mix. While it's true that Tchaikovsky himself said that he expected 1812 to be "very loud and noisy", even he, I imagine, might have been surprised by the unexpected and utterly decisive battlefield deployment of Russell's four keyboards, 65 stops and no less than 4,000 pipes.

While Karajan's 1958 Tchaikovsky may not add quite as much to the gaiety of nations as that outrageously over-the-top Diazmuñoz/Brydon account, it does confirm how high he was setting the artistic bar in his Philharmonia years. That has become increasingly apparent as more of his London recordings from that era have been re-released, whether core repertoire such as his much-admired first Beethoven cycle (Warner Classics 633735, reviewed in an earlier incarnation) or less familiar - and sometimes never-to-be-revisited - fare such as Balakirev's first symphony (EMI Classics 7243 5 66595 2 0). Among the orchestral favorites that take up much of the rest of this disc, the performances are frequently of that same elevated quality.

Berlioz is represented first of all by an irresistibly foot-tapping account of the Hungarian March, even if it ultimately sounds as though it's being dashed off as a showpiece of indeterminate provenance and would have benefited from a fistful of tangy smoked paprika in the recipe. The succeeding Roman carnival overture is, though, particularly successfully achieved and provides a convincing example of Karajan's fine ear for orchestral balance as well as of his well-executed control of dynamics.

Liszt's Hungarian rhapsody no.2 receives another convincing performance, notable for some particularly carefully navigated tempo changes lending interest to a few passages that often pass by unnoticed. In this, as in the succeeding Valse triste of Sibelius, one senses an almost palpable degree of concentration in the air, with the Philharmonia's players carefully hanging on their conductor's slightest gesture. That old warhorse Finlandia is given an unusually serious performance: introduced by darkly rasping and threatening brass, it moves rather more deliberately than usual to a genuinely thrilling climax that would surely have stirred even the chilliest Baltic heart to white hot revolution.

Two pieces by Weber conclude the disc. Once we are past its slow introduction ("Excuse me, young lady, but may I have the pleasure of the next waltz?"), the Berlioz-orchestrated Invitation to the dance goes with an appropriate swing. Indeed, this is a somewhat more jaunty performance than we sometimes hear, as though the picture in Karajan's mind's eye is less a grand ball for the grown-ups than a rather lively party where the youngsters have taken to the floor while the adults enjoy a glass or two of punch in the drawing room.

As mentioned earlier, the final track, Weber's overture to Der Freischütz, is something of an outlier in this collection. Not only was it performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but it was recorded in a German venue with, presumably, different sound characteristics from those of London's Kingsway Hall and it was produced by Deutsche Grammophon engineers who, as one might expect, did not necessarily seek to replicate their British predecessors' characteristic techniques. Whether the main responsibility falls on the new orchestra, venue or recording team, the beautifully conceived and performed Weber overture exhibits greater reverberation than the London tracks, while the Berlin strings, in particular, demonstrate a distinctly sleeker and smoother profile. Of course, it might be that the alteration in sound primarily reflected Karajan's own preferences, now that he was free from producer Walter Legge's oversight and enjoying greater artistic autonomy in Berlin. In that case, one might even speculate that this track was a very early pointer towards the striking orchestral homogeneity that - to the delight of the record-buying public, if not necessarily that of the critics - came to characterise many Karajan recordings from the late 1960s onwards.

As well as provoking such intriguing ideas, this disc more practically provides a demonstration of the capabilities of London's foremost orchestra of the time - Legge's Philharmonia. It confirms at the same time the sheer quality of Karajan's music-making in 1950s London. Its generous helping of attractively tuneful and well-played material - presented here in perfectly clear sound - will certainly bring a smile to the faces of all but the most stubborn curmudgeons. In these often fraught and perplexing times, when that longed-for semi-mythical Golden Age seems further away from reality than ever, that is surely a cause for celebration.

Rob Maynard
 

 

 




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