on 15 September 2013
If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of Debussy, but La Mer is beatifully done. Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition is just stunning and Ravel's Bolero is majestic.
Too many music recordings these days take the tempo far too fast (submitting to commercial pressure to get as much down as possible on a CD), so the whole thing gets blurred. If orchestral pieces are played too fast, then individual sections of the orchestra cannot keep it together and the rest of the orchestra rapidly loses the plot as well. As a result, a listener's brain rapidly tires of trying to resolve the timing issues. Not so with this recording, clearly, as it was done in the heady days of "vinyl". I'm not going to get into a discussion of whether vinyl is better than CD, but it's simply a matter of the amount of music you could get onto two sides of an LP compared with the extra 15 minutes or so you can get onto a CD - there's a strong temptation to add another piece that won't quite fit unless you rush everything, but at least you can appeal to a wider audience when putting together a medley and you also save on production costs (fewer CDs in a boxed set, for example). Each note on this recording is audible and the perfomance is tight, without being wooden, a result of (a) von Karajan's firm direction and (b) not taking things too fast, so the orchestra members could LISTEN to each other and stay together as the tempo was accelerated and decelerated for dramatic effect.
As an example of what I'm talking about with tempo... Maurice Ravel originally wrote 76 bpm on his score for Bolero. Later, he crossed that out and wrote 66 bpm instead. His first recording in 1930 lasted 15 min 50 sec. At 76 bpm, the piece lasts a little under 14 min and the majority of modern recordings are in this ball-park. The majority of "old" recordings are nearer the 15:30 - 16:00 mark (although Stokovsky holds the speed record with his 1940 recording in about 12 min). Toscanini annoyed Ravel intensely with his 1930 recording at 13:25 and the two did not speak for some months afterwards.
This album also, thankfully, lacks that bane of modern recordings... over-compression... which means that you get the full dynamic range of the pieces, with none of the drop-outs in volume every time someone in the percussion section crashes his cymbals, for example. Compression is used far too much in modern recordings (and, sadly, in so-called "digitally re-mastered" older recordings as well). Again, this is due to commercial pressures to maximise bandwidth usage, but there's really no need for it - it's just lazy. And frustrating to listen to.
Taking the tempo far too fast and/or compressing the bejayzus out of it is an insult not only to the composer but also to the ears.
Anyroadup, this is a fantastic recording of some sublime music, played beautifully by a top-flight orchestra, conducted by one of the great masters of his art and it hasn't been messed with by one of the jeune ecole of sound engineers. Get it.
Apart from a couple of reviews from way back around the turn of the century, whose authors hear flaws in this recording that I do not, nearly everyone concurs that ever since their recording fifty years ago, these performances have remained unequalled and unassailable. Of course there are are other excellent recordings of all three pieces (Giulini's "Pictures" with the Chicago SO and his "La mer" with the Philharmonia, for example) but as a collection this is a testament to both the sonority of the Berlin Philharmonic at its peak under Karajan and to that conductor's chameleon ability to empathise with and elucidate music from outside the late German Romantic tradition in which he excelled. His brief dalliance with the Orchestre de Paris confirms his attachment to French music and his ability to pace and colour both the Debussy and the Ravel emerges as a thing of wonder.
There is of course a neat link in the programming here between the Mussorgsky and "Boléro" as the composer of the latter orchestrated the "Pictures" brilliantly; originally these recordings, made between 1964 and 1966 in the warm ambiance of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, were issued on two separate LPs, one of French music by Debussy and Ravel and the other with just the Mussorgsky and "Boléro". Any attempt at musical criticism of such seminal recordings would be superfluous after such a long time; it is sufficient to note that the delicacy and nuance of Karajan's evocation of the sea remain extraordinary, and the peroration of the "Pictures" in "The Great Gate of Kiev" remains one of the greatest expositions of the symphony orchestra in full flight ever committed to disc.