This is a very famous pair of discs indeed and a pair that has withstood the passing of time and the varying opinions of Karajan and his orchestra unscathed.
The reason lies in the combination of a very enjoyable selection of popular ballet music making a very enjoyable overall program. In addition there is the immaculate perfection of the BPO playing delivered without the slightest hint of routine. That would never have been allowed by Karajan of course who was nothing if not an absolute task master with a very clear idea of appropriate standards. There are now several examples of Karajan rehearsing his orchestra on YouTube. These show a level of concentration and determination to achieve interpretive points that demonstrate beyond question that even players as skilled as those in the BPO were required to work to standards of meticulous detailed interpretive perfection, as envisaged by Karajan, as a basic necessity.
None of this would be worth a thing if the conductor did not have a vision that would communicate a valid viewpoint to both his players and to the audience. This Karajan had and could do to a remarkable extent. Not everything worked with every performance or recording or has survived the passing of interpretive time of course, but the percentage of long term success is such that most conductors could only dream of. This set has long been considered a good example of that success by many of his critics.
The Delibes Coppelia, for instance, has a mixture of delicacy, sweep and a suggestion of humour not always found at the ballet. The Chopin has a refined taste that defies criticism. The Faust and Tchaikovsky offer sweep and the majesty as well as all the other characteristics already mentioned. The Ponchielli is a master-class in refined orchestral delicacy and point. This clearly does not do the performances justice, but to do so would require a book and hardly seems appropriate to a general resume!
Suffice it to comment that there is not a single failure or doubtful moment in this selection. Among the Karajan discography it has come in for less adverse criticism than most. Therefore if the program is of interest, I would suggest that this is a particularly safe bet among the Karajan legacy and it has the additional advantage of good sound for its 1970's vintage.
on 26 August 2013
. . . . . or so I imagine, not that I want to experience the real thing.
These bleeding chunks from Sleeping Beauty, recorded in January 1971, represent the Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic union at its zenith. Once heard, their incandescence in the Introduction and the Rose Adagio will resonate with you forever. Indeed, if you have daughters (like I do) and there are foxes "stalking the hen-house" , don't allow them to listen to either piece: they're an invitation to fall hopelessly in love with the inevitable consequences . . . . Karajan's control is unerring: namely, the ability to impart an infinitesimal brake on the music in wait for the true moment of detonation.
The other thumper is Les Sylphides, recorded in 1960. It is Karajan's only recording of the arrangement. It was committed to disc not long after he was lured over to the Yellow Label from the Red. He was already a superstar so one wonders - in a way - why he deigned to undertake it. The results are remarkable - the Penguin Guide awarded it a Rosette. The Prelude and the Nocturne in particular bespeak 'older times and faraway places'; the violin and clarinet obligato in the latter are just as caustic of Newtonian physics as Einstein. In this instance, Karajan was more of a wizard than Merlin.
Faust is well done but it does not banish memories of Beecham. Much the same comment could be said of Coppelia.
The Offenbach is remarkable. Karajan banishes any Teutonic heaviness from the Berlin Philharmonic and the latter seem to revel in the evocation of the Second Empire. Karajan had a lifelong love of this collection. In an interview, he drew attention to the fact that Death underwrites the Barcarolle - but it is not the Grim Reaper but rather, a less malevolent figure who "embraces the old like a babe in the arms of its mother."
A chatterer such as Norman Lebrecht dines out on the excesses of his career but this collection is a vibrant reminder that Herbie was the only practitioner in the Guild to make Furtwangler sweat.