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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Karajan in France, 30 Dec. 2010
This review is from: Ravel: Bolero, Daphnis Suite 2, Pavane; Debussy: Prelude, La Mer; Saint-Saens: Symphony 3 (Audio CD)
Herbert von Karajan here leads one of the best parts of his extensive repertoire: Debussy. Mostly acclaimed for his recording of Pelleas et Melisande, Karajan is also in his element in presenting some of the most beautifully moulded interpretations put on record. The two Debussy items are undoubtedly the highlights here. In particular, the Prelude is given a gorgeously atmospheric and ethereal performance and you really 'find' the intended imagery. The flute solo of Karlheinz Zoeller is impeccable and deeply felt. The dynamics are especially beautifully controlled in all performances (except for the Saint-Saens, which is the major disappointment of the set).

Of course, the 1964 La Mer is the most interesting: surely listeners will find this an ideal way of acquiring it while immersing themselves in other aspects of Karajan's French recorded repertoire. This recording is famous and much talked-about. I should only add that the imagery conveyed in the work is absolutely clear in a recording so meticulously and lovingly played. The 'Karajan vision' fans often discuss is heard in abundance. Nevertheless, he does not 'smooth over the edges' as is often alleged. Instead, BOTH the turbulence and serenity of the sea are there and every part of the orchestral palette is deployed.

I would draw a line connecting performances like this with Karajan's other visionary recordings: like his magnificent Verklarte Nacht (Schoenberg) from the 1970s. Personally, the works, whilst different in provenance, are tied together in Karajan's hands with beautiful playing and a vision for the long, lyrical lines and an appreciation of the aural picture being conveyed by the work.

The presentation of the set is attractive, with a highly appropriate photo of Karajan and more importantly an informative essay by his biographer Richard Osborne on how the works fit within the conductor's career. This is common to albums in the Karajan Collection.

Nevertheless, there are some less attractive parts of this set. The Ravel items are not very compulsive. The Saint-Saens promised much (with the use of the organ at Notre Dame), but everything is terribly artificial. I hear this is infamous because of the early digital recording which is considered primitive thirty years on. The Adagio is beautifully done and the orchestra is fine throughout. But the integration of the organ is artificial and not domineering enough a presence in the famous Presto and this is unacceptable in the Symphony, avec organ!

Otherwise, the performances and recording are fine. The recording is natural if a little dry at times in the Debussy, but they are such atmospheric performances that a beautiful hush is created, especially in the Prelude. So perhaps for people who only want the Debussy, the single album now available is better value, and it also includes the artwork from the original LP.

The Debussy performances are the kind of stuff that is beguiling and enraptures you from first note to last. Be seduced and begin the love affair with this composer, and conductor.
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