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on 18 August 2014
Whatever might be said of the relationship between Herbie and the Berlin Phil towards the end of the celestial union (could one liken them to two old bears in a cave?), in this instance - a live recording from 1988 in Tokyo - the old firm is back with a vengeance. Recorded in superlative sound, this is send-in-the-Stukas, pedal-to-the-metal, bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age music-making whose intensity we have not witnessed in many a year. Is this the last B1 to matter in the scheme of things? Could be. As good as they are, can one now convert Herbie's studio performances of K 543 (1970, 1976 & 1988) into hubcaps or ashtrays? Bring on the metal-presser, I say!

I had been vaguely aware of this disc from DG Japan and its two sisters (KARAJAN LAST CONCERT 1988 SYMPHONY NO.6 MOZART &Last Concert 1988-Pictures at an E). They warranted attention and I stupidly did not test their mettle. their time has come. There's a round of applause at the start; thereafter the audience is quieter than a church mouse. Blessed be the Kempeitai in attendance!

Nothing here predicates tension or dotage. Indeed, much to everyone's terror, Herbie channels Tony Montana from Scarface: "Say hello to my little friend!" Those with pace-makers should avoid this disc: it'll kill you. Both works feature prominently in Herbie's discography; as if sensing the proximity of Boot Hill, he bets the house - down to the last chip - and his orchestra follows suit. It's all in.

Most readers will be familiar with the contours of Herbie's B1. This last outing is true to form except that it is more ferocious AND supple than its rivals. Grip and spontaneity are conjugal. Its tidal forces are cathartically resolved in the final bars. The recording is warmer than its near-contemporary Symphony No. 1 / Verklarte Nacht. I presume Nippon Radio recorded this concert (and its sisters). Again, it demonstrates to what degree Karajan was his own enemy in the studio: the clarity here is remarkable, not least in terms of inner voices. My Herbie soup-o-meter was dormant for its duration.

In a recent YouTube video, Sir Simon Rattle shared his thoughts on his predecessor with whom he had some dealings (you can find it easily enough). One critique he offers is this: Karajan performed Haydn or Mozart no differently than Bruckner or Strauss. There's truth in this. Nevertheless, I care less about a Taliban-ish tick-in-the-box rectitude and more about payload. Isn't that what it's all about, yes? To burn? When K 543 is played on this cosmic scale by a white-hot Berlin Phil - and let us not forget that Mozart wanted symphonies to be the domain of large orchestras - I cannot abjure the transfiguration therein. Listen to the urgency at 1'05"ff in the slow introduction or 4'45 to 5'06" in the first movement where the Berlin Phil approaches Fahrenheit 451 - again, does not God give us ears to hear such things? How did they do it? And who allowed such things to pass . . . . . . ?

This disc is not cheap. Nor are its sisters. Sell your car. Sell your pooch. Sell your wife. Sell your brats. Glorious in majesty, these performances are THE Pearls of Great Price. Be one with them.

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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 6 October 2014
Every Karajan / BPO concert in 1988 was (unofficially, of course) billed as possibly his last in whatever the venue concerned and so it was with two indispensable concerts on tour in Tokyo and London, where the Brahms Symphony No. 1 topped the bill. The first here was in May and has the edge over its London counterpart from as late as October by virtue of marginally superior digital sound without the slight fuzz which marginally afflicts the analogue recording made by the BBC. The only other salient factor is the coupling: either a magnificently dark, brooding, full-fat performance, which is robust, virile and elegant by turns, of K.543 or Karajan in a favourite showpiece, Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht", given an intensity which other orchestras could only aim for.

In all honesty I did not expect and do not hear much interpretative difference between the two Brahms performances and timings are virtually identical, as one might expect from HvK, who rarely deviated from his plan once he had arrived at a coherent artistic conception; both are simply stupendous, building to a climax which inspires the audience to roar its approval.

All three pieces of music concerned are amongst my personal favourites and I neither know of, nor can imagine better renditions unless they are alternative recordings by Karajan himself; they remain testaments to his enduring genius whatever you think of him and make of his influence over recording and performance in 20C music.
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on 8 January 2016
Wonderful recording of great performances - so happy I found these, and no problem with delivery from Japan.
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