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Karajan's final recording of the 4th,
This review is from: Brahms;Symphony No.4 (Audio CD)
I have never really understood why Karajan's final statement on this magnificent piece, recorded in 1988, received such lukewarm reception. Karajan's relationship with the BPO had suffered a decline in the early 1980s on account of the Sabine Meyer affair, but was back on song by 1985. This is well attested to and this recording shows that there was still life and chemistry in the collaboration.
Compared with his 1973 (DVD) and 1977 (CD) recordings, the overall vision and execution in 1988 had changed little. Karajan views the piece as an austere work that flows remorselessly towards its catastrophic conclusion. Like those previous recordings, Karajan is masterful in the transition to the coda and coda itself of the first movement. In his hands, the coda grows out of what precedes it and has enormous concentration and intensity. It is amazing how many conductors muck up the coda by artificially whipping up the tempo which cheapens the effect and is not called for by the score.
There are, however, a few subtle differences to note between this recording and earlier efforts. First, in the later recording the slow movement, while still conveying a pure and rarefied air, is infused with a little more intensity in expression and spontaneity in phrasing; dynamic contrasts are also heightened. Second, the third movement, while still fast and powerful, is not quite as fierce and frenetic as before. Third, in the last movement, not only are Karajan's tempos slightly slower overall but the tempo variations within the movement generally have been reduced to a degree. I quite like this quality because it emphasises cohesion, with one variation connecting naturally to the next. Some conductors (eg Bernstein/VPO), on the other hand, stress the tempo differences between variations, which erodes the architecture and dissipates tension.
One thing that has disadvantaged this recording is the sound, which may account for some of the bad press and inclines me to give the recording four rather five stars. The sound is quite dry and congested, which I suspect has made the result seem less streamlined and effortless than usual. The horns are also recorded with perhaps too much prominence, although their forceful contribution in the coda adds to the tension. But I wouldn't want to exaggerate the sound deficiencies. The sound is still perfectly decent.