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Karajan's Bruckner Box Knocked Off It's Pedestal!
on 14 December 2013
Is it true that those giant Karajan reissues by DG of complete recordings by decade, such as the 82CD box of 1970s recordings, are freshly remastered? Very good news if it is, although fans of the Bruckner sessions won't relish having to buy both '70s and '80s box-sets to get the complete Bruckner package. This slimline reissue is cheap and cheerless: an unappealing greyish-white with cardboard sleeves imprinted with giant vulgar numbers on the front. The previous incarnation, if nothing else, was handsome and imposing on the shelf. An eye-catcher. But times change.
By the very late '70s and into the '80s, the Berlin Phil under HvK's aegis were capable of producing such a gargantuan, saturated symphony that the music could be brought down by the sheer burden of imposed weight. Try the Sibelius 5 from that era. This Bruckner cycle, recorded from 1975-83, has fierce analogue and then fierce digital stereo, the latter afflicting Karajan's debut with the early symphonies (Nos.1-3, "Die Nullte" excluded from condescension). When you add the full force of the BPO, Bruckner's little minx and his other problem children are decimated. Some Brucknerians will love that sort of thing, and I'm certainly no fan of the vibrato-free/strings lite/quick-as-we-can school of interpretation, but this is too burdensome to be borne. On the plus side, HvK does choose well - the Linz edition, the 1889 3rd - but as he himself demonstrates elsewhere in the set, an exercise of power need not be one of aggression.
But then, the avalanches keep coming. However beautifully shaped his final version of the 4th, HvK disfigures it by using a corrupted text, one that includes a revolting 'octave-doubling' of the strings in the introduction which can ony be greeted with mind vomit; it's a hangover from the 1889 Lowe edition, generally scrapped (although Vanska recently revived it). Knappertsbusch used to play it but then he was thirty years older than Karajan and never produced Mantovani-like effects in his performances, or maybe those noisy old concert recordings spare us. Even without that, it's another battle zone reading, strings and brass going all out to burst the eardrums. As with the slow movement of No2, HvK's studio take on No.5 has an adagio which feels neverending (and that's not because it's approx. 22mins; Celi's Stuttgart concert went further and his reading was mesmerizing); if you make it to the next stage you'll witness a slaughterhouse, Austrian villagers trampled to death by heedless trolls they inadvisedly invited to the festivities, repeat-repeat. Going back to the adagio, it's worth noting that not one of Karajan's concert renditions went anywhere near as long. I guess he mostly did it better standing up.
No.6 is no great shakes. The Seventh is given a superb reading, more adrenaline than the later Vienna recording but also less sublime, less characterful, less euphoric. the 1975 8th is, overall, a great one, at its best in the second half, though again compare it with his performances in Austria and you find him dancing the music along in a different spirit. The set concludes with a masterful 9th, the great studio 9th and peerless as such. But even at budget price, this box is a hard sell for only 3 great performances out of nine.
Some say Karajan's Bruckner is marred by its transfer from LP to CD. That may very well be true, but no such affliction was incurred by the transfer of Haitink's Concertgebouw cycle when it reappeared in the early 1990s (rec. 1960s-70s). The box is now back in the Bernard Haitink Symphonies Edition (Decca), retailing around £60. Haitink can't compete with Karajan in the popular 7th & 8th but for the rest - which does include No.0 - he and the Dutch orchestra are unmissable, transforming Bruckner's genius from a lumbering teutonic giant into a bold, heroic alpine deity. The readings are very different and a true Bruckner addict would want both conductors, but given the relative scarcity of outstanding interpretations of the early symphonies, themselves in no way negligible despite the popularity of the later epic canvases, Haitink's energetic, sumptuous and maybe more classical take on the form and emotional content of these works make his set a priority. His 'Romantic' is perfectly paced, as is the 5th, and the elusive 6th is given a noble, autumnal reading.
Nothing will part me from Karajan's last ever recording, Bruckner 7 with the VPO (DG Karajan Gold) but this traversal is, in its present incarnation, past its prime.