Top positive review
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There is more to this box set than meets the eye (and ear )...just read on
on 8 February 2015
Initially, it was not my intention to buy this release of the Centenary Edition of the Berliner Philharmoniker as I already have a few recordings from this box set in my music library.
However ,unable to resist a bargain( at £ 49.87 a piece in the Amazon sale who could?) ,I went ahead with the purchase. Besides, I was curious to find out for myself how the Berliner Philharmoniker sound evolved over the years.
Starting with the earlier recordings, I was in for a treat in spite of the dreadful sound quality mentioned by some reviewers .
Cd 1 in particular sounds as though the orchestra was recorded by the Niagara Falls with the microphone placed in a....bathtub! Yet, for all its technical faults, the recording captures an essential moment in the history of recorded music, that of Artur Nikish conducting the first ever recorded complete symphony,namely Beethoven's 5th. Despite a significant loss of orchestral detail, in the first movement you can still hear the supple attacks of the orchestra with a deliberate lack of bite and with the notes being held without vibrato . In the andante movement, you are made aware of that sense of line which already points to the Karajan of the later years.
It is then that you realise what marvellous gems this box set contains and how thoughtfully they have been put together. For instance, the duplication of the same work played by the orchestra under different conductors or the offering of the same work conducted by the same Maestro at different dates are conducive to a critical and analytical approach on the part of the listener. He / she can have fun listening to and assessing the respective merits of :
Kempff/ Leitner versus Pollini / Abbado in the Emperor concerto
Fricsay versus Karajan in Beethoven's 9th
Fricsay versus Kubelik in Dvorak's New World
Bernstein versus Karajan in Mahler's 9th
Fricsay( twice) versus Karajan in Smetana 's Moldau
Strauss versus Karajan in Strauss's Salome Dance of the Seven Veils
Listening for example to Salome conducted by the composer himself is a memorable musical experience. In this account the music has never sounded more exotic, more languorous, more evocative and poetical. It shows up the slightly artificial, glossy sound produced in the Karajan version.
Beethoven's 9th interpreted by Fricsay and Karajan reveals a very interesting aspect of the Berliner Philharmoniker sound. With Fricsay,interpretation aside , the BP is a bit more incisive with the strings sounding leaner. By contrast, Karajan makes the orchestra sound more opulent and more immediately seductive and appealing by resorting to a more systematic use of legato. It is no coincidence that the Austrian Maestro was nicknamed by the German Austrian press Herr Bindung ( translating as Mr Link or Mr Legato) .
You are suddenly made aware of the chameleon like quality of the Berliner Philharmonilker with its sound changing at will according to which Maestro is conducting.
For instance, there is no doubt that when Karajan took charge from 1955 until his death, the sound of the orchestra was shaped to his personal musical vision, some might say image. The sound it seemed to produce during that period was reminiscent of a chamber music ensemble on a large scale. Transparency, agility of the strings and prominent use of legato were of paramount importance.Critics and cynics may argue that during that time the Berliner Philharmoniker turned into a big music making machine , able to churn out recording upon recording at the Maestro's whim.Inevitably,such a commercial,mercantile approach to music may have had detrimental consequences. In this respect, the recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons seems to be a perfect illustration. Although there is no fault to be found with this version in technically recorded terms ( Herbert always made sure of this), musically it lacks that extra degree of excitement, that authentic vision and real flair found in the versions by specialised baroque ensembles.For all its perfect and beautiful playing, the Berliner Philharmoniker here can sound in turns slighlty contrived and over polished.
However in all fairness, the BP has had many more hits than misses and when handled with sympathy and persuasion , it is more than capable of producing stunning definitive versions of any major given works ( Baroque repertoire excluded) .. On cd 32 , the BP playing Mahler's 9th conducted by Bernstein manages, unbelievably , to produce a sound verging on the ugly in keeping with the composer's intentions . By contrast on cds 37 and 38 , the same Berliner Philharmoniker playing the same work with Karajan conducting conjures up a world of euphonic sound where only beauty and order reign supreme.
They say old habits die hard. Apparently, when Claudio Abbado took over Karajan in 1989 after Carlos Kleiber had famously turned down the offer to become the new BP conductor, the Maestro from Milan was faced with the challenge of reshaping the Berliner Philharminker sound to something which had greater objectivity and clarity in the musical discourse. He encouraged the use of clear ,clean attacks on the notes resulting in 1994 in the recording of a stunning version of Stockhausen's Gruppen ( cd 44 track 2) . It could be said that Abbado's merit was to take the Berliner Philharmoniker out of its comfort zone in terms of style of playing , sound produced and repertoire.
Clearly the fortune and success of the BP are inextricably linked to the conductors in charge. Musicologists will no doubt talk of the Fürtwangler golden era, Karajan glamorous but somehow controversial period etc...
To conclude, this box set contains so many glorious benchmarks recordings that these alone warrant its purchase even at full price, and the very few "failures" pale into insignificance. I hope that my survey and analysis of selected tracks have shown and showcased the special qualities of the Berliner Philharmoinker, making it one the greatest orchestras in the world. A final thought : how does it compare to the Vienna Philharmoniker ? DG have clearly amticipated the debate by releasing another box set dedicated to the rival orchestra. I can see more money spending and more listening and thinking on the way!