ALBUM TITLE: Karajan at the Salzburg Festival
WORKS: Missa solemnis
PERFORMER: Leontyne Price, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, Nicola ZaccariaVienna Singverein, Vienna PO/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: CMS 5 66876 2 ADD mono
One notices few references to the subject of religion in the pages of Richard Osborne’s recent biography of Karajan. Yet here he is, on these new-old releases, conducting the choral classics with typical drive and fervour that makes none of them less than fascinating readings, and all worth having as second, third or even first versions in a library of recorded classical music.
Well, agnostics have always conducted religious music as effectively as believers, music being music after all, and in Karajan’s case, its being, with his career, a twin pillar of his personal religion. These releases show the passion of that faith. Issued on EMI as Festspieldokumente, they were made at the Salzburg Festival some four decades ago by Austrian Radio and are now transferred to disc. To realise the historic value of these four readings it is unnecessary to swallow whole the claim that at Salzburg players sometimes ‘elevate their performances to events of quality impossible to find anywhere else’. Nevertheless, the years from 1957 to 1960, when Karajan was master in his home town, were clearly golden. The presence of his Vienna Singverein, plus a powerful account from Fischer-Dieskau and sharp acoustics of the natural rock stage of Salzburg’s old riding school, the Felsenreitschule, all contribute to a commanding German Requiem, the earliest of these recordings, dating from 1957. Like Bruckner’s Te Deum, recorded in 1960, it certainly sounds like one of those performances in which, as we learn from Osborne, Karajan was wont to elaborate the composer’s organ part for a deeper, more resonant sound.
Even in the inevitably limited sound of these live recordings, a Verdi Requiem of 1958 appears worthy to be ranked among the finest of the many Karajan conducted. Ever the dramatist, he milked the work’s many contrasts, but tempered it with arching lyricism, such as Rysanek’s and Ludwig’s in the Agnus Dei. The Missa solemnis discs contain, in addition to a 1959 performance,
a rehearsal excerpt in which the conductor takes his choir and orchestra through the Gloria – with very little complaint on his part, it might be added. This is a gripping performance, also scheduled for the Felsenreitschule, but transferred at the last minute to the old Festspielhaus. The outstanding quartet of Price, Ludwig, Gedda and Zaccaria is a glowing combination and Willi Boskovsky’s solo violin can be heard in the Benedictus.