Herbert Von Karajan

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: EMI Classic Archive
WORKS: Symphonie fantastique; Le corsaire Overture
PERFORMER: Orchestre de Paris; Hallé Orchestra/ John Barbirolli
CATALOGUE NO: DVA 4 90112 9

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How differently conductors achieve results: Igor Markevitch, stony-faced, but with eloquent hands; André Cluytens, smiling and using his eyes and body language to get the players on his side; and Herbert von Karajan, with eyes permanently closed, seemingly having no contact at all with the orchestra.

Cluytens’s approach creates a Daphnis et Chloé suite of flexibility and passion, and he’s an attentive accompanist to Gilels’s muscular playing in the Tchaikovsky First Concerto. Even though the recordings from 1959 and 1960 lack body, the distinctive French orchestral sound comes through, with reedy strings and wide vibrato in the wind and brass. Markevitch encourages straighter playing later in the Sixties, though the solo oboe in the slow movement of Shostakovich’s First Symphony still has a plangent quality.

The camerawork in these two DVDs is on the untidy side, by complete contrast with the tightly controlled studio environment provided for Karajan’s Symphonie fantastique in 1970. There are plenty of shots of the conductor, as well as some tricksy coloured lighting and close-ups of instruments and fingers. And the French sound has disappeared in favour of a plush, all-purpose homogeneity – but how can the conductor encourage individual expression if he’s not looking at the players?

There’s no lack of expression in Rostropovich’s 1961 performance of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, with an exemplary orchestral contribution under Charles Groves. The cellist still looks lean and slightly nervous, but by the time of the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto in 1970 he’s filled out to the figure we know today. Also captured in a slimmer time is Alfred Brendel, whose 1970 Hammerklavier Sonata finds him drawing sounds from the piano with an expression of almost ecstatic agony on his face.

It’s a complete contrast to the bonus track: a businesslike performance of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy from Julius Katchen. Bonuses on the other discs include Rostropovich as pianist accompanying an intense Vishnevskaya in Mussorgsky; Barbirolli, an outgoing and welcome antidote to Karajan in the Corsaire Overture; and Stravinsky in 1965 in the Firebird Suite.

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Glaring through thick spectacles, conducting with clenched fists, with the odd smile flickering over his lips, he wills the orchestra into playing with feeling and subtlety. A fascinating and precious document.