Karajan in Concert

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Debussy; Rachmaninov; Ravel; Beethoven; Rossini; Wagner; Weber
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Karajan in Concert
WORKS: Debussy: La mer; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No. 2; overtures by Beethoven, Rossini, Wagner, Weber
PERFORMER: Alexis Weissenberg (piano); Berlin PO/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: 073 4399 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 4:3 picture format)

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Herbert von Karajan’s conducting achieves a fascinating synthesis of dynamism, discipline, and a diverse palette of gestures. Although his gestures clearly possess elegance and the power of suggestion, he remained more rooted than did leading conductors of a later generation (say Claudio Abbado and Carlos Kleiber) in the practices of consistently marking the beat and employing a full range of arm movements: in fact, at times he seems to lead not with his baton but with his wrists or even his elbows. Hardly once in the three sessions included here do we see his eyes open while conducting, so that ‘Karajan – Impressions’, the accompanying film from 1978 by Vojt∑ch Jasný, helpfully complements the featured performances by including rehearsal sequences and performances with singers or choirs that show him more overtly engaged with the performers. The concert performances, filmed in the Berlin Philharmonie between 1973 and 1978, seem artificially stagey and coiffed from a visual perspective – the music stands are too low, the rows of instrumentalists too straight, and so on – but the performances are typically energetic and polished, although in Karajan’s hands Debussy and Ravel seem showier rather than atmospheric, and coupling the chiselled acerbity of Alexis Weissenberg’s pianism with Karajan’s glacial calculation does not make the best case for Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto. ‘Herbert von Karajan is a being who can show us the way in this chaotic world’ intones the narrator; such hyperbole aside, there’s much of interest here. David Breckbill