Tchaikovsky: Symphonies Nos 4-6

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
ALBUM TITLE: Tchaikovsky
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 4-6
PERFORMER: Vienna Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: 88697198449
These reissues from the 1980s have had major work done on the soundtrack. Although the recorded sound was already digital, Sony have subjected it to a procedure involving playing it back through multiple loudspeakers at the original venue, then re-recording to allow the possibility of surround sound. Herbert von Karajan was well-known for his interest in the latest technology, but even he might have baulked at such posthumous intervention – especially as the final result wasn’t able to go to him for quality control and approval. The result is to add even more plushness to the original sound, and, to my ears, too much reverberation, especially in the bass. You might have thought that, in Karajan’s centenary year, these DVDs would be replete with extra celebratory material. But no: all that’s here is the music, indexed per movement or per section. And it’s very much about Karajan – I’d estimate that about three-quarters of the time the camera is on him. And, extraordinarily, the soloists and choir in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony aren’t named anywhere on the box, the booklet or the video material itself; neither is the cellist in Strauss’s Don Quixote. Performances are a mix of studio and live, many with extra video shots mimed by conductor and orchestra and edited in later. The Beethoven symphonies, apart from the finale of the Ninth, all seem to be studio based, with close-ups of perfectly straight rows of wind or brass, and strings impeccable in their even spacing. Some of the Richard Strauss performances are genuine live events – only the DVD with Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben looks like a studio set-up. More disconcerting are the Tchaikovsky symphonies from Vienna, where concert footage is intercut with regimented close-ups. And close-ups are the order of the day: you rarely see a whole section, let alone the complete orchestra, and it’s all very dark. A strangely dislocating experience. As for the performances themselves, they’re very much what you might expect. The Beethoven symphonies with their smooth textures and generally slow speeds come from a very different age from our historically aware era. But there is some emotional weight in the slow movements – the Eroica (No. 3) and Choral (No. 9) in particular – and there’s no getting away from the unanimity of purpose that Karajan developed with the Berlin Philharmonic over his long reign. The rich string sound is more suited to the romantic world of Tchaikovsky and Strauss, and it’s the live Strauss performances which come across most strongly. Karajan wasn’t able to micro-manage all the elements of the package, and there’s some spontaneity left in the music. I do wish he wouldn’t bump up the number of players in Metamorphosen, but Also sprach Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony have a majestic ebb and flow. A pity those performances aren’t better presented visually. Martin Cotton