C1857. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil.: Symphony #8 in b (Schubert); w.Antonio Menses & Wolfram Christ: Don Quixote (Strauss). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1125, Live Performance, 19 Aug., 1987, Salzburg Festival. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“With great conductors one must be on the lookout for great performances. That sounds self-evident, but there’s a special vigilance required for concerts and recordings where great musicians surpass themselves. Herbert von Karajan isn’t easy to tackle, however, compared with conductors like Furtwängler and Tennstedt whose concerts were so often superior to their studio work. Karajan was too disciplined for that, so most music lovers accept without investigation that his interpretations offer little variety from one instance to the next.
Fortunately, St. Laurent Studio is overturning this assumption, thanks to a series of Mahler and Bruckner recordings taken from live concerts that display a more vibrant side of Karajan. Now this pairing of Schubert and Strauss enlarges the case, and the remastering all but equals studio recordings of the time. This concert took place at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1987, almost exactly two years before a disgruntled Karajan resigned his lifetime appointment with the Berlin Philharmonic in April 1989; he died that July.
I especially appreciate this magnificent ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, because I felt that Karajan never clicked with the first six Schubert symphonies, approaching them on a Romantic scale at odds with their Mozartean character. He made at least four recordings of the ‘Unfinished’ between live and studio accounts, but only now would I say, with this new one, that he sounds inspired. The grandeur of the interpretation goes without saying - Karajan was never closer to Furtwängler than in this symphony, divergent as they were otherwise - but that’s true in all of his readings. What makes the difference here is the spark of immediacy, along with beautifully delicate woodwind solos in the second movement. Despite the generalized complaint that Karajan prized a smooth, blended orchestral sonority over anything else in his later years, the first movement is not prettified in the slightest, and the dramatic interjections serve their purpose perfectly.
Commercially Karajan recorded DON QUIXOTE with two star cellists, Pierre Fournier and Mstislav Rostropovich, along with a late digital recording featuring the BPO’s first cello, Antônio Meneses, and first viola, Wolfram Christ. (Here in 1987 Meneses was 29 and Christ only two years older - both remain active performers today.) Using principals from the orchestra complies with Strauss’s intentions; he didn’t conceive the work as a cello concerto for visiting virtuosos. Virtuosos appropriated it anyway, but there are instances even today when an orchestral cellist is outstanding, the latest being the Oslo Philharmonic’s Louisa Tuck, who gives a moving account of the daft, romantic Don under Vasily Petrenko (LAWO).
Meneses is a relatively modest soloist, and this helps him to bring out the poignancy in his portrayal without blowing the picture out of proportion. Meneses had won the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, so his artistry is never in doubt, and Christ was an outstanding Sancho Panza on the DG release. It and this live Salzburg account, which was recorded around the same time, are ensemble performances of the highest quality, since Meneses and Karajan collaborate to produce such magical phrasing and instrumental color. The dying fall of the Don’s last breath is followed, for example, by a clarinet’s falling echo that is just as touching.
Everything beautiful in the studio version is increased in Salzburg, and it has the further advantage of a warmer ambience and the absence of digital glare heard from DG. Christ’s viola is a bit recessed, but the orchestral part is caught at its most impassioned (not a word often associated with Karajan).
I won’t dispute the criticisms of Karajan and his past during the Third Reich, but I don’t think Christa Ludwig was being ironic when she called him ‘le bon Dieu’. No one is likely to change their position on him, yet St. Laurent Studio is giving us a new look at Karajan the performer. These two performances attest to his musical stature, and both can be recommended as among the finest he produced in this repertoire. It’s time that Karajan’s name is connected with the joy of music-making, which glows brightly here.
The audience is quiet but not totally silent; there is applause after both works.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE