Karajan: beauty and Brahms

The year was 1978. It had been 24 years since Herbert von Karajan succeeded Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The relationship between orchestra and conductor was far from rosy. Karajan’s celebrity status, as a jet-setter sporting his famous kiss-curl hairstyle outshone by far the prodigious orchestra. The Philharmonic was subject to the egotism of its director, its ignominy epitomized by the numerous Karajan-centric music videos produced at the time. Still, Karajan’s tremendous mastery of orchestral direction is hardly contestable: there seems to be a certain magic to his every gesture. Or maybe it’s just pure charisma (he’s married to a model wife!)

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The contention among critics today is that Karajan’s imposing terms has purged much of the Philharmonic’s soul, leaving much of the later recordings hollow and superficially despite their beauty. Karajan is reputed to have stripped the Berliner brass of its prowess, preferring to tune up the bass to cushion his luscious strings. This obsession over beauty, coupled with the complete musical mastery of artistic direction leaves his 1970s and ‘80s Beethoven cycle devoid of power and agony.

However, in this 1978 recording of Brahms’ 2nd and 4th symphonies, this beauty seems to serve the music very well. Brahms’ sophisticated orchestration calls for careful attention to balance and blend – an area which Karajan was most skilful at. The abundance of inter-weaving passages commands musicians to subscribe to the architecture of fluidity – a task fit for a genius musical dictator. (In this regard, powerful Leningrad renditions of these symphonies under Evgeny Mravinsky have yielded interesting results.)

By the late 70s, too, Karajan had become knowledgeable about the mixers and dials in the recording studio. Technology buff that he was, he was often guest to Sony CEO, Norio Ohga, so that he could access the latest toys. More importantly, the late Karajan recordings were edited and mixed by the maestro himself. While this is as close as one can get to understanding the music from the perspective of the conductor (literally a ‘director’s cut’), sadly the atmosphere and sonority of Brahms’ orchestration is somehow lost in this recording.

Will it be worth the USD12 or so for this disc? This really depends on the nature of the listener. Should one take classical music as second-hand smoke or simply as a means to de-stress, Karajan’s streamlining will assuredly soothe the nervous and frazzled. For the aspiring conductor, audio recordings are not the way to learn the ropes — there’s a trove of video resources on Karajan’s art that are more instructive. Sawallisch and Solti offer more sincere and genuine takes on Brahms for the musically-literate.

Brahms: Symphonies Nos.2 & 4 – Berliner Philharmoniker, Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon
International Release 02 Jul. 2012
CD 0289 478 4219 4 GB
http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/cat/single?PRODUCT_NR=4784219

Reference recordings:
Brahms Symphony No. 2
Sir Georg Solti: Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Brahms Symphony No. 4
Wolfgang Sawallisch, London Philharmonic Orchestra

by Zakrie

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