Peter J. Rabinowitz
, June 2009
This is a curious release. It documents a memorial concert in honor of Karajan’s centenary—and the producers have decided to give Karajan top billing. His name, in the largest letters, comes first on both the front and back of the jacket; and the program booklet (with the unfortunate title “The Empire Strikes Back”) is primarily devoted to his legacy. But why would anyone whose primary interest is Karajan want to buy these particular recordings rather than Karajan’s own? And given that Karajan was born in Salzburg in May, why hype a concert given in Vienna in January?
In fact, why hype this concert at all? The Beethoven is quite simply a bore. Mutter and Ozawa don’t quite reach the 50-minute mark, but that seems to be their aim. The first movement is particularly extended. You couldn’t exactly accuse them of dawdling: the mood is too sober and high-minded for that. But they certainly can be charged with venerating the music, cherishing each detail of dynamics, phrasing, and rhythm with such scrupulous attention that the Concerto’s spontaneity and vitality can’t break through. The Larghetto is even more listless—Mutter and Ozawa may be searching for wisdom, but they succeed only in finding weariness. Only in the last movement do they begin to stoke things up; but even here, they dig in with such concern for the particulars that the long-range musical arc is sacrificed. Mutter’s tone is, throughout, marvelously sweet and pure (as it is in her hypnotic Bach encore)—but that’s not enough to compensate for the lack of drive.
Reviewing Mutter’s previous video of this Concerto with Karajan himself, Mortimer Frank noted, “the less said the better…Mutter plays beautifully but without much sense of the ways in which the music needs thrust and relaxation” (26:2). He was even harsher in his comments about her CD with Masur (26:6; see also Robert Maxham’s review in 26:5). She’s one of my favorite violinists, but Frank’s criticisms certainly apply to this new performance as well. When it was over, I couldn’t resist the urge to pull out the Heifetz/Toscanini to clear my brain.
The Tchaikovsky is considerably better. Certainly, if you’re looking for this music in surround sound, you’ll find this reading more wrenching than the competition from Paavo Järvi, Christoph Eschenbach, and even Valery Gergiev. The inexorability and searing intensity as Ozawa builds to the climaxes of the finale are especially impressive. But here, too, patches of fussiness sometimes undermine the dramatic effect. It’s not simply that the Introduction is given the kind of microscopic concentration you might expect in a performance of Webern. Even once the performance gets going, Ozawa is apt to treat accompanying gestures as if they were pregnant with motivic importance, giving the music a textural weight that often breaks its momentum. (This seems doubly strange, given that in the bonus interview, he lauds Karajan for teaching him the importance of the long line.)
There are some interpretive oddities as well—an exaggeration of the fermata rest before the first movement’s second theme (not even Golovanov extends it this way) and, more disturbing, a bizarre rushing of the beat starting with the third of the big trombone enunciations after Q (it sounds almost as if there had been an editing error). Impressive as it is, then, this is no match for the great Tchaikovsky Sixths by Koussevitzky, Cantelli, and Furtwängler, to name just three very different accounts.
Visually, the DVD is fine, the Blu-ray sufficiently superior to trigger a conversion experience: the differences are especially noticeable in the distant shots, where the Blu-ray gives us a sharp image of players who are relatively vague on the DVD. (For the record, though, I couldn’t get the bonus interviews to work on the Blu-ray—no loss, really.) The surround sound on the Blu-Ray has more precision than the DTS tracks on the DVD, too. In the end, though, the superior technology doesn’t justify purchase.