About this Recording
8.111339 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Karajan) (1952-1953)

Great Conductors: Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989)
Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 ‘Eroica’


Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, in 1908 and he died there in 1989. During the intervening years he became one of the most famous, perhaps the most famous of conductors, often portrayed, and certainly perceived, as something of a superstar, with a lifestyle—fast cars, his own jet-plane, palatial houses—that one associates more with popsingers and Hollywood film-actors. The pivotal year in Karajan’s life was 1955 when he was appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, in succession to Wilhelm Furtwängler, a high-profile relationship, sometimes a stormy one, that would continue more or less until Karajan’s death. Wherever they travelled across the globe, including the United States and Japan, completely sold-out concerts were unfailingly the response, irrespective of how familiar the repertoire might have been or how expensive the tickets, and immortalised through a daunting number of audio recordings, primarily for Deutsche Grammophon and for EMI.

Karajan’s earliest recordings were made for Polydor, beginning in 1938 with the Overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (there are examples from 1943—music by Beethoven, Brahms and Richard Strauss with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra—available on Naxos 8.111298). In 1946 EMI stepped in, in the form of impresario Walter Legge, and for the next fifteen years or so, as well as beyond if to a lesser extent, Karajan made many recordings for this company, first of all in Vienna with the Philharmonic Orchestra and then in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the orchestra that Legge himself had founded in 1945. It is examples of London sessions, in the splendid acoustic of Kingsway Hall, that are heard on this release, two Beethoven symphonies, which are taken from the first of Karajan’s four Beethoven symphony cycles (the remaining three were to be made for Deutsche Grammophon).

Karajan, born into a musically literate family, one founded on a medical and scholarly background, was initially a young student of the piano and even performed in public at the age of five. His main musical studies were in Salzburg (1916–26) and then, until 1929, in Vienna, where he gradually gravitated towards conducting, his début in that rôle being in Salzburg the year he completed his studies in Vienna. Débuts at the prestigious Salzburg Festival followed in 1933, with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year, and, most prophetically of all, the Berlin Philharmonic in 1938.

With regard to the current release of two Beethoven symphonies, consisting of the First and the Eroica, Karajan’s relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra was a productive one, with concerts in London and on tour and many recordings, including pieces that he did not return to, such as Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel and orchestral pieces such as Balakirev’s Symphony No. 1, Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Roussel’s Symphony No. 4, Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes and Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis). The thoughts of Philharmonia musicians of the time have been documented. Their observations about Karajan include such comments as him being ‘exceptional’, a ‘tremendous influence’ and ‘a master who had a mesmeric effect on orchestras and audiences’, his orchestral signature being ‘opulent, voluptuous, suave and supremely refined’. Karajan sought ‘perfection of balance and blend’ and was ‘meticulous’ in his preparation, a ‘very hard worker’ who ‘demanded’ much rehearsal time (which is somewhat belied if the following anecdote concerning Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is true). He was also ‘courteous and benevolent’ and there is praise for his conducting technique.

Much depends on how listeners react to the final musical result. Too smooth? Too calculated? Too interested in sound for its own sake? Maybe, yet some of the behind-the-scenes rehearsal tales are fascinating. On making his concert début with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the closing work was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (following Richard Strauss’s Don Juan and Schumann’s Piano Concerto featuring Dinu Lipatti); it is said that all Karajan rehearsed of the symphony was the final chord, over and over again until he had the dynamic, balance and density that he sought; he then knew that the members of the Philharmonia would know what to do in leading up to that conclusion. More recently I recall the late Hugh Bean, one-time leader of the Philharmonia, in a pre-concert event reminiscing about conductors who worked regularly with the orchestra. He remarked that Karajan began a rehearsal of the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé with the words, ‘like French perfume’. As Bean recalled, it was the perfect description, and the players caught the mood exactly.

On these Beethoven recordings, at the very opening of Symphony No. 1, the care of the woodwind chording is evident enough, so too the weight of the pizzicatos. The tempo for the introductory Adagio molto would seem apt for such a tempo direction (those with an ‘authentic’ turn of mind would no doubt disagree and also question the sheer elegance of the orchestral palette). There is though surely no doubt as to the buoyancy and truculence with which the first movement Allegro con brio is brought off; even so, the lack of an exposition repeat is a grievous loss, as is the similar repetition in the second movement, but not, thankfully, in the finale. Nevertheless, it is a beautifully ‘finished’ performance, the woodwinds shining (again) in the Trio section of the (nominal) Minuet—in reality it is a Scherzo—and the Philharmonia’s strings nimbly up to the mark in the fast-paced finale, with not a hair out of place from anyone.

It could be argued that Beethoven demands a rougher, more unshaven face. In the Eroica— it is related, however apocryphally, that Karajan rehearsed the opening two chords to the nth degree—the conductor sets a scorching pace, accents strong if considered, a sense of tension building-up to boiling point in the development section (not surprisingly, Karajan omits the exposition repeat, but does so convincingly—the return of the opening material can seem for its own sake rather than organic). Karajan’s broadly-paced account of the Marcia funebre second movement, while retaining a perfectionist’s approach to tone and blend, does not smooth out dissonance; indeed it is the quest for ‘beautiful sound’ that heightens Beethoven’s notation (something that Karajan’s detractors do not seem to have cottoned-on to—he wanted to hear the note itself, not the mechanics of reproducing it). If the 1952 recorded sound, however admirably transferred, does not fully allow Karajan’s dynamic variance and orchestral sheen to be fully appreciated, we certainly get a decent impression of it at the climax of this deeply-felt and universal movement.

Come the Scherzo—taken fleetly and which is, by turns, feather-light and rambunctious—Karajan gives us a spectral account. He eases the tempo slightly for the Trio, which features three horns (one of the players here is probably Dennis Brain), and articulation benefits. The finale, with a tune that is also included in Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Beethoven’s only ballet-score and in the Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op. 35, for solo piano, a piece often referred to as the Eroica Variations, is from Karajan quick of foot and demanding of lightning reflexes from the orchestra. A festive mood is created, the slower section seeming to be reflective before becoming a grand apotheosis. Then comes the liberation of the final bars to close an absorbing performance that still traverses the decades with ease. Vorsprung durch Technik!

Colin Anderson

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