, February 2009
Herbert von Karajan first conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra in January 1938 but, as Richard Osborne's magisterial study Herbert von Karajan: a life in music (London, 1998) observes, the conductor's response to what most would surely have considered a golden opportunity was somewhat surprising.
As General Music Director at Aachen and still, at that time, three months away from making his first guest performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, the self-confident young tyro—his brilliantined matinee-idol intensity well captured in the CD's cover photograph from the mid-1930s—might have been expected to see the chance to conduct the prestigious Amsterdam band as a major step forward in his burgeoning career. Already, though, Osborne speculates, Karajan's long term plans persuaded him that further association with the Concertgebouw—already raised to superstar status by Mengelberg over the previous 43 years—would have led him into an artistic cul-de-sac. What prestige, after all, was to be gained by a fruitless attempt to improve on something already widely perceived as perfect?
That 1938 Amsterdam concert included a well-received account of Brahms's first symphony, already something of a Karajan calling-card. Two months later he was to perform it again with Salzburg's Mozarteum Orchestra just as another native Austrian who had made his career in Germany—Adolf Hitler - was incorporating their shared homeland into the Third Reich. And it was that work that the conductor chose to record on his next encounter with the Concertgebouw at recording sessions held over 12 days in September 1943.
Of course, that five year interval had made all the difference in—and to —the world. In October 1938 Karajan had made a huge artistic breakthrough in Berlin with a Tristan und Isolde that had propelled him to stellar status. As the Berliner Zeitung am Mittag critic gushed, “To put it bluntly: we are faced with a prodigy. This man is the century's most sensational conductor. No one aged thirty in our time has achieved so objective or personal a triumph at such a level” [quoted in Osborne op. cit. p.114]. The Dutch orchestra, meanwhile, had suffered all the political and artistic indignities associated with their country's military defeat and consequent occupation, while Mengelberg's own collaborationist sympathies had done nothing to maintain the players' cohesion and morale.
Thus it is probably not too fanciful to detect more than a hint of artistic tension between Karajan (“at his haughtiest and most difficult” notes Osborne) and the Concertgebouw players, many of whom were no doubt extremely resentful at the presence on the podium of one of the occupying power's greatest musical icons. Such tension can, however, be a galvanising influence—and that seems to have been the case at these recording sessions.
Certainly, anyone used only to the plush, well-upholstered Brahms recorded by Karajan later in his career will find some surprises here. To an extent, it has to be conceded, the recording quality per se makes a difference: the smooth, homogeneous sound that the technophile conductor and his engineers deliberately cultivated in his Deutsche Grammophon years is entirely absent. But, beyond the sheer sound, there is a notably attractive, fresh and lyrical approach that marks out this 1943 account as a particular delight. The beginning of the first movement provides an early case in point, with a comparatively slow and deliberate tempo combined with a remarkably open and airy orchestral texture: note how the timpanist's contribution is far more subtle than usual, giving a significant boost to the overall transparency of sound. Similarly, the adagio opening of the finale is especially carefully—and quite beautifully—phrased to emerge as far more than merely an introduction to the “big tune” - which itself is more carefully integrated into the music's overall structure than is sometimes the case when directed by more grandstanding conductors.
Throughout, in fact, Brahms's score is enhanced not by the melodramatic—but often highly effective—overemphasis to which Mengelberg was prone but by Karajan's careful control of dynamics and fine orchestral articulation. Sometimes, indeed, one senses, especially in the two central movements, that the players are almost in chamber music mode, so closely do they seem to be listening and responding to their peers. The result is a superficially low-key but nonetheless extremely satisfying interpretation that sounds remarkably close to twenty-first century musical tastes in spite of the initially rather sub-fusc sound.
The other two items on this disc were recorded during the same period and share some of the identical characteristics, without, perhaps, being quite so striking or memorable. The Beethoven is notable for its fire and drama. The booklet notes by the ever-enlightening Colin Anderson speak of its “whiff of greasepaint” and “off-the-leash impetuosity”. Meanwhile, Salome's notorious striptease is depicted with the requisite degree of musical hot-house eroticism, although Strauss's tour de force is the track that suffers most of all from the inevitable lack of aural sparkle on these somewhat recessed and dull-sounding recordings.
Nevertheless, while, in general, the initial impression of the sound quality may be a little disappointing, the ear soon adjusts to it.
This significant historical reissue can be recommended with confidence to those seeking a wider than usual perspective on the overall achievement of one of the last century's great conductors. At its bargain price it is irresistible.