On Music

GUREWITSCH, M. ANATOLE

On Music KARAJAN'S MANY HUES by m. anatole gurewitsch is difficult to keep up with Herbert von Karajan. His recent spate of recordings, including three complete opera sets and a boxed collection...

...Nicolai Ghiaurov as the father, King Philip II...
...Recognized early for his readings of Mozart and Strauss, he also triumphed in performances of Verdi, Puccini and Wagner...
...Because Karajan's ideas of scores have tended to become more idiosyncratic the more often he has played them, it is a special joy to report that his recording of Don Carlo is among his greatest achievements: grandly assured in its unfolding of the epic design, brilliant in its illumination of detail...
...In these movements, at least, the hackneyed complaint against Karajan is vindicated: Here he has no soul...
...After the sombre opening scene in the cloister of San Yuste, the second in the adjoining garden is spangled with light: The strings dance, the triangles tingle in the summer air, and the ladies of the Deutsche Oper Chorus sing with Circean grace...
...The three recorded works draw deeply from Russian folk songs and dances, and the Berlin Philarmonic, with its impeccable cultivation, conveys little of their vigor...
...His recent spate of recordings, including three complete opera sets and a boxed collection of symphonies, confirms that in variety of repertoire and profusion of assembled talent, this conductor's work is unique...
...With Suzanne Farrell winging through the Andante elegiaco, tossing off soft-lustre fireworks with Peter Martins in the scherzo, or haughtily leading the final Allegro con fuoco, the music is never dull, not even in the insistent coda of the Polacca...
...and Ruggero Raimondi as the awesome Grand Inquisitor, whose frown brings the secular rulers to their knees...
...But Tchaikovsky's art-lessness is less than genuine, and Karajan alone cannot be blamed if it comes across somehow as merely clever movie music...
...Unsurprisingly, the instrumental texture is often remarkable...
...But their portrayals are so deeply felt and vividly realized that these shortcomings pass practically unnoticed...
...The opening of the scherzo of the First Symphony develops a catchy, dancebke lilt that founders with the introduction in the central section of an actual dance, a waltz of striking bland-ness...
...Yet if surface polish and a certain patrician reserve are the Karajan stamp, they have not been achieved at the cost of depth or diversity of interpretation...
...The assurance with which this ensemble executes the most exacting maneuvres verges on the miraculous...
...At Karajan's tempos, Balanchine's fleet-footed company would be asleep halfway through the Alia te-desca, and even Farrell could not prevail against the torpor of the Berlin's Andante elegiaco...
...his taste in singers is erratic...
...The towering Don Carlo has traditionally been a Karajan specialty: Since 1958, he has overseen two new productions of the opera, and many revivals, at the Salzburg Festival...
...Vocally, Carreras and Baltsa carry off the honors, he with his fine-tuned, supple tenor and his manly lyricism, she with her fiery brilliance and intrepid phrasing...
...Where Tchaikovsky is elegant, especially in the symphonies' scherzos, Karajan shows him off to better advantage...
...no player deviates a hair's breadth from the center of the pitch...
...Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande (Angel SZCX-3885) features Frederica Von Stade and Richard Stilwell, an almost ideal pairing as the lovers, and Jose Van Dam, incomparable as the jealous Golaud...
...From the frailest triple pianissimo to the most thunderous forte fortissimo, the tone remains smooth and pure...
...Ghiaurov and Freni fail the test of their more expansive lines, and Cappucilli's workaday baritone is not always in focus...
...The radioscopic lucidity of the performance betrays the hollowness of the contrapuntal sections...
...The two recordings under review here are a splendid performance of Verdi's Don Carlo (Angel SZDX-3875) and renditions of Tchaikovsky's Symphonies 1-3 (Deutsche Grammophon 2709 101) that suggest even Karajan has his limitations...
...Last year's new production at the Metropolitan Opera, musically a magnificent occasion, gave us the uncut text in an Italian translation...
...it is being repeated in the same form this year, with performances continuing through March 20 (one of them will be telecast "live-on-tape" April 12 on PBS...
...But Karajan ignores the fact that, throughout these symphonies, Tchaikovsky's route to excitement is by the shortcut of drums and trumpets...
...In his recording, Karajan offers the later version Verdi approved for performance in Italy, omitting the first act...
...Everywhere else she is thrilling in sound and manner...
...As an operatic conductor, Karajan has proved somewhat inconsistent...
...In later years, his lightweight casting of the Ring was widely regarded as a mistake, and his second Trovatore (Angel SCLX-3855) was a mannered, un-Verdian affair...
...Karajan's range, especially in the symphonic repertoire, has been inexhaustible...
...Symphony orchestras have neglected these early Tchaikovsky pieces, but much of the Third is familiar to dance audiences...
...His treatment is deluxe and yet strangely unflattering to the scores...
...Technically it may have equals, but it surely has no superior...
...The lamentable exception to this is his 1951 Bayreuth Meis-tersinger, dropped from the Seraphim list in favor of his inferior studio performance on Angel...
...We are still waiting for a recording of the original, but since the four-act Italian version has the composer's sanction, indignation is not in order and, given his Italianate cast, Karajan surely chose the right language...
...The radiance stands in sharp contrast to the searing glare of the auto-da-fe, as the heretics are dragged to the stake amid the carnival clamor of the crowd...
...But darkness, too, has its antithetical faces: the dignity of the cloister (to which Van Dam's reading of the Friar's lines makes an inestimable contribution) and the amorous clair de lune in the Queen's garden...
...the musical line never flags...
...The conductor's reserve at once exalts and unmasks the music...
...In the second HERBERT VON KARAJAN movement of the First Symphony, the woodwinds blend to haunting effect, and the recapitulation of the movement's chief subject by the horns, surrounded by tremolando strings, is exquisite...
...Balan-chine junks the opening Introduzione e Allegro, a noisy preamble during which, even in Karajan's account, one's mind starts to wander...
...Indeed, the very perfection of Karajan's forces has come under fire, the usual complaint being that, like their leader, they command their instruments but have no soul...
...Over the many years of his guidance the orchestra has become, to repeat his oft-quoted description, an "extension" of his musical wishes and intentions...
...The most terrible darkness of all lowers over the scene where the Grand Inquisitor demands of Philip the lives of Carlos and Rodrigo, his son and his only friend, as threats to the state...
...It is tempting to say that Balanchine's choreography makes the music sound good, but the City Ballet Orchestra and its conductors count as well...
...Karajan's instrument, of course, is the Berlin Philharmonic...
...In the blithe scherzo of the Third, the instrumental choirs call and reply over the frothy accompaniment that begins to gather a proud gravity at the close...
...The singers are Jose Carreras as Don Carlos...
...If true, this would be a crushing indictment...
...Piero Cappucilli as Rodrigo, a nobleman loyal to both Philip and Carlos...
...More cheerful vulgarity would help in such pages??unfortunately, this is not in Karajan's repertoire...
...In the Second Symphony, the ryhthmic sophistication of the scherzo is considerably advanced...
...Agnes Baltsa as Princess Eboli, the King's mistress, fruitlessly enamored of his son...
...The "Diamonds" section of George Balanchine's Jewels is set to four of its five movements...
...That his work nevertheless seems to invite oversimplified judgments is partly due to a preoccupation with immaculate sound amounting almost to a fetish (at least from instrumentalists...
...Many of his recordings, such as those featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (who did much of her finest work with him), Christa Ludwig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Maria Callas have retained their place of honor in the catalogue as more recent offerings have come and gone...
...Mirella Freni as Elisabeth of Valois, first his betrothed, then taken in marriage by his father...
...Properly staged, Don Carlo must be by turns steeped in gloom and bathed in dazzling brightness...
...during expertly managed "atmospheric" passages, where melodies materialize slowly in the haze (only to become part of a denser haze), one longs for something less purely gestural to break forth...
...Verdian purists call for the original Paris version of Don Carlo, strung out to five acts and sung in French...
...Karajan's artistic personality, however, cannot be judged so summarily: He has, in fact, interpreted more music in more ways than any other conductor before the public...
...A new recording of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (London OSA 1445) stars Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Countess, Von Stade as Cherubi-no, and Van Dam as Figaro...
...The guiding intelligence of the performance, though, is Karajan's...
...The other principals do not rise to the same level...
...w ? ? e would search the early Tchaikovsky symphonies in vain for such philosophical profundity, although they also offer Karajan an opportunity to show the hues of his palette...
...Only briefly, in the cadenza of the Song of the Veil, does her mezzo-soprano flare out of control: Her oscillations from F-sharp on the staff to the A above it curdle the blood...
...Although no one would seriously compare the New York City Ballet's band to the Berlin Philharmonic, I would still rather hear the Tchaikovsky Third in its truncated form at the Lincoln Center's State Theater under the loving and brisker baton of Robert Irving or Hugo Fior-ato...
...Verdi's music implies this scene painting and it is astonishing how immediate and how visual an impression Karajan conveys through sound alone...
...They infuse Tchaikovsky's Third (the so-called "Polish") with the spirit of Terpsichore...

Vol. 63 • March 1980 • No. 5


 
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