Label : EMI
Format : Ape
Cover : Yes

To celebrate what would have been Herbert von Karajan’s 100th birthday on April 5, 2008, EMI has gathered together all of the conductor’s recordings for the label in two super-budget boxed sets. Volume 1 weighs in at an imposing 88 discs and focuses on orchestral repertoire (the second volume consists of vocal and operatic works). The first nine discs encompass Karajan’s EMI Vienna Philharmonic sessions. Discs 10 through 46 survey Karajan’s prolific Philharmonia Orchestra years, while the Berlin Philharmonic dominates discs 47 through 87, together with the handful of recordings Karajan made with the Orchestre de Paris. EMI organizes these subgroups in loose alphabetical order by composer, excepting fillers and sundry collections devoted to showpieces, overtures, light music, and the like. Lastly, Disc 88 offers “Karajan Remembered”, a documentary bordering on infomercial, replete with narration, talking heads, and musical examples.

By virtue of EMI’s completeness mandate, odds and ends new to CD turn up–such as Dvorák’s G minor Slavonic Dance (Berlin, 1979), plus Philharmonia versions of Mascagni’s Intermezzi from Cavalleria Rusticana and L’amico Fritz (1959), Strauss’ Tritsch-Tratsch Polka (1960), Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture (1954), and Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony (1957). In addition, two piano concertos by Kurt Leimer, (with the composer at the piano) gain their first international release. Not to worry about a handful of missing operatic intermezzi, overtures, and entr’actes: they’re saved for Volume 2, programmed in the context of the vocal albums where they originally appeared.

In general, EMI’s transfers correspond to their most recent remastered edition of a given item. This proves unfortunate for certain overly processed 1946-49 Vienna selections (the Brahms German Requiem and the Beethoven Ninth Symphony), which lack the bloom and overtones present in Anthony Griffith’s noisier analog transfers once available on Japanese EMI LPs in the late 1970s. And it’s a pity that a separate 2008 release of the Philharmonia Beethoven Symphonies cycle, which benefits from newly minted, more robust transfers, couldn’t have been included rather than the relatively duller-sounding 1989 reissue presented on CDs 11 through 15. However, the Bruckner Seventh transfer restores four bars in the finale missing from at least one earlier CD incarnation.

When this box first appeared in Europe, CD 36 contained an erroneous non-Karajan-led Gershwin program rather than the 1960 Philharmonia Sibelius Second and Fifth Symphonies. This has been fixed, but double check your copy just to make sure. In addition, two works are not located as the booklet indicates. Handel’s Water Music appears on tracks 13-18 of CD 86, not CD 46. Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto takes up tracks seven through nine on CD 66, not CD 67. While the booklet includes all recording dates and producer/engineer credits, a cross-indexed guide to each disc by composer and work would have been extremely useful, making it easy for listeners to locate multiple versions of a given piece without having to leaf page by page through the booklet.

Karajan’s orchestral output for EMI may not embrace his core repertoire to the extent of his larger DG discography, but it nevertheless covers an impressively wide range of composers, works, and genres. This is especially true of the Philharmonia recordings, made when the orchestra was at its technical and expressive peak. Granted, their ’50s Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky symphonies ultimately would be superceded by one or another of Karajan’s DG Berlin remakes, but more often than not, the Karajan/Philharmonia synergy at its mellifluous peak occurs in the aforementioned showpieces. Try the vivacious and colorful Respighi Pines of Rome, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Liszt’s Les Preludes, the Rossini overture group, and the Strauss waltz collections, and prepare to be seduced. The Balakirev C major and Roussel Fourth Symphony still sound fresh in today’s download age. Even in less sonically alluring early mono sessions you easily can appreciate the meticulous blend (the extraordinarily smooth Debussy La Mer) and world-class first desk players (the legendary Dennis Brain’s Mozart horn concertos and audacious solos in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel).

Because Karajan’s orchestral recordings for EMI span 38 years, they offer fairly accurate–if not comprehensive–evidence of the conductor’s stylistic evolution and also show a conductor whose interpretations were anything but predictable. Take for example the Finale of Mozart’s K. 543 Symphony in E-flat. Karajan’s 1970 Berlin recording displays extraordinary tonal sheen and uniform beauty in each orchestral section. Yet there’s little variety in articulation and expression, while key solos lock in without seeming to connect in dialogue, such as the flute and bassoon exchanges. The 1955 Philharmonia recording’s similarly opulent textures allow for more suppleness and point in the strings. However, the rougher-hewn 1949 Vienna Philharmonic comes closest to the Mozartian ideal for its greater animation and chamber-like interplay.

For similar reasons I continue to prefer the Vienna Beethoven Fifth’s rugged, rhetorical Finale to each of the conductor’s subsequent, slicker counterparts. The Berlin Dvorák “New World” Symphony reveals a darker, weightier orchestral image in 1979 than in 1957, and a more taut, straightforward reading to boot. The Phlharmonia Tchaikovsky Pathétique’s eloquent and suave second movement gives way to mannered phrasing and more tonal opulence in a 1972 Berlin version, whose other three movements nevertheless represent Karajan’s most forceful and impassioned way with this music.

In contrast to DG’s string-dominated Sibelius tone poems, EMI’s more judiciously balanced reproductions make far more visceral impact. If you like big-band Beethoven, the high distinction of Karajan’s piano concerto accompaniments dominate Alexis Weissenberg’s less impressive solo contributions (conductor and pianist mesh more successfully in their serious-minded, symphonically conceived Rachmaninov C minor concerto). Nor should the opulent and sumptuous Karajan/Berlin Wagner overtures and Richard Strauss selections (the Sinfonia Domestica, Ein Heldenleben, and Don Quixote with Rostropovich magnificently emoting in the title role) go unnoticed. In all, what is good and frequently outstanding exceeds the disappointments–and adds up to an unprecedented bargain at around two dollars per disc (even less for smart online shoppers), as well as a golden opportunity for Karajan fans.

Complete tracklist : Karajan – The Complete EMI Recordings Vol.1