- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
These magnificent 1974 recordings have been remastered and reissued countless times through the years. First remastered, I think, in 1985-92 and released as a collection in 1992, I first knew them in the 1996 remaster for so-called “Karajan Edition” where they were spread on three discs and combined with works by Richard Strauss (“Ein Heldenleben”, Sinfonia Domestica and “Don Quixote” with Rostropovich). In 2001, they were remastered again, and then released at least twice in the next few years: first in “The Great Recordings of the Century” series, then in “The Karajan Collection”. To my ears, the newer remastering is no improvement over the old one, though it does have the advantage of all works on a single disc.* The liner notes by Richard Osborne are the same in both editions; only the covers, the few photos in the booklet and the order of the tracks are different. There was even a DVD Audio release some years ago (in 2001, I think), if you’re into that sort of thing.
Karajan made other recordings of all six pieces on this disc, sometimes separately as orchestral showpieces, sometimes as parts of the complete operas. The 1974 versions remain his finest achievements. He was captured at the absolute height of his powers and in sumptuous sound by EMI. It is hard to blame EMI (and Warner) for their promiscuous remastering and reissuing. These gems must never be out of the catalogues. A word or two about each of them follow.
The ultimate musical depiction of the everlasting battle between the flesh and the spirit, the overture to “Tannhäuser” deeply fascinated Karajan, although this remained the only one among Wagner’s mature works which he didn’t record commercially. In the recording studio, Karajan preferred the Paris version of the overture, that is the one with the Venusberg music in the end.** He recorded it again in 1984, in fine digital sound, but he couldn’t surpass the sheer panache of the earlier version. This is simply perfect. The Pilgrims’ theme in the brass is majestic, but it never obscures the all-important strings (“the pulse of life” Wagner called them). The Venusberg music is bacchanalian, as it should be (in case it baffles you, just read Wagner’s stage directions and it will make perfect sense), but executed with the utmost virtuosity and precision.
The preludes to the outer acts of “Lohegrin” Karajan recorded separately only once before, relatively early in his career (Act 1, 1960, BPO; Act 3, 1949, VPO; EMI) and nowadays of purely historical interest (if that). He recorded them once more later for the tortured complete recording that dragged between 1975 and 1981, but again, fine as these renditions are, they don’t quite have the sweeping grandeur of the 1974 versions. The climax of the prelude to Act 1 is a tricky place: those soaring trumpets can sound awfully ugly. Not so here! The prelude to the third act is usually degraded, together with the notorious “Ride of the Valkyries” (or at least what’s left of it in the concert version), as Wagner at his most cheap and bombastic. Leaving aside the fact that treating operas as absolute music is a very foolish thing to do, there is nothing cheap or bombastic in this prelude when it is taken seriously and performed well. Just hear it here!
The digital recording (1984) of the Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde” is almost as fine as the one from 1974. The latter, however, wins on sound considerations. DG in their digital best is no match for EMI at their analogue best as far as depth and vividness are concerned. The strings are positively luxuriant: the climax in the Liebestod is breathtaking. I mean this literally. You just stop breathing while it lasts. For the record, Karajan made two other records of “Tristan in a Nutshell”, one from 1957 with the BPO for EMI in limited sound and one of the original with Jessye Norman from the Salzburg concert in 1987 (see the second footnote below).
The overture to “Der fligende Holländer”, which is really the whole opera compressed into a marvellous tone poem, is not just Karajan’s best version. It is best ever committed on record. It has been well said comparisons between different performances are the lowest form of criticism. The fact that everybody makes them, professional critics included, doesn’t make them right. The only thing a performance should be compared to is the score. Few people can do that, not many more can understand it, and both parties are usually too busy to waste their time on Amazon. But since such comparisons, worthless though they may be, are a rather harmless way to have fun, I have compared Karajan’s 1974 version of the overture with those by Toscanini, Solti and Böhm, all of them eminent Wagnerians. None of them, however, generates anything like Karajan’s cyclonic power. The climax towards the end, in particular, is downright jaw-dropping. Herbie made two other recordings of this masterpiece for EMI, in 1960 in the constricted acoustics of Grünewald Kirche and in 1983 for the complete opera, but neither of these equals, let alone surpasses, the stupendous sonic hurricane from 1974.
The overture to “Die Meistersingers” brings this disc to a cheerful conclusion. Neither Karajan’s two previous separate recordings, in 1939 with the Berlin Staatskapelle (DG) and in 1957 with the BPO (EMI), nor his rather different interpretation for the complete opera (1970, EMI) comes close to the exhilarating jauntiness of this one. The stellar sound shines again. So does Karajan’s passion for precision (in the best sense). No better recording to appreciate Wagner’s ingenious orchestration and whimsical ideas of counterpoint.
In short, this disc contains 78 minutes of some of the greatest music ever composed in some of the finest performances ever recorded. Whatever the edition, be sure to have a copy. It doesn’t matter whether or not you like Wagner or Karajan. Just get it.
*This is not entirely correct. The 1974 Wagnerian sessions also included the preludes to the first and the third act of “Parsifal”. There was, of course, no space on the single-disc editions (nearly 78 minutes long) for them, and I don’t think they have been released again ever since they were coupled with the overture to “Der fligende Holländer” and “Ein Heldenleben” in 1996 – except for the recent (2014) Warner box-set that collects Karajan’s EMI orchestral recordings from 1970-81. This boasts “Newly Remastered from the Original Tapes” on the cover, but I very much doubt this is any great improvement over the original 1996 remastering. The price is nicely low, though. Such considerations aside, CD 5 in this set has the same program as the old EMI release in the “Karajan Edition”.
**Karajan recorded the Dresden version only once in studio, in 1957 with the BPO for EMI. Two later and much better recordings exist, both captured live in the concert hall. The first is from 1975 with the BPO and can be found on the “Karajan in Concert” DVD (Unitel, 2008). The second is from 1987 with the VPO, part of his concert with Jessye Norman in Salzburg. It’s been released on CD by DG, but it has been out of print for ages.