Magazine article Gramophone

Best Box-Sets of 2014: In the First of a Two-Part Round-Up, James Jolly Recommends Some of the Year's Most Appealing Sets

Magazine article Gramophone

Best Box-Sets of 2014: In the First of a Two-Part Round-Up, James Jolly Recommends Some of the Year's Most Appealing Sets

Article excerpt

The Big Box-Set is clearly now making a substantial contribution to the major companies' bottom line and there have been some very enticing releases during the past 12 months. This month and next, I'm going to feature some of the sets that have caught my ear.

Herbert von Karajan, who died 25 years ago this summer, has received the 'box treatment' from both Warner (mining his EMI catalogue) and DG. From the last batch of Warner boxes, the one I enjoyed most was the seven-CD set of recordings from 1970-81 featuring the Berlin Philharmonic and the Orchestre de Paris (which he headed as Music Adviser from 1969 to 1971). Karajan had a long relationship with French music and this set embraces a fair amount, including one of the works he was drawn back to regularly, Debussy's La mer. In his note to the set, Kenneth Woods traces Karajan's relationship with the work, one that started in Aachen 1935 and continued until 1985 when he gave it on his last European tour. This performance, from 1977, is nicely characterised by Woods: 'A flair for sonic sensuality, an ability to find fluidity in moderate tempi and a visceral delight in sheer orchestral virtuosity.' Karajan's only recording of La valse (Paris, 1971) is intriguing and rather wonderful (not surprising given Karajan's skill in the Viennese music that provoked Ravel's work). The shorter works, all the key works of the popular Debussy/Ravel oeuvre, are stylishly done.

I had fond memories of the Franck Symphony performance (another Paris recording) and, returning to it all these years later, was not disappointed. It's grandly conceived but, given Karajan's ability to place the climaxes exactly (as in Bruckner), it really works. The string sound is a tiny bit strident but not worryingly so. Elegant accounts of Dvorak's Eighth and Ninth symphonies (Berlin, 1977 and '79) and the last three Tchaikovskys--classical in conception, vibrant and embracing huge contrasts in dynamics--conform to the Karajan approach (which stayed relatively consistent throughout his career). The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra is virtuoso and full of imaginative approaches to colour and texture; the sound is pretty rich.

A large-format (LP box-set-size) package from DG--Karajan: Strauss gathers together all of Karajan's analogue recordings of Richard Strauss for the company (with two discs' worth borrowed from Decca). That means we get Gundula Janowitz's Four Last Songs rather than Tomowa-Sintow's, and the 1960 live Rosenkavalier with Della Casa, Jurinac, Giiden and Edelmann rather than the later set with Tomowa-Sintow, Baltsa, Perry et al. Della Casa, always light-voiced for the Marschallin, is on great form and captures the eroticism of her relationship with Sena Jurinac's Octavian. Hilde Guden is in better voice elsewhere but still enchanting. Edelmann is in control of the comedy of his role, and the smaller parts are cast with a perfect feeling for the Viennese idiom. Karajan's conducting is wonderfully elegant and more relaxed than in the studio. The mono sound is fine.

Karajan was one of the great Strauss conductors and there's much to enjoy throughout this set. I don't understand why DG 'bought in' the VPO-Decca Also spracb Zarathustra--the recording Stanley Kubrick used for 2001: A Space Odyssey--when Karajan's classic Berlin version ('one of the most perfectly conceived and executed documents ever committed to disc' according to Philip Clark's Collection in the Awards issue) is there already. The inclusion of the 1943 Concertgebouw Till Eulenspiegel, Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils and Don Juan makes for a fascinating comparison with later versions (both in Berlin and Vienna) and the whole Karajan-Strauss story is told with characteristic insight in the accompanying essay by Richard Osborne. For audiophiles there's a Blu-ray disc that contains the key orchestral works (discs 1-6) and sounds terrific. (Presto charges 91.50[pounds sterling] for the 12 discs.)

Deutsche Grammophon's systematic reissue of the entire (non-operatic) Karajan discography reaches its third and final volume: Karajan: The 1980s (the conductor died in July 1989). …

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