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6.3.05

Karajan's Uneasy Schubert

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Available at Amazon
F. Schubert Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, 8, 9, etc., H. v. Karajan / BPh
If I had to buy a Schubert cycle, it would be Günter Wand's... and I might still, even if that would mean doubling up several performances. His 5th and 9th with the NDRSO and the BPh (Berliner Philharmoniker), respectively (coincidentally, neither are part of the complete set), are my revered gold standard. But at just over $20 for all four discs (on two sets of two discs) the early Karajan EMI reissues on the splendid Gemini budget line are hard to resist. To be able to get them for a free listening session makes resistance impossible.

Karajan, after all—for all his being maligned on personal and musical grounds—had moments of true greatness, especially very early and very late in his career. Come to think of it (La Bohème, in particular), he had those moments in the middle, too. Popping disc one of the second set (Symphonies Nos. 5, 6, 8 "Unfinished," 9 "The Great," and the Rosamunde Overture) in, I was prepared to have his recording with the BPh go toe to toe with Karl Böhm's (DG) and Colin Davis's (RCA) excellent budget sets. (Curiously, these recordings date from 1975-78: wasn't he an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist by then?)

I was disappointed. The Rosamunde Overture is a bit forceful, and the fortissimo passages blare crudely, interrupting otherwise fine music. At that point I was not blaming HvK. I just haven't heard enough Rosamunde Overtures to be able to compare every detail without side-by-side comparison. It may also have been the mood of the moment (late at night) that made me not like the high contrasts in dynamics.

But the Fifth Symphony I know very well, and here Karajan is to be blamed, along with the sound engineers. The performance never gets off to the lightly jumping, happily dancing start it deserves and needs. It drags a bit, it is pushed hard, it flows where it should skip, and it is silken-unassailable, but also uninvolving, lifeless even. Then there are dynamic adjustments from the editors that crudely betray their soundboard shenanigans. Annoying, indeed. Again, outbursts seem oddly crude and interrupting. Perhaps effective in live performances, on disc they do not make for splendid first, and even less so for repeated, hearing.

Even accounting for my positive bias towards the Wand recording (his last recording, coupled with a very broad, excellent Bruckner 4th), HvK cannot hold a candle to the NDRSO's infectious epitomizing of "joy in music" (see Ionarts review). Nothing pushes, limps, or drags there, and the playing is cleaner than even the Berliners'. One is affirmation of life, the other—even with a slightly better fourth movement—just some pretty music.

Symphony No. 6 fares much better, and while it is not a particularly airy performance, its stern gait (Scherzo) does not strike me as violating the symphonies' nature as it did with No. 5. There are places in the finale where I can imagine (as can Messrs. Davis and Böhm) a less plodding approach, but it bubbles along nicely enough to bring enjoyment.

Better yet: go straight to disc two for Symphonies No. 8 and 9. The unfinished has sheen, force, and lyricism to share. Tenderness next to bullying makes the contrasts rewarding, not tiresome as it had been in the earlier ones. Symphony No. 9 may not present the most uniformly recorded string section, but it positively glows and blazes. Again, Wand's RCA budget-priced live recording with the Berliners remains a clear first choice. It is twice as lively and, despite being live, has precision and polish to shame any studio recording. But HvK, too, knows how to deal with the greatness (on all levels) of Schubert's Ninth. The opening of the second movement brings lightness and fine textures with excellent woodwind work. This is contrasted by forceful fortes and fortissimos, and much of the energy goes into (or dissipates because of) these dramatic contrasts rather than going into a more subtle buildup of force.

All in all, not a strong contender for our limited shelf space. In the good 9th, there are other choices that, as a single disc, are cheaper; the 8th is a popular filler and may already be in your collection in several good versions. (For example, on Carlos Kleiber's Schubert disc which, though not his strongest, ought to be had. Or, better even, get the new C. Kleiber memorial CD reissue with his brass-plated Brahms's third that includes the Schubert 8th and some Tristan excerpts.)

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