VPO Bruckner, Mahler & Strauss

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 Version edited Robert Haas]
Symphony No.9
Tod und Verklarung
Ein Heldenleben

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Karl Bohm
Herbert von Karajan
Dmitri Mitropoulos

Recorded between 1957-1963

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2002
CD No: ANDANTE 4997-5000
(4 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 48 minutes

This is one of six issues launching Andante’s branching into the CD market. At first glance this archival snapshot of a short period in this great orchestra’s history – Karajan conducting Bruckner, and Bohm directing Strauss – draws an instantaneous “Why?” After all, there are plenty of commercial recordings of these conductors doing exactly that. There is though the potential frisson of being transported back in time to aurally witness a one-off occasion, a concert, when something indefinable took place, something that a studio might have stifled.

The format of Andante’s 4-CD sets is that of a CD-size hardback book, two CDs either side of articles and photos. The presentation is excellent; so too is the more important aspect of transferring the musical material. This has been most expertly done here. All these VPO selections are mono; the Mahler is from a private collection, the other tapes are courtesy of Austrian Radio. Although copious technical means have been used to achieve the final results on these CDs, what is heard has not been compromised by over-zealous mastering – that horrible strangulated sound that can emulate from various de-noising processes, the pulsing of frequencies or general sound-degradation is happily avoided. The sound, somewhat limited of course, is clean and open – a tribute to the sensibilities of those involved in producing these CDs.

What choices were open to Andante in compiling these CDs, I wonder. One imagines there remain many riches in Austrian Radio’s archive that might have proved more original than the Bruckner and Strauss offered here. That said, the CD of Bohm conducting Strauss from a concert in Vienna’s Konzerthaus on 19 May 1963, although further extending the Strauss/Bohm discography, does contain two performances caught on the wing. Bohm’s hallmarks as an honest and structure-conscious conductor, one close to Strauss’s own selfless manner, are as evident in-concert as in the studio. What is added here is the vivid communication of live music-making, something tangibly committed and driven, but with no lack of control or direction. There’s also the astute understanding of the music that the VPO displays; although Bohm is not a risk-taker he certainly allows both pieces their heads, each given a natural and spontaneous unfurling difficult to replicate in the studio.

Death and Transfiguration is especially gripping – sensitive, and fiery en route to the final climactic release. Ein Heldenleben is all of a piece, conducted with a welcome wholeness for a score that can seem unwieldy and portentous – not so from Bohm (or the composer himself or, indeed, Clemens Krauss). The Orchestra’s then Concert-Master, Willi Boskovsky, gives an exemplary account of the long violin solo – sweet-toned, malleable and instinctive; a fine portrayal of the wily Pauline Strauss, the composer’s wife. Bohm is the master of the music’s pride, emotion and afterglow. If the opening of ’The Battle’ finds the VPO losing its way for a moment, then the thrill of the chase more than compensates. And I feel, regarding those familiar Bohm recordings of Strauss’s tone-poems from Berlin, Dresden and Vienna, that these live accounts candidly signal a vivid enactment of the music that isn’t always as apparent in Bohm’s commercial undertakings.

Of the Bruckner I’m less certain. Having duly confirmed that Karajan is using Robert Haas’s edition (as he habitually did) – i.e. there is no cut in the ’Adagio’ – and not Leopold Nowak’s as stated in the booklet, then one goes on to audition a Bruckner 8 that is somewhat impersonal, albeit beautifully played. There is also the nagging doubt that this account could be on one CD! Including applause the total playing time is 81 minutes. It is possible to cut a perfectly-playing CD of this length. However, knock off half of the thirty seconds of applause and a second or two more from between movements and a 1-CD rendition should have been no problem. Thus the least interesting performance takes up fifty percent of the set.

(Perhaps Andante has placed an 80-minute ceiling for each CD? Come the close of Mahler 9, there is no applause. This is a shame – having sensed an audience stunned into silence, one wants to stay with this until clapping finally breaks. Playing for 79 minutes, the Mahler 9 CD could have been longer to include such a reaction, if indeed it is present on the ’private’ tape.)

Karajan’s Bruckner 8 is from a Musikverein concert on 17 April 1957; therefore this live performance is contemporaneous with the first of Karajan’s three commercial recordings of the work (the first two with the Berlin Philharmonic, the last with the VPO). Given Karajan’s consistency of approach over his career and the unequivocal greatness of his second and third recordings of this music (both for DG), then this live version does seem somewhat superfluous. True it offers a less heavyweight approach than the first recording (made for Columbia and now on EMI). Unfortunately, this Andante pressing (as recorded) has coarse, close brass and the sound overall is somewhat thin. Although the performance is well prepared, and played with commitment and insight, it seems more an overview of the music rather than a particularly probing account.

The Mahler is another matter. Taken from a private source, the sound is fuller and better balanced than Karajan’s Bruckner, albeit somewhat fuzzy and with some break-up in climaxes. (As I’ve mentioned, Andante’s transfers are first-class; but you can’t work miracles if the source material is inherently flawed.)

Yet this is an extraordinary performance; the sort one looks for in this kind of ’historical’ issue. Taking place on 2 October 1960, this Musikverein rendition came only a month before Mitropoulos’s death, aged 64. Whether he knew he was in his final throes I know not; nevertheless the hindsight knowledge that he conducted this valedictory symphony prior to his own demise does add a layer of intensity to one’s listening. And it’s a very intense performance … Mahler 9 would have been to Mitropoulos and the audience then more of a ’swansong’ than perhaps it is today. I write as someone utterly convinced by Deryck Cooke’s ’performing version’ (more convincing than Mazzetti or Carpenter) of Mahler’s unfinished, but complete, Tenth Symphony, which offers incontrovertible proof that there is life after the Ninth.

While some of the visceral immediacy of Mitropoulos’s often-searing account is tamed by the recording, its cataclysmic voltage is readily apparent. One can take issue with some of Mitropoulos’s rhythmic pointing, and live very easily with moments of fallible execution, for there is within this reading a sense of ’last rites’, a coming-together of composer and conductor that is intertwined and consummately espoused by effectively Mahler’s own orchestra in a way that transcends human frailty. This isn’t for everyday listening, yet it alters one’s ’learning curve’ as to music’s ability to say what words cannot. Mitropoulos, the Greek-born American who led the Minneapolis (now Minnesota) Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, catches both the music’s fever and its search for the paradisal; in the Landler-based second movement the dance rhythms are acerbic; the ’Rondo-Burleske is trenchant. This is Mahler-conducting both flexible and personal; it is also, like Horenstein’s and Klemperer’s Mahler, truth-telling.

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