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CD Review

Philharmonic Promenade Concert

Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
EMI Classics 476900-2 ADD 73:35
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Of late, the major record labels have had a tendency to repeatedly reissue their reissues. It's cheaper than making new recordings, certainly. EMI Classics is playing that game with their new "Karajan Collection," although some of the once-again reissued recordings have been out of the CD catalogue for a few years. The present reissue, which is part of that series, nevertheless is inexplicably new to CD – "inexplicably" because this was one of Karajan's most delightful records, and it still is. Recorded in September 1960, this also was the last record that the conductor made with the Philharmonia. (The Berlioz and the Leoncavallo come from sessions in 1958 and 1959, respectively.)

This recording almost didn't get made; originally, Karajan was to have recorded La traviata with Maria Callas in the title role. (How remarkable that might have been, however! Instead, she made her second complete recording of Bellini's Norma in Milan with conductor Tullio Serafin.) These London sessions were quickly but carefully planned, and this jewel was the result.

Later in his career, Karajan was criticized for sapping the spontaneity from music with his almost egotistical concern for orchestral sound. Even in the 1950s, he was thought to be a humorless conductor. Little is left to chance in the program assembled here, but the results are joyous and not at all calculated. Producer Walter Legge's influence can be felt throughout. The playing lacks nothing in detail, and one seldom hears an orchestra playing "light" music with the punctiliousness usually reserved for "serious" works such as a Brahms symphony. On the other hand, there is love and laughter here, not least in the Viennese classics on which the young conductor cut his teeth. Listening to the Thunder and Lightning Polka, for example, one admires not only the precision with which Karajan realizes Strauss's stormy effects, but also his preservation of the music's suitability for actual dance. Throughout this disc, the Philharmonia's star players make memorable contributions – take, for example, horn player Alan Civil at the start of Waldteufel's Skaters' Waltz.

Although this is an old recording by most standards, this new digital remastering helps it to show its years lightly. A stereo spectacular back then, it is only slightly less spectacular now.

As a treat for when you've been good, or as a pick-me-up for when you're down, this Philharmonia Promenade Concert is highly recommended.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle