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CD Review

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

  • Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36
  • Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66a (Suite)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Opus Kura OPK7030
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So imposing is the recorded legacy of Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonic Orchestras of Berlin and Vienna – spread across three labels and over 50 years – that collectors tend to forget the important career step that was the Philharmonia. Featuring some of the finest musicians in Great Brittan, the orchestra was responsible for shaping Karajan's core recorded repertoire, successfully rehabilitating his image following the Second World War, and cementing him as one of the great musicians of his era. This Tchaikovsky program preserves his early efforts in this music, and like most of his early work, shows him to be a more persuasive and excitable conductor than most of us know.

This thrilling and brash Tchaikovsky Fourth is significantly different than his later, more polished versions. I won't be giving away my Berlin Philharmonic recordings, which are very well recorded and show the conductor in excellent form. But for a more balanced, less string-heavy conception, these early takes demonstrate a string grasp of the composer's moods and structure. This is a less somber, more heated view of the work than we later hear, and Opus Kura has restored the sound well. The brass are especially impressive, as is the way that the conductor allows us to hear them; he would later smother these sections.

As for the Suite from Sleeping Beauty, Karajan would later record all three suites in excellent sound for Decca, and later still for Deutsche Grammophon. As such, I don't know how competitive this particular coupling is, although if Opus Kura will give us Karajan's early Symphony #6 and Suite from Swan Lake, we'd at least have a set, since the Fifth is on "Dennis Brain in the Orchestra". For those not interested in shelling out the money for one of the new Karajan Warner boxes, this remains an important document for understanding the conductor's career.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman