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CD Review

Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan

For the First Time after W.W. II in the U.S.A.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Constitution Hall, Washington (27 February 1955)
* Royal Festival Hall, London (17 April 1961)
Andromeda CD9120 2CDs
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The main part of this re-released disc commemorates Herbert von Karajan's first visit to the United States after World War II. The tour with the Berlin Philharmonic was originally supposed to have been conducted by Furtwängler, but von Karajan's predecessor as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic died in November 1954. There was clearly a significant sense of occasion, despite (or perhaps because of) von Karajan's controversial involvement with the Nazi party, and the concert opens with the German and American national anthems.

In his later years von Karajan was famous for a rich and manicured sound that many listeners adored but some found lifeless. Not so the von Karajan of 1955. As this recording reveals, the younger von Karajan was capable of great musical intensity. The performance of the Haffner symphony is definitely a testament to an old school, high octane style of Mozart conducting that has been a casualty of historically informed performance. Anachronistic it may be, but the über-Romantic approach to Mozart can be thrilling.

In Brahms's First von Karajan shows himself to be of the Toscanini rather than the Furtwängler school, with constant tempi and a ferocious rhythmic drive in the first movement. The intensity mounts in the slow movement, building towards a blistering finale. The audience is duly appreciative – in fact, the concert was a great critical success.

The 2-disc collection contains a bonus recording of Beethoven's Eighth from a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 April 1961 (in which the 8th was coupled with the 9th in what must have been quite an evening). There is no reason that I can detect for the pairing (and no liner notes of any description), but this is a fine performance and it is good to have it. This is another highly charged performance, giving the impression of breakneck speed, particularly in the first movement.

Many collectors of historical recordings will have the Constitution Hall concert recording already. For those who don't, though, this set will be a good purchase, particularly with the bonus Beethoven symphony and the remastering in 24-bit/96khz sound. The recording appears to come from a radio broadcast and the quality is at least acceptable. As typical for Andromeda, though, every expense has been spared with the packaging.

Copyright © 2014, José Luis Bermúdez