The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Karajan in Lucerne

  30th August 2023

30th August 2023

Even in an age when many recordings are taken in superb sound from live performances (often several performances combined, plus ‘patching’ sessions), it can be enormously refreshing to hear performances by famous names caught truly ‘live’ and ‘on the wing’. Archive radio and in-house recordings have seen a welcome boom in recent years, and although sound and performance quality sometimes bring disappointments, the light shone by archival material on both well-known and more obscure figures is usually worth it. This is particularly the case with those individuals whose studio recordings dominated the market in the late mono and analogue stereo eras. The great Austrian conductor Karl Böhm, for instance, is almost always more interesting and exciting to hear live than in the studio. The same is equally true of his overmilked compatriot Herbert von Karajan: after bursting onto the scene in the 1930s as ‘das Wunder Karajan’ (‘the Karajan miracle’), he managed to shake off his wartime record under the Nazi regime to become one of the most recorded (and re-recorded!) conductors in history.

If you’re one of those who finds Karajan’s early and very late recordings more compelling than the often over-homogenised studio products of the late 1960s to early 1980s, a new release from Audite – who have embarked on a project to unlock the historic sound archives of the Lucerne Festival – will surely take your interest. In the wake of Karajan’s post-war denazification trial, Lucerne was the first venue outside Austria and Germany to extend a welcome to the conductor, as it also did to Karajan’s senior colleague and antipode Wilhelm Furtwängler. The Lucerne Festival had been launched in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini with a handpicked orchestra from Europe’s finest orchestras. Ten years later, the Swiss Festival Orchestra that formed the backbone of the ‘Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern’ was comprised of players from the major Swiss orchestras, but was still good enough to attract artists of Karajan’s calibre, especially if they had postwar careers to rebuild.

In terms of repertoire, Audite’s three-disc set of performances dating from 1952–57 brings few surprises. The emphasis is on the Austro-German classics (especially Beethoven and Brahms) for which Karajan was fast developing a reputation. Even the 1955 performance of Honegger’s Symphony No.3 ‘Liturgique’ (of which Karajan’s later studio recording in Berlin is well known) represents the sort of ‘moderate modernism’ with which he was most at home. Yet the performances themselves – including soloists with whom Karajan rarely worked in the studio – have a freshness that many will find welcome, even if some allowances have to be made for the mono sound, which ranges from acceptable to good for the period. It makes the lack of attention given by the standard biographies to Karajan’s Lucerne appearances (which continued until 1989, from the late 1950s with ‘his’ Berlin Philharmonic) all the more remarkable.

The set opens with an August 1952 performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony which is alert, rhythmically incisive and swift, with the first exposition repeat observed. Karajan is in his element here in a work that was always one of the strongest across his four recorded Beethoven symphony cycles. It is followed by another item from the same concert, Mozart’s great C minor Piano Concerto, K491, with Robert Casadesus as soloist. The first movement is noble but probing, the central Larghetto is radiant without being over-luxuriant, and although some intonation issues hit the Swiss woodwind section towards its end, these are more than compensated for by the sparks that fly in the later stages of the closing Allegretto, where Casadesus and Karajan seem to be egging one another on in the sort of way that only works in a live performance.

The August 1955 account of Bach’s C major Keyboard Concerto, BWV 1061, is a more stately affair, but well worth hearing for the soloists, Clara Haskil and Géza Anda, who seem well attuned to one another’s playing. Like the Mozart concerto, this is a performance that really comes together in the finale (here a lively fugue) in a manner unique to live concerts. It’s a huge shame that the performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony from the same concert doesn’t survive. The other work on the programme – the Honegger symphony – is tucked onto the third disc, and it’s a thrill to hear the Swiss orchestra playing the music of their compatriot with such commitment and urgency, under a conductor who clearly believed in the work. No wonder the performance (of repertoire which the regular Lucerne audience found less attractive than the usual classic-romantic offerings) made such a strong impression on the young Heinz Holliger.

For many anglophone collectors a big attraction of this set will be the September 1956 guest performance by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. Having recently taken over the reins of the Berlin Philharmonic following Furtwängler’s death, Karajan was beginning to wind down his activities with the Philharmonia, whose early excellence he did so much to foster. He had already recorded both Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ and Brahms’s Fourth with them – the Brahms in early stereo just the pervious year – yet these accounts have an extra freshness. The ‘Pastoral’ has all the conductor’s trademark flow, but although everything is superbly controlled with the sense of symphonic architecture as keen as ever, there’s a thrill as well as a feeling of relaxation, as if the Swiss lakeside air were infecting the performers. In the Brahms, hearing the vintage Philharmonia wind section at work (Dennis Brain was still principal horn) is almost worth the price of the set as a whole. Immediacy, energy and passion combine in equal measure to make this one of the highlights of the box.

In later years Karajan had a habit of working with ever younger soloists, with sometimes mixed results, while in his earlier years he often accompanied senior figures like Backhaus who weren’t always attuned to his way of musical thinking. In violinist Nathan Milstein, however, you feel that he was working with a powerful individual who was also his equal, and that’s certainly the impression given by their August 1957 performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto (once more with the local Swiss orchestra). This is Milstein caught ‘on the wing’ in his prime, working hand-in-glove with conductor, and raising the ‘local’ band to impressive heights. It’s another standout performance, previously unreleased, that will delight collectors.

A September 1951 Lucerne performance of Bach’s B minor Mass featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Ernst Haefliger with the Vienna Singverein and guesting Wiener Symphoniker is offered as a digital ‘bonus’, although both recorded sound and (by today’s standards) rather stodgy performance make this one for die-hard completists only. The accompanying booklet has an extended essay by Erich Singer (an authority on the Lucerne Festival), and plenty of rare photographs of Karajan in Lucerne, at work and play (with alphorns a recurring feature!). For those wanting to delve more deeply into the maestro’s postwar rise to the top, this is essential listening.

The Recording:
Herbert von Karajan: The Early Lucerne Years, 1952–57 AUDITE21464
(released 8 September)

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