Karajan’s Oddest Recordings

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SUTERMEISTER: Missa da Requiem.* WALTON: Symphony No. 1. GHEDINI: Viola Concerto.+ HENZE: Antifone# / *Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; Giorgio Tadeo, bs; RAI Rome Chorus; +Bruno Giuranna, vla; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; #Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Herbert von Karajan, cond / Urania WS 121.389 (live: December 5 & 22, 1953, #1963)

Italy in the 1950s and early ‘60s was a surprisingly innovative place to play and sing music. This was a decade in which opera houses not only revived highly unusual works from the past, such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (with Callas), Spontini’s Fernando Cortez (with Tebaldi), Boito’s Nerone and Cherubini’s Gli Abencerrogi (with Cerquetti), but also saw productions of operas by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Montemezzi that had not been performed in Italy before, or not in decades as well as new works by Pizzetti and others.

Into this environment stepped Herbert von Karajan, a German conductor steeped in tradition. Karajan seldom if ever performed 20th century music that was not tonal and thus acceptable to his broad audience; he was not musically adventurous by nature; yet here are four recordings of 20th century works, three of them quite edgy by his standards and, not too surprisingly, all but one performed with the RAI Rome Symphony. These are all mono radio broadcasts, yet the sound quality is for the most part acceptable. As one would expect, it is the lower strings, the basses and celli, that suffer the most from the sound compression.

The one name in this program foreign to me was that of Heinrich Sutermeister (1910-1995), whose Requiem is not quite atonal but uses a great deal of sliding microtonal passages for both chorus and orchestra. Karajan imparts to this music the same legato style with which he conducted Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner, and while even members of the Wagner family complained about his “too lovely” interpretations of their forebear’s music, this performance contains quite a bit of power and drive when called for. It always surprises me how good the Italian choruses of the 1950s were, not only in comparison to those of earlier decades but especially in comparison to the Metropolitan Opera chorus of the same vintage, which was third-rate. This, by the way, is the same orchestra and chorus that Wilhelm Furtwängler used that year for his famous Ring cycle. This is the world premiere performance.

Sutermeister’s Dies Irae almost sounds like a combination of Verdi and Stravinsky: Verdi’s tempi and drive (also the sudden drop to a softer volume in the middle section) with Stravinskian harmonies. This, by the way, seems to be the only recording of this work currently available; there was a modern recording previously on Wergo, featuring soprano Luba Orgonasova and conducted by Heinz Rögner. Although the CD appears to be unavailable as of this writing, it is available on YouTube for free streaming. Rögner’s conducting is well paced but, compared to Karajan, lacks some punch. There’s a much rawer, earthier, more frightening aspect in this reading that I prefer despite the inferior sound, and Schwarzkopf in particular is excellent.

The sound quality suddenly improves to quite good in the Sanctus, at least in the opening, which again combines Verdian drive with Stravinskian melodic lines, harmonies and angular rhythm. Yet I don’t wish to imply that Sutermeister simply copied other composers, as Alfred Schnittke did; his music is quite original and, here and there, continued to use microtones, something that Stravinsky never really indulged in. It’s quite an interesting piece.

For programming purposes—these recordings are spread over two CDs—Henze’s Antifone is up next. This has far clearer and more transparent sound, and is clearly the most advanced composition style in this collection…the sort of thing that Karajan almost never programmed with his own orchestra. Once again, his penchant for lyricism infused the performance, but in this case I find it a benefit, since it slightly softens Henze’s abrasive harmonic clashes. This approach also gives more “flow” to the music, making it sound a bit less angular. I’ve never been a fan of Henze’s music (to me, it always sounds like effects without reason or cause), but this I can take, at least once in a blue moon, thanks to Karajan’s way with it. But I could just imagine Karajan’s usual audience—reactionary older people who love their Schubert and Brahms—attending this concert and having their blood pressures go through the roof.

William Walton’s first symphony, written in 1934-35 (its premiere was given without the last movement), is not as much of a stretch for Karajan as the other works, and he does such a fine job with it that I’m a bit surprised that he never performed it again. The Italian orchestra absorbs it with ease; compared to the Sutermeister Requiem, this was a piece of cake for them. Personally, I found the first movement bombastic and repetitive, the second movement fascinating, the third is wistful in a sort of British-pastoral manner, and the fourth is. to my ears, again bombastic. An excellent performance of an uneven work and, in this case, the sound quality is excellent.

Ghedini’s Musica da Concerto per Viola& Orchestra was written in 1953, the year of this performance. Since I don’t have liner notes for this CD, I don’t know if this was the world premiere or not, but it’s played with an unusually lovely, rhapsodic quality that suits the score. Typically of this composer, it uses modes from ancient music in a modern manner, and is lyrical despite its unusual harmonies. Ghedini effectively uses held notes by the bowed basses to underscore the solo viola line. The concerto is well developed, original, and interesting. We today clearly need to appreciate more of this fine composer’s music.

A mixed bag, then. I could have lived without the Henze or Walton pieces, but the other two are very interesting and shed new light on Karajan’s ability as a conductor. As for the sound, I know that Urania is highly respected for their restoration work, and have enjoyed many of their previous releases, but this one could have used a little brightening of the treble in many places. Once you remove the bulk of the surface noise, you sometimes need to boost treble to restore some of the missing frequencies up top.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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