DEUTSCHE Grammophon has issued an imposing assortment of new digital recordings by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, about 27 titles, mostly remakes for the cinductor. While all the performances are more than enjoyable, their respective levels of appeal are more or less in reverse order of what might have been expected.
The biggest single item, accounting for 23 titles, is a three-disc set of waltzes, polkas, marches and overtures by Johann Strauss, his brother Josef and their father Johann I. The "Egyptian March" and the waltz "Morning Papers," both on one of Karajan's two earlier Strauss discs with the Berliners, are missing this time, but here we do have his first (or, at least, first stereo) recordings of "Artists' Life," "Music of the Spheres" and "Roses from the South," in addition to the "Emperor," "Blue Danube," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," "Wiener Blut," etc. There seems to be a little less mellowness here than in Karajan's earlier Berlin Straussiana, but there is much, too, that is sheer glory. The waltz King has not been so grandly saluted in a single package heretofore, and true aficionados will not want to pass this by.
The one item that is entirely new to Karajan's discography is the Symphony No. 3 of Bruckner (2532.007; cassette 3302.007). This dramatic, urgent performance of the final version (1889) is the first one to be presented on a single disc with its slow movement uninterrupted; the Adagio, intact, shares a 35-minute side with the scherzo and finale, with no diminution of sonic excellence. There is, in fact, a somewhat harder quality in the sounds of the first movement, alone on side one.
While the fierce dynmaic contrasts and the allusion to Wagner's "Magic Fire Music" (at the end of the Adagio and again in the finale) are brought out more tellingly than in any other performance of this work I've heard, there are some lapses in precision that do call attention to themselves, particularly at the point at which Bruckner is getting up steam for his concluding peroration. Karajan is the last conductor one expects to overlook such things--but, perhaps in this case, he felt the sweeping urgency of this performance was something he might not recapture. In any event, this is the most striking account of this work available at present.
Karajan's earlier recording of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Spring Orchestra is one of the most persuasive ever; his digital remake (2532.012; cassette 3302.012) is even more luscious, but may seem to lack a degree or two of the earlier one's spontaneity, particularly in the final movement. The new coupling is the Dvorak Serenade, Op. 22, in which Karajan achieves unparalled elegance, but at the expense of much of the work's robust, earthy character. The coupling with the earlier performance of the Tchaikovsky is that composer's "Nutcracker" Suite, in which Karajan's elegance is exactly what one wants (DG 139.030).
The most thoroughly successful of the new items, to my ear, is the remake of Holst's showpiece "The Planets" (2532.019; cassette 3302.019). In his earlier recording of this work, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Karajan tended to round off the corners a bit, robbing such moments as the brass opening of "Uranus" of their impact. This time around, though, the approach is virtually ideal throughout the seven sections, each of whose peculiar magic is stunningly realized (and how the organ glissando in "Uranus" comes through here!). Among the digital recordings of the "The Planets" so far, Karajan's is unquestionably the most distinguished performance, and the combination of musical and sonic excellences add up to a strong argument for placing it at the top of the list of all current versions, along or digital.