HERBERT von Karajan has not included many Haydn symphonies in his enormous discography. There have been two recordings of No. 104 in D (the "London"), one each of Nos. 83 in G minor ("The Hen") and 101 in D ("The Clock"), and that's it, I think, while he has recorded three complete Brahms and Beethoven cycles and remade the last Mozart and Tchaikovsky symphonies several times. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to have Deutsche Grammophon bring out a new digital recording of Haydn's six "Paris" Symphonies by Karajan and his Berlin Philharmonic (2741.005, three discs).
It is quite a handsome surprise, for these are some of the most attractive performances Karajan has recorded at any point in his career. The sequence of Symphonies Nos. 82-87 of course includes a remake of the aforementioned No. 83, and it is in every way superior to the earlier version on Angel. All six works seem to have brought out a geniality that is as rare on Karajan's part as it is common on Haydn's, and at the same time a grandeur apposite to this music but not so fully realized in any previous recordings.
Start with the greatest of these six symphonies, No. 86 in D major, or with the most familiar, No. 85 in B-flat ("La Reine"), or with the most ingratiating, No. 82 in C ("The Bear"): In each case the tempos are incredibly well chosen, every phrase is irresistible in its seeming spontaneity, and there is an overall sense of delighted discovery and celebration. Haydn's feeling for rhythm and color, his marvelous tunes, his warmth and his wit shine more brightly than ever--not, one feels, because Karajan is impoosing his personality on the music, but because he is simply allowing Haydn's own to emerge in its full splendor.
Antal Dorati's six-record London set of these six symphonies, the five that follow them in Haydn's numerical sequence and the Sinfonia concertante in B-flat, all played by the Philharmonia Hungarica (STS-15229/15234), costs a bit less than Karajan's new digital album, and it is a fine value, one of the strongest segments of Dorati's complete Haydn cycle. The Philharmonia Hungarica does not sparkle as the Berliners do, though, and London's sound is nowhere near as bright and vivid as DG's. Since Dorati's records of Symphonies Nos. 88 and 89 (STS-15442) and Nos. 90 and 92 (STS-15446) are available separately now, I think I would suggest purchasing those discs and putting out the extra cash for Karajan's "Paris" sequence.
As noted above, even this Haydn set of Karajan's includes one remake, and of course he has by now recorded some of his specialties several times. The one work he has recorded more times than any other would appear to be Tchaikovsky's last symphony, the "Pathe'tique," which he has done no fewer than six times, with three different orchestras.
One of Karajan's very earliest recordings was a "Pathe'tique" made with the Berlin Philharmonic on Polydor 78s in 1939, when he was 31 years old and virtually unknown outside of Germany; this never made its way to our shores. Shortly after World War II he recorded the work with the Vienna Philharmonic for English Columbia, again on 78s, but this was issued on LP by American Columbia (ML-4299). It was a remarkably intense and exciting performance: The sheer, terrifying inevitability of the march movement has never been realized with such stunning impetuosity. In 1959, Karajan, having already recorded Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Fifth symphonies with the Philharmonia, again for English Columbia, added the "Pathe'tique"; this recording, for some reason, was never issued in the United States. A few years later came the first of the three stereo versions with the Berlin Philharmonic, on Deutsche Grammophon 138921, to be followed by another on Angel S-33886 and another on DG 2530.774.
All of these are superb, in slightly different but generally consistent ways. The 1959 recording with the Philharmonia has just been issued in stereo for the first time and made available here as an import (HMV Concert Classics SXLP 30534). A little of the impetuosity of the Viennese performance is still present, and it is thrilling to be given such a reminder of the Philharmonia's quality in the '50s. The sound is quite fine and really belies its age. Whether as a "basic" version of this much-recorded work, or a back-up for alternating with an established favorite, this one is very much worth considering.