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Two Karajan recordings


Modest Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition: Two Karajan recordings

Victor Hartman’s posthumous exhibition of paintings in 1874 gave the opportunity to Mussorgsky to write one of the most orchestral pieces ever written for the piano, and to Ravel to make an orchestration in 1922, commissioned by Koussevitsky, which would secure the work as a concert favorite in the years to come. This work has received a number of orchestrations (Cailliet, Leonard, etc.) among which the most famous is Ravel’s and fairly so. While one could argue that the orchestration is not Russian enough – in fact one could see many Ravel touches in the orchestration, such as the use of alto saxophone in the cantilena of the second picture (the old castle) or the effects in the fifth picture (Ballet of the unhatched chicks), in most cases Ravel follows the piano score and produces imaginative orchestration of a high order depicting accurately the essence of each of the ten pictures.

Many recordings have appeared over the years during the analogue and the digital era, but this review will concentrate on two Karajan recordings which will attempt to compare, i.e. the 1966 recording for DG with the Berlin Philharmonia Orchestra and the 1958 recording for EMI with the Philharmonia Orchestra.
DG 139010 – Karajan with BPO – 8/66 stereo
Columbia SAX 2261 (Australian edition) – Karajan with Philarmonia Orchestra – 1958 stereo

I have many times thought about which was the best period of one of the greatest – if not the greatest – conductors of the 20th century. It is not the place here to argue why he was great, but his greatness certainly derives from his recordings from the 50’s with Philarmonia and his recordings from the 60’s with the BPO. Both orchestras were in top form then, but needed a conductor to take full advantage of their special properties. And this was Karajan. If one wants to characterize the two periods, one would say that Karajan was in the 50’s about focus and accuracy and in the 60’s about transparency and atmosphere. These characterizations apply full to his two above recordings of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece.

Columbia SAX 2261 Karajan

The recording on Columbia is sharply focused with a well defined base and excellent clarity at the bottom and the top of the frequency range. The base is well defined but it is not as full as on DG, and while the top frequencies are clear and focused, they do not have the transparency of the DG recording, especially in the brass sections. Also, the instruments, brass, woodwind and strings melt more naturally in the DG recording. It is to the credit of the DG engineers that they manage the sound to have such transparency without being edgy. In fact, this recording is a model to test transparency of the stereo system. The top brass, on the other hand, sounds edgy in certain instances on Columbia, not helped by the rather dry acoustic. Not that the Columbia recording is not good. It is very good but cannot match the excellence of the DG.


As regards performance, the DG 1966 account is in a class of its own. While in the 2nd picture (The old Castle) one could say that the Columbia recording is more pointed, while Karajan on DG sounds more recessed (in fact the melancholy song of the troubadour is better played by the alto saxophone on Columbia), this reticency is followed by such a special insight in the other sections of the work that other recordings sound in fact workaday. On DG Karajan builds even more expertly and subtly than on Columbia the orchestral canvas. The second crack of the whip is more chilling than the first on DG. While the Columbia recording accentuates and clarifies the dynamic extremes of the music, it finally misses the impressionistic atmosphere of the piece. Moreover, Karajan on DG really gives the illusion of the promenade between the various pictures. You feel you stroll along with him observing one after another the various canvases of the exhibition. To give the idea of a promenade is an element of the performance not often pointed out. It is not only depicting in musical terms the essence of this picture, it is also the attitude and the sentiments of the observer when looking at these pictures which is important. On DG the effect of the lower strings in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmyele and the suggestion of echo and hollowness in the Catacombes and the massive orchestral sound in the Great Gate at Kiev, are unforgettable when played with such atmosphere and attention to detail and to dynamic contrasts. While the strings play superbly, it is the brass which capture the ear of the listener with such accuracy, transparency and refinement. In short, while the Columbia is very good, the DG is an all-time classic (readers should be reminded that Karajan made a digital recording of the same work for DG in 1986).

By Epaminondas Tsandis

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