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Herbert von Karajan conducts the New York Philharmonic!
First of three volumes chronicling his only appearances with the orchestra
"Herbert von Karajan (5 April 1908 – 16 July 1989) was an Austrian orchestra and opera conductor. His obituary in The New York Times described him as "probably the world's best-known conductor and one of the most powerful figures in classical music". Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra for 35 years. He is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, having sold an estimated 200 million records during his career." - Wikipedia
Despite his lengthy and varied career, Karajan was predominantly a Europe-based conductor and rarely conducted American orchestras - in 169 concerts in the USA he conducted only three orchestras: the Los Angeles Philharmonic once (1959), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra fifteen times (1967-69), and the New York Philharmonic eight times in November, 1958. His only other engagements with an American orchestra were two concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra in Salzburg and Lucerne during August 1967.
The New York Philharmonic concerts were split into two groups of four: The first concerts, of 13-16 November 1958, consisted of three works: Webern's Five Pieces for String Orchestra, Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41, and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben. A week later, between 20th and 23rd November, Karajan played an all-Beethoven programme, beginning with the First Symphony and ending with the Ninth - in the case of the Ninth "Choral" Symphony these constituted four of ten performances the conductor gave of this work in 1958 alone - three with the Berlin and three with the Vienna Philharmonics complete the total.
Each group of four New York Philharmonic concerts received a radio broadcast - in each case it was the third of the four concerts, held on Saturday evenings, which was broadcast on the CBS radio network. At the present time the only surviving recordings of these concerts appear to have been taken from AM broadcasts. Although the quality, both of the recordings and the transmissions themselves is very good, they are inevitably diminished by the limited bandwidth and dynamic range of this broadcast medium.
As a result there is no recorded signal above
about 6kHz, and at times some of the very loudest passages sound
somewhat compressed in volume. However, with such obvious interest in
these rare recordings, made by such top rank musicians, it was clear
that they could not be ignored, and we were delighted to be sent
excellent source copies by an American collector. Restoration has
revolved around minimising hiss, dealing with very occasional light
drop-out, the odd click and crackle, and one short instance of line
whistle. Thereafter the XR remastering process has been used in order to
ty and extract the very best sound quality possible from this
compromised source material. Although the results would be considered
fine for a recording of earlier years it's clearly not up to the
standards one normally expects of 1958 technology, hence the designation
"Special Interest" for this release.
BEETHOVEN Symphony No 9 ‘Choral' in D minor, Op. 125
Concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall, 22nd November, 1958
Played by New York Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor Herbert von Karajan
Leontyne Price, Soprano
Maureen Forrester, Alto
Leopold Simoneau, Tenor
Norman Scott, Bass
Westminster Choir (director: Warren Martin)
Recorded live at Carnegie Hall, New York City
Concert broadcast from Carnegie Hall, 22nd November, 1958
Originally broadcast by CBS Radio, announcer Jim Fassett
Recording designated "Special Interest" due to limited frequency range indicative of AM broadcast
XR remastering by Andrew Rose at Pristine Audio, April 2010
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Herbert von Karajan
Total duration: 66:35
"Herbert von Karajan showed yesterday at Carnegie Hall that he could conduct with tension and virility. In dealing with the first and last symphonies of Beethoven he proved that he could combine an awareness of tradition with a strong feeling of personal involvement.
This was, for the most past, Beethoven brimming with vitality and passion. The New York Philharmonic gave Mr. von Karajan playing that had delicacy and muscularity, tenderness and power. It was a supple, responsive instrument. It cooperated with the conductor at every turn. It enabled him to prove that he was a Beethoven interpreter of character..."
Howard Taubman, New York Times, from Concert Review, 22nd November 1958
"To hear Karajan working with an American orchestra is a treat (he only ever conducted four in his entire life), and the New York Phil plays beautifully – only occasionally would a phrase have been more ‘rounded’ in Berlin. But the performance is very similar to the ’62 in conception, and the solo quartet (Leontyne Price, Maureen Forrester, Léopold Simoneau and Norman Scott) very classy; the choir is terrific (possibly better than Vienna’s Singverein to whom Karajan stayed extraordinarily loyal throughout his career). There's a terrific dynamism and vitality about the interpretation too.
The sound is fine, though for a 1958 recording could sound a load better – the recordings were made from an AM radio broadcast. But I found that I soon attuned to the slightly cramped sound (Pristine label it "SI" for Special Interest: maybe they’re being slightly cautious): only the opening of the finale is a bit of a mess aurally.
I found the performance fascinating: Karajan performed the Choral Symphony ten times during 1958 (four with the NYPO, three each with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics): no wonder that when he came to record it (and there’s also a live recording from the opening of the Philharmonie) there’s a confidence and total security in his vision. If you’re a Karajan admirer this is well worth a listen: you can sample the first movement and decide whether the sound is good enough for you..."
James Jolly, Gramophone blog, 5th May 2010
I was in the audience...
I should confess that I do not bring complete objectivity to this performance for the simple reason that I was in the audience when it took place. Like many record collectors then, I had been struck by Karajan’s initial postwar recordings made for English Columbia with the Vienna Philharmonic, particularly that of the Ninth Symphony. What was immediately clear from hearing him live was how he transformed the sonority of the New York Philharmonic and suggested in the first movement (without quite duplicating) those cascading legatos that typified that first of what ultimately proved to be his five studio accounts of the work. Granted this resurrection is not a performance for the general collector. For one thing, some of the orchestral playing is a bit sloppy, no repeats are taken in the second movement, and the end of the finale is a frantic mess. The four soloists were, of course, distinguished, though some may be surprised by Norman Scott’s opening recitative rendered with its appoggiatura sung as a very short grace note. Considering that the source of this release is an AM broadcast, the sound is remarkably good. Although somewhat limited in dynamic range, lacking uppermost frequencies, and suffering from occasionally skewed balances, the transfer remains eminently listenable with a very quiet background. Certainly for those interested in Karajan or in live performances in general, this release is worth having. The only announcement included is James Fassett’s closing statement.
Mortimer H. Frank
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:4 (Mar/Apr 2011) of Fanfare Magazine.