Herbert von Karajan

Johann Strauss, Josef Strauss: Waltzes & Polkas

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Were he still alive today, Herbert von Karajan would be immensely gratified to know that EMI has reissued much of the most famous pieces of his recorded legacy -- again. Enter the Karajan Collection, a set of 25 cornerstone recordings upon which the Berlin Philharmonic's "music director for life" is featured. These recordings all come from different time periods, featuring both his early and late work. Although not identical, these recordings are similar to EMI's "Karajan Edition" series, which was released in the late '90s. Included in the newer series are the recordings one would expect: the Strauss Metamorphosen, the Bruckner Eighth Symphony, and Karajan's Beethoven Ninth. Love him or hate him, the works in which Karajan excelled were mostly of a serious, somewhat grandiose nature -- making this compilation of Strauss waltzes and polkas an unlikely recording in which to feature the Austrian conductor, regardless of your personal feelings about his work.

The recording features the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra with which Karajan is not generally associated, even though he was the music director of the Vienna State Opera (from which the VPO draws its roster) between 1956 and 1964. These recordings predate even this relationship and were made in the studio from the period of 1946 through 1949. Hence, this is truly some of Karajan's earliest recorded legacy.

Could this be a younger, lighter, more nimble Karajan? No chance! These recordings, while not quite as lumbering as his famous Vienna Philharmonic New Years Concert from 1987, are still hefty in their own right. While these are not quite as weighty as some of his later recordings, they do share Karajan's main flaw in this style of music: inflexibility of tempo. For anyone who doubts this, look only as far as the nuanced but exacting approach of conductor Carlos Kleiber -- the man has a sense of naturalness in pacing and ability to find "the right tempo" that is completely unmatched.

EMI's sound, although remastered, remains in mono; overall the quality is somewhat grainy and inexact. In addition, the collection featured on this disc is, in itself, perhaps not the most interesting compilation of Strauss' works. Nice inclusions would have been some brisker or more exotic options -- perhaps a Gypsy Baron or a Fledermaus overture. If you are a real Karajanite, you shouldn't pass up this important historical document, but you might be advised to try EMI's similar Karajan Edition, it contains a better assortment of material and also features the Vienna Philharmonic. All others are best advised to stay on the Autobahn and take the next exit instead!

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