It is surprising to see a recording by Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker released on a label other than EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, or Sony, labels that have heretofore held the great Austrian conductor's recorded legacy under tight control. Here, the English Testament label has licensed a 1988 live performance in London's Royal Festival Hall from the BBC, and the result is of surprisingly poor quality, though the reasons are largely circumstantial. The concert preserved here was the last in a five day cross-continent tour, and the Berlin musicians' instruments were held back due to a French rail strike, so the concert was delayed an hour. Without the opportunity for a rehearsal or sound check, the Berlin orchestra's formidable professionalism and fabled virtuosity were sorely tested, and, it has to be said, found wanting.
In the opening performance of Schoenberg's string orchestra version of his Verklärte Nacht, the Berlin's opulent string section sounds ragged and nowhere near as smoothly blended nor as firmly together as the studio recording of 15 years earlier. Beyond that, there are shaky entrances, unsteady releases, and oddly uneven balances, flaws attributable more to the conductor than to the players. Though there is still lots of strength and plenty of sensuality in the performance, its technical weaknesses are too conspicuous to overlook. The account of Brahms' C minor Symphony that follows is not much better played and less convincingly interpreted. The central Andante sostenuto is sumptuous, especially the solo playing toward the close, and the Adagio that opens the Finale has enormous weight and power. But the faster movements, especially the opening movement's development and the closing movement's coda, lack cogency and purpose and thus fail to clinch Brahms' symphonic argument. Listeners familiar with Karajan and the Berliner's studio recordings of the C minor Symphony from 1987, 1977, and especially 1963 may want to stick with those and pass by this disc. The BBC's live sound is a bit congested in heavier passages and lacks bloom in climaxes.