Herbert von Karajan was named music director of the Salzburg Festival in 1956, and although he was no longer sole music director after 1964, he remained the single most galvanizing force behind the festival until his death in 1989, bringing an international audience to it through his engagement of star performers and partly through sheer force of will. Two basic kinds of events are given during the Salzburg Festival -- opera productions and orchestral concerts -- and Orfeo's four-disc box Herbert von Karajan: Orchesterkonzert 1957 consists of mono recordings of Karajan's share of the latter during his first season as music director. This is assembled with an eye toward comprehension; otherwise one might question the wisdom of issuing what is now the eighth recording of Karajan in the mighty Symphony No. 8 of Anton Bruckner to be offered to the public. Although this is with the Vienna Philharmonic, Karajan made a studio recording of the piece for EMI that same year with the Berlin Philharmonic, which EMI has issued at least four times on CD. Neither 1957 recording has the energy and brilliance of his earliest, though incomplete, 1944 recording of the Eighth, nor the emotional depth of some of the later ones. From an interpretive standpoint, the two 1957 recordings are very close, but in terms of sound quality this one is at a significant disadvantage; it should be said at this juncture that the whole set, while relatively clear and not burdened by a great deal of tape hiss, is very quiet, and one really needs to crank it up to achieve a comfortable listening level.
The second disc is all Mozart, the "Haffner" and "Jupiter" symphonies and "Elvira Madigan" piano concerto with soloist Géza Anda. There is not an overt wealth of live recordings of Anda available, moreover in the Mozart concerto, of which he was the most famous interpreter. But Karajan and the Berlin are clearly off their game here, turning in a sluggish and barely competent tutti that repeatedly trips up Anda; he nails a particularly dreadful clam in the third movement, and it is not pleasant to hear coming from such a great artist, but one can tell it isn't entirely Anda's fault. The strings in the "Haffner" sound old-fashioned and not well coordinated; the "Jupiter" is better, but this performance will prove unsatisfactory placed up against anyone's favorite "Jupiter" owing to the overripe strings and uncertain sense of pacing; July 29, 1957, was clearly an off day for Karajan.
The Brahms German Requiem has been issued before in EMI's short-lived Festspieldokumente series and is most notable for the soloists, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Lisa della Casa, the latter seems not to have recorded another German Requiem. Della Casa's voice, as one might expect, is radiant and beautiful in the work, and this disc has the best sound of the four. The fourth disc includes a very interesting "Konzert Zeitgenössischer Musik" (New Music Concert), one of two given during this festival; the other was led by Dimitri Mitropoulos. It features the world premiere of Austrian composer Theodor Berger's Sinfonia parabolica, an eccentric and loopy piece that combines a certain contraption aesthetic with Straussian orchestration and conventional formal development schemes. Karajan conducts it with efficiency but not much passion, and he may not have felt such investment necessary given the oblique and odd nature of the piece, which is never very dissonant but nevertheless abstract and rather distant, though fast ears will find it fascinating in the manner of a late Havergal Brian symphony. Gottfried von Einem's Piano Concerto Op. 20, performed with soloist Gerty Herzog, is almost exactly the opposite, an ingratiating, fun, and memorable piece with a distinctively Viennese flavor, a dash of jazz rhythm, and sparkling wit. To Karajan, Arthur Honegger's Symphony No. 3 "Liturgique" was not "new music," but a work that was part of his standard repertoire; he made a superb studio recording of it with Berlin in 1969 that remains the benchmark, but to have this supplementary live performance is a nice bonus. While not all of this set is essential, even and especially by Herbert von Karajan's high standards, one is grateful for Orfeo continuing to make these Austrian radio tapes available. Certainly Karajan's assumption to the post of music director of the Salzburg Festival was a historic event that had longstanding consequences; that much of the music he made during that first festival sounds a little like a day at the office doesn't distract from the long-term achievements that he made in this role and helps illuminate our understanding of them.