Ravel, Debussy, Saint-Saëns: Orchestral Works

Herbert von Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

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Ravel, Debussy, Saint-Saëns: Orchestral Works Review

by James Leonard

You could argue that Herbert von Karajan got the colors wrong, the rhythms wrong, the balances wrong, and even sometimes the melodies wrong when he was conducting French music. Who hasn't heard that charmingly cheeky Teutonic saxophone tootling along in Boléro or the decadently opulent German cello section sawing away in "De l'aude a midi sur la mer" and giggled? Who hasn't heard the mechanized rhythms of the closing "Danse generale" or the smoothed-over rhythms of the "Habanera" and not snickered? Who hasn't heard the 500-pound gorilla jumping on the organ of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris joined with the 500 megatons of sonic overkill of the Berlin Philharmonic in the Finale of Saint-Saëns' "Organ" Symphony and not laughed out loud? But you could argue until you're blue in the face and you still wouldn't convince anyone Karajan's Aryan French music is anything less than spectacular. Because, as wrong as the performances are in so many ways, they are right in one crucial way: Karajan and the Berlin give all these pieces the most perfect performances they have ever received. And they are recorded in Deutsche Grammophon's best stereo-through-digital sound and remastered at an almost unbearably high level. While so much may be wrong with these interpretations, the combination of virtuosic performances and stunning sonics still make them incredibly impressive. This is dead wrong, but still incredibly impressive.

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