JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Beethoven Symphonies 6&7 (Directors: Herbert von Karajan, Ernst Wild) - October 30, 2004

Beethoven Symphonies 6&7

2 2
75 min.

Sideway glances disappoint

Seeing Herbert von Karajan's 1982 performances of Beethoven's sixth and seventh symphonies on DVD is instructive, informative and enraging.

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra sounds glorious with recording engineers Wolfgang Gülich (No. 6)and Günter Hermanns (No. 7) capturing the characteristic lush string tone to the point that we hear the bite of the horsehair into the taut strings—the lower-end ostinatos that are featured in both works rumble and resonate with unabashed power and weight.

The woodwinds rise easily above their bowed colleagues, tossing off the technical challenges with surety and blending together in the time-honoured Berlin tradition of tutti chords that have a distinct colour all to themselves. The brass and whirling tympani contribute near-perfect interventions, driving the rest of the band with authority, consistency and brilliance that is all too rare today.

Director of photography Ernst Wild has opted (with no objections from the Maestro) for an approach that centres on the conductor and segments of the band. At no point in either symphony are we allowed to see the entire orchestra. Most shots are “from the wings” yielding rows, rather than stands of musicians. Consequently, the music students who may view these performances will be given a treatise on the embouchures of the woodwinds and brass spliced around copious amounts of Karajan swimming through the thin liquid in front of his weathered arms and aristocratic hands.

A steady diet of these frames becomes as tiresome and predictable as the performances. But in the shot of the disc, there's a savvy bit of musical foreshadowing in the “Pastorale's” “Scherzo,” where the gleaming trumpets hold their clarion pause atop the pair of temporarily impotent tympani sticks, lying untouched on the drum's head. Much later, in the frantic run to the finish of the “Symphony of the Dance,” there is a magnificent juxtaposition of Karajan's jabs and the full fury of the beaters—whose blurred image resembles an out-of-control Ferris wheel. Eerie.

It boils down to sound over substance. As Karajan's career progressed and his “instruments” and the world's recording techniques improved, he gradually moved the composer's meaning and intentions to the backburner, while shifting his own self-indulgence to the fore. Like actors believing their publicist's media releases, he lost his perspective on the art.

Witness the near abandonment of repeats whose combined length add much to a listener's understanding (particularly neophytes) but their additional minutes might necessitate a two-disc set. Let's keep our priorities straight!

Worse still is the preponderance of long reverberant lines and reckless tempi. The Allegro ma non troppo of the “Pastorale” is the perfect example of a performance where Karajan merely observes, rather than leads his charges. A true staccato can't be bought and the harmonic subtleties (ah, D major!) slip by unnoticed; the magnificent climax loud, full bodied but devoid of one iota of “aha!”

Not to be outdone, the Andante molto mosso has a triple lilt that would be perfect for the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz; the trio of birds heartless in their cries if gorgeous in their plumage.

“The Merry Gathering of Country People” never drew a grin under the leaden weight of the relentless pace. Still, a real pianissimo—like a teeny oasis—provided welcome relief, hinting strongly at what could have been. The “Thunderstorm” featured a few wayward drops in the strings but managed to achieve some impassioned angst. The transition to the “Shepherd's Song” failed to warm, coming across more as an awkward bridge than one of Beethoven's miracles of mood swing.

The A Major opus fared little better. Moving the violas to the outside paid off in the recording's mixdown, adding prominence to their part even as their fingerboard work could also be heard.

Looking more regal than ever, Karajan once more chose austerity over humanity, producing spectacular sounds but little excitement. At the challenging transitions (into the first Vivace and the returns from the Trio to the Presto) he looked to the floor and let his principal players lead their troops through the tricky bits. Throughout the three fiery movements there is a continuous stream of departures but never an arrival.

The Allegretto's subtext and its oh-so-carefully notated length-of-note markings were summarily ignored, covering the theme with unwelcome molasses; the strings unable to extricate themselves from the resultant quicksand of resin. And when the major mode lights up the proceedings? Merely beats. No magic. No mystery.

Like the camera, the listener is never provided a complete picture of the musicians: a section here, grouping there—all under the paternalistic eye of the director. The great pity is the tools (artistic and technical) are exceptional, but having made his definitive artistically led recordings of these symphonies in 1969 (a splendid No. 6—DGG 138 805—also with Günter Hermanns) Karajan has nothing new to say, but manages to express himself beautifully. JWR

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Producer - Uli Märkle
Recording Engineers - Wolfgang Gülich, Günter Hermanns
Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 "Pastoral" - Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
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