66. Herbert von Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker, 1981

Holst - The Planets (Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker, 1981)

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I must admit from the outset that I’m not a fan of Herbert von Karajan as a conductor. He’s probably my least favourite chappy who held a baton for the purposes of terrorising large groups of musicians.

Right, now that we have my irrational and unfair biases out in the open, I can get down to listening to Herbie’s highly regarded 1981 recording with the Berlin boys. (I’m pretty sure there weren’t any girls in the orchestra in 1981.)

By the way, for anyone reading this who’s hi-fi minded, the pressing I’m listening to is the Karajan Gold CD. Now to listen to the album.

Oh dear. This has already gotten off to a bad start for me. Good news: The recording quality is splendid. Bad news: At the beginning of “Mars”, two horn players are out of tune with each other (0:11-0:14). Grrr. But as “Mars” progresses, I can see why it’s highly regarded. I’m enjoying the bit I’m hearing at the moment. (But I didn’t enjoy the sloppy ensemble work at 1:57, where the brass come in little late). This “Mars” is a slightly frustrating listen, though. On the one hand, the chugging violins from 2:14-2:32 are great, but the high violins right after it, from 2:32-2:50, sound very sweet. I don’t want sweet violins in “Mars”. And more frustration: from 2:50-3:08 the brass section is forthright, but the snare drum is timid. And in the build-up from 3:22-4:19, where’s the tension? I really hope I’m not going to take this long talking about the rest of The Planets. Anyway, “Mars” has finished, and I didn’t like it much. (A bit too low-voltage for my liking.) I know I enjoyed it a few sentences ago, but as it progressed I liked it less and less.

“Venus” and “Mercury” are a bit better, but not by much.

“Jupiter” is… Ugh. For starters there’s a cracked note from a trumpet at 0:34; then there’s some pointless slowing down by the orchestra from 0:39-0:42. Then there’s another cracked note from a trumpet at 0:56. At least the jolly main tune (0:59-1:20) is played OK (as is the music that comes after it). Aargh: another cracked note from the trumpet (at 2:14), and sloppy playing by that trumpet on the last phrase of his solo bit (2:19).

Now look, I’m trying to keep an open mind here, but The Herbster’s making it very difficult. I’m still listening to “Jupiter”, and the orchestra is now playing the magnificent tune that is the centrepiece of this movement (2:58-4:38). The phrasing here is horrid. The Herbmeister sounds as if he has no idea how to conduct The Big Tune. It’s such a literal reading of The Big Tune that I’m wanting it to finish as soon as possible – and that’s something I never thought I’d say about it. (Incidentally, when the extra strings come in at 3:28 in the right channel it just adds insult to injury.)

“Saturn”‘s not all that fabulous either. There’s something prosaic about these readings that gives me the irrits. (Do people still say “irrits”?) There’s something “off” about Herr Bert’s efforts with The Planets. Maybe it’s The Karajan Effect, whereby everything ends up sounding congealed, or homogenised, or Something Bent To Karajan’s Will. Case in point: In Saturn, from 2:32-2:50, HerboMan makes the long sweeping strings in this passage sound more Viennese than out-of-this-world. It’s odd. (It’s the first time I’ve ever heard it sound Viennese.)

And while I’m picking Karajan’s BPO Planets to bits (sorry, HvK fans), I want to mention something I find surprising for a supposedly world-class orchestra: At 3:14 in “Saturn”, the orchestra doesn’t come in together, and they’re not entirely in tune. It’s pretty sloppy. The words “poor ensemble playing” and the “Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra” aren’t usually seen in the same sentence (if ever), but I’m going to put them in this sentence because that’s what I heard. And one more thing about “Saturn”: is that a dodgy edit at 5:04? (The strings stop very abruptly.) That’s enough of picking on “Saturn”.

“Uranus” is OK. So is “Neptune”.

Right, that’s over and done with. I think I’ll listen to the other Karajan Planets recording I have, the one from 1961 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I wonder how Herbacious viewed The Planets 20 years earlier…

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