Debussy: La Mer, Prelude; Ravel: Bolero, Daphnis et Chloe Suite (CD Review)

Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. DG 477 7161.

I have to admit I've never been the biggest fan of Herbert von Karajan, finding much of his music-making rather glossy, often creating gorgeous sound paintings at the expense of the music itself. This is somewhat at the opposite extreme of one of my favorite conductors, Otto Klemperer, who tended to emphasize the music so much that audiences sometimes lost sight of its beauty. Maybe you can't always win.

In any case, Karajan became one of the most prolific, celebrated, and popular conductors the world has ever known, and the two record companies with which he did his most-famous work, DG and EMI (from the 1940s until his death in 1989), are commemorating his one-hundredth anniversary with a series of reissues. This one, which includes works from Debussy and Ravel, are among the best recordings he ever did.

The highlight of the disc is Karajan's 1964 Berlin Philharmonic rendition of La Mer. It is splendidly resonant with atmosphere and color, all awash in Karajan's lushly extravagant orchestral style. The accompanying note suggests that since Karajan was an avid yachtsman, his love of the sea is reflected in this interpretation. I can't argue with that. There is no doubt the performance is powerful and evocative of the sea or that it is one of the finest readings of Debussy's score ever put to disc.

The other performances are no less inspiring, the impressionist feeling of Debussy's Prelude a l"apres-mide d'un faune and Ravel's Daphnes et Chloe Suite No. 2 coming through with passion and imagination. Yet it is Ravel's Bolero that really shines. I had actually not heard Karajan's version of it before (at least not for years and couldn't remember it), and it is quite astonishing. It's one of the few versions that didn't put me to sleep halfway through, the conductor maintaining a steady pace yet increasing the music's energy and vitality as he goes along without losing one's interest.

The sound is typical of DG in that it has a wide dynamic range, but it also seems to lose some sparkle at the high end, perhaps due to noise reduction. I doubt that anyone will object, as the audio is still quite nice, and it complements well the dreamy imagery of the music. The disc comes housed in a Digipak case that emulates in miniature the old LP jacket, with the disc looking like a miniature vinyl album.



  1. thanks for the review , looking forward to listen to the orchestra!

  2. I have not heard this particular LP of Karajan. However, I can imagine that the Berlin playing and the beautiful Berlin acoustics and the impressionistic resonance may have been deeply felt when you heard his readings. I would like to comment that I have been deeply impressed, particularly of the Daphnis et Chloe Second Suite by Zubin Mehta and Los Angeles, Seiji Ozawa and Orchestre de Paris as well as Georges Pretre and Vienna Philharmonic.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa