Let me admit up front that I have never been the biggest fan of Herbert von Karajan except in grand opera, where I think he excelled. Indeed, it often seemed to me that the maestro wanted to turn everything into grand opera, glamorizing much of the music he performed whether it needed it or not. Still, this was only a personal reaction to a conductor who was enormously popular, and the opinion does not apply to everything the man conducted. Certainly, that's the case with his 1968 recording of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony for DG, which, in fact, is among the finest in the catalogue. Therefore, it comes as a treat to find that the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) have remastered and reissued it in better sound than I have ever heard from this recording.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-53) wrote his Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100, in 1944, near the end of the Second World War. Next to his First Symphony, the Fifth Symphony is probably his most well liked. The composer called the piece "a symphony about the spirit of man," his response to the turmoil of the War. Accordingly, it opens with the pain of that nightmare, a kind of prelude to the peace to come. By 1944 the Soviets could see an end to the War, and a relatively restrained opening Andante builds slowly, seriously and grandly. Karajan sounds at his most engaged with this music, perhaps as a result of his own wartime experiences with Berlin orchestras of the day. He creates a growing sense of menace throughout the first movement, yet tinged with a lyrical grace, and he benefits from one of the truly great ensembles at his disposal in the Berlin Philharmonic, which sounds as glorious as ever.
A scherzo (Allegro marcato) follows, which lightens the mood a bit. I've read that the composer had initially intended this music for his Romeo and Juliet ballet, and you can feel a similar spirit present. Anyway, Karajan maintains a vigorous pace here, providing increasing tensions with the force of the dance-like rhythms.
Then, there is a long, brooding third-movement Adagio. Like the opening movement but a touch slower, it is quite lyrical, but it builds in strength and vigor as it goes along, with Karajan always in firm control. In fact, this may be Karajan's finest hour as he leads the music with no unwarranted excitement or exaggeration. He allows the music to speak for itself, which it does quite eloquently.
|Herbert von Karajan|
DG originally recorded the music in 1968, and HDTT transferred it from a 4-track tape in 2015. The remastering adds some weight to the sound, a bit more dynamic contrast, and a little less glare. There remains a very slight upper midrange forwardness, a mild brightness that nevertheless adds to the overall clarity of the recording and is seldom hard or edgy. There is a fine sense of depth to the orchestra, too, with a wide but not inflated stereo width. Deepest bass might still be a tad short, but one hardly notices it unless one compares it, say, to Telarc's Paavo Jarvi release, which is a little more robust at the low end, if a little less revealing than the HDTT in the mids. Overall, this Karajan recording is quite good in its new, remastered incarnation and rivals most of its competitors for sound.
I suppose the one drawback you could find with this HDTT release is that, like the original LP, it contains only the one symphony. After all, you can still find several different DG compact disc configurations that couple the symphony with either Karajan's recording of Prokofiev's First Symphony or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. So, the question becomes a matter of sound. How much are you willing to pay for the better sound of the HDTT remaster? That, of course, is up to you.
For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), discs, downloads, and prices, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: