Pierre Boulez’s sensual side—really, the arch-modernist has one—is most apparent when he performs the Impressionist music of his French forerunner Ravel. The conductor’s crisp, deliberate, yet fully decadent performances of Boléro have been of great assistance to listeners’ understanding of that piece; on this recording, the woodwind and brass players of the Berliner Philharmoniker savor every solo feature, along with Boulez and his firm hand. Equally stunning is their collective take on Rapsodie espagnole (check out the glistening passages of gorgeousness that surround moments of tumult during “Feria”).
Karajan recorded Beethoven’s Ninth almost obsessively, but many aficionados think he got it right on his first stereo recording of the work (from the early ’60s, with the Berliner Philharmoniker). Despite the slightly dated-sounding fidelity, the performance still leaps from the speakers: The first movement has a faultless, inexorable-seeming drive, and the famous opening of the Scherzo, likewise, has a distinct punch. The Vienna Singverein and quartet of vocal soloists that includes bass-baritone Walter Berry contribute to the cumulative power of Beethoven’s iconic finale (and its adaptation of “Ode to Joy”).
It’s no surprise that Rafael Kubelik—a onetime conductor of the Czech Philharmonic—would have a feel for the lyricism of Dvořák’s music, but his interpretations of the composer’s final two symphonies still surpass any expectations with their utter rightness. His reading of the popular Symphony No. 9 is distinguished, but the real treat on this collection is a graceful performance of the lesser-known Symphony No. 8. Here, Kubelik and the Berliner Philharmoniker players sound invigorated by the pastoral qualities of the “Adagio,” as well as the many twists and turns of the work’s final movement.
This exemplary performance of Puccini’s famous bohemian tearjerker feels alive from the downbeat. That only gets stronger once a young tenor named Luciano Pavarotti enters, one minute into the proceedings, to deliver one of his essential performances in the role of Rodolfo. Soprano Mirella Freni’s Mimi is a key part of a superb cast too—witness her warm, affecting way with the would-be separation aria “Donde lieta uscì.” An undoubted high-point of Herbert von Karajan’s vast catalog, this is a thrilling demonstration of the energy of his conductor’s art.