Listening post: Hearing Sir Simon Rattle conduct the Vienna Philharmoni c prompts Robert Cowan to go back to Karajan's classic recordings

Wednesday night's Vienna Philharmonic concert at the Royal Festival Hall witnessed a passionate affair in full flight, with Sir Simon Rattle by turns coaxing, caressing and energising a varied programme that opened with Haydn's startlingly inventive Symphony No 70, darkened for Strauss's elegiac Metamorphosen and climaxed to a breathlessly spontaneous account of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.

The Haydn symphony defies expectations virtually by the bar, bouncing in to an extended but ambiguous opening idea, calming for a seductive "sample of a canon in double counterpoint" (Haydn's own subtitle), sprucing up for a lively minuet, then prefacing a vigorous triple-fugue with quiet repetitions of the one note D. I can't imagine that the VPO has played the work very often (it's a relative rarity), but to see the orchestra lunge or sway, attack the tuttis with vehement resolve and actually watch each other's solos was proof both of Rattle's authority and of the orchestra's willingness to follow him. Lean textures, airbrush inflections and lightning dynamics suggested the influence of period-performance practices, albeit softened somewhat by the Viennese orchestra's mahogany tonal profile.

When it came to Metamorphosen, Strauss's end-of-the-war lament for a culture in ruins, I was able to compare Wednesday's reading with the one I had heard a few days earlier during a public recording session at the Grosser Musikvereinsaal in Vienna. At the end of the "first take" (a magnificent complete performance), Rattle had turned to his audience: "We'll play the opening once more," he said quietly, "while we're still warm. Indeed we are warm!" And how! True, the Musikvereinsaal has a mellower, more yielding acoustic than the RFH, while Vienna's afternoon performing environment was notably less formal than London's at night, but the passage of time had brought with it an element of interpretative calculation, even exaggeration, that wasn't entirely to the music's advantage. Or perhaps it was the sense of occasion - being in Vienna, where Metamorphosen was born - that had provided that extra shot of inspirational impetus at the earlier concert. Certainly, the final recording should be something very special.

The Vienna session coincided with a presentation of the latest release in EMI's new "Karajan Edition", which centres on famous recordings made with the Vienna Philharmonic during the late 1940s. Needless to say, the opportunity for comparing was too good to miss. As soon as Rattle's Metamorphosen had died away, I rushed back to my hotel room, relaxed into a chair, switched on my Discman and listened carefully to the version that Karajan had recorded with the same orchestra in the same hall 50 years earlier. And if you're expecting me to say, "Ah, those were the days," I'll surprise you with a marked preference for Rattle, the sheer sweep of his reading, its driving forward momentum and attention to contrapuntal detail.

Karajan's performance, beautiful though it is, strolls rather than flies, takes each episode in its stride. Still, the unmistakable sound of the Musikvereinsaal was common to both, thanks to Andrew Walter's immaculate refurbishment for the news CDs - so much smoother than the transfer that EMI originally put out in the late 1980s.

Walter is EMI's "record restoration" expert. In Vienna he demonstrated how an unissued recording of the Pizzicato Polka sounded "before" and "after" treatment. The transformation was astonishing, although one older member of the presentation panel insisted, at least initially, that there were two performances involved. But then who could blame him? The new version relayed details in the recording that were previously inaudible. Hearing Karajan's peers commend the Maestro's dedication, single-mindedness and sense of humour, then listening to his Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies (there are nine discs in all, plus a Wagner bonus for those who buy the lot) reaffirmed what was then the dawning of a new age, Toscanini-inspired and already light-years away from what many considered the subjective excesses of a Wilhelm Furtwangler, say, or a Bruno Walter. In a sense, Sir Simon Rattle represents a new, cleansed Romanticism, where scholarship keeps a check on individuality but where the musicians respond afresh to masterpieces that have begun to sound tired.

The Symphonie fantastique was, in a sense, a very "authentic" affair, with lean textures and every repeat observed. "A Ball" included its optional cornet part, and Rattle's seating plan restored the one-time norm of having violin desks separated to left and right, cellos placed centre and basses seated to the left of the rostrum. And yet there were reckless tempos, risks galore and a genuine sense of personal voyaging. Ships' bells clanged loudly in the "Witches' Sabbath" and the thundering final pages brought the house down. I doubt that even Karajan could have done better.

'Karajan: The Vienna Years' will be released by EMI on 5 May

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