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Reviews: Beethoven: The Symphonies - Karajan

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Reviews: 7

Site review by akiralx August 27, 2004
Performance:   Sonics:
I've never fully heard these recordings in any previous incarnation, so can't comment on improvements in the CD layer (of the 3 CD issues, the middle one, in DG's Beethoven Edition is the only one with Original Image Bit-Processing).

For this set I started with the Eroica and did compare the SACD (stereo only of course) with the first CD incarnation of the cycle (in the maroon box). The old CD sounded fine with a full rich bass, but there is a definite gain in clarity and detail with the SACD layer. Slightly less bass perhaps, but this sound is more vivid and realistic, and sounds phenomenal considering its 40+ year age.

As an interpretation this Eroica gains in distinction as it progresses: the lack of the exposition repeat in the first movement is a snag, but after an intense Funeral March the last two movement are very compelling with wonderful hunting horns in the Scherzo. In fact the playing throughout is pretty stellar. This one ranks alongside Kleiber, Scherchen, Klemperer and Rattle - as well as my own favourite, Abbado's VPO recording on DG.

I found the SACD of the first 2 symphonies to have very slightly inferior sound and the orchestral sound is slightly more robust in scale than we are used to on modern recordings (but never bloated or overblown), and Karajan's interpretation of the First Symphony is not as compelling as the others - the performance is fairly genial, and the finale is relaxed, without the crispness and hint of tension that, say, Wand or Rattle bring to it in their fine recordings.

With the Fourth, Karajan is really back on form: excellent playing, with a characteristically swift performance of the slow movement which otherwise can seem too long (Klemperer's on EMI seems to go on forever). Vivid detailed sound again - with the superb Eroica coupling this is perhaps the best CD to sample separately, especially with a playing time of over 80 minutes.

Karajan's Fifth is a phenomenally powerful performance: here as elsewhere throughout the set woodwind solos are very clear, belying the view that Karajan's recordings were string-dominated, at least at this point in his career. You hear more wind, brass and percussion here than in Carlos Kleiber's famous recording. The Andante is perfectly judged, and if Karajan can't quite inject the unique charge that Kleiber puts through the scherzo and finale, there are compensations: the impetus and weight of sound are thrilling here, with instrumental lines more clearly delineated.

Sadly, the Pastoral coupling is a write-off: devoid of charm and rather introverted, and there are far finer Sixths from Boehm, Klemperer and a host of others.

The Seventh and Eighth are predictably good (neither are favourite works of mine), but these are just a precursor to a wonderful Choral which ranks alongside the best I've heard. I never cared for Karajan's 1977 version which is perhaps the best regarded of his 5 recordings - but this early 1960s performance sounds superb: the quartet of soloists (particularly the men) are excellent and the chorus are well in the aural picture, in the modern style (if not quite as vivid as in Abbado's fine live RBCD on Sony). Fricsay's otherwise excellent 1958 version with the same orchestra is slightly flawed in this respect. Elsewhere the performance is very powerful with magnificent playing, with a wonderful sense of spiritual repose in the Adagio.

All in all a superb SACD cycle: the First is slightly less than compelling and you will need another Pastoral, but otherwise this is a wonderful set.

Site review by Polly Nomial January 14, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:
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Review by beardawgs October 9, 2003 (0 of 2 found this review helpful)
Iíve never been a great fun of Karajan in his Beethoven, and this cycle, probably his best is no exception. So, I wonít go into performance details, as it will be purely personal (and not very favourable) view, but there are some great moments of pleasure (slow movement of no 9, raw energy of no 5Ö). Hence no raing (yet!).

This SACD set arrived just yesterday, and it will take a while to go through all 6 disks, Iíll be adding more as I go through it, but right now I just want to point out that it is not a surround mix, only stereo. We prefer our SACDs in surround, and to be honest weíre a bit disappointed, but from what Iíve heard so far it does sound more transparent and open comparing to 1976 recording of symphony no 9 in surround. There are some rough edges, but I would blame for that more Karajan himself than the recording. I canít compare this re-mastering with any other source, as this is the first time ever I bought this cycle with Herby. Performance wise I still didnít hear anyone coming even close to Furtwangler, but that wonít be coming out on SACD. If you like your Beethoven Toscanini-like I presume you wonít be disappointed.

****************

For no particular reason I started to listen to this set with symphony no 3, Erioca. Iíve read on a quite a few places that record companies tend to pump up the volume for the SACD layers and make them sound Ďbetterí. Here, the volume issue is reversed Ė the level on the CD layer is at least 2-3 dB louder than the level on the SACD. It took me by surprise when I switched from SACD to CD to replay the 1st movement, but when I switched back to SACD the overall sound, strings especially, sounded much warmer (and a bit more distant) comparing to the CD, and I have to say that was a good little trick. Apart from that, there are other differences in sound quality, especially sound image and the SACD layer is here more preferable to my ears, so I didnít bother to listen to the rest in 44.1.
As I said before, this is the first time that I bought this Karajanís rendering of Beethoven symphonies. Iíve heard bits and pieces on other peopleís kit, so I canít compare this re-mastering with any already available on CD or LP. But, comparing to surround mix of symphony no 9 from 1977 I am definitely in favour of this one, even if only in stereo. I wouldnít blame it all on the recording itself, for my taste Karajan treats Beethovenís music as a brass band spectacular with added strings, and knowing how much he was involved in recording technology, Iím pretty sure thatís the sound he wanted for us to hear. Like it or not, and frankly, I donít.
With all that in mind, I enjoyed 1st and 2nd movement of this performance more than expected. My reference for Beethoven is Furtwangler (and to some degree Celibidache), who treats this glorious music as a string of mysterious building ups and resolving climaxes and over and over again and keeps me glued to the chair excited and wondering what will happen next. There was plenty of mystery with Karajan too, but I lost interest halfway through the scherzo and I have to force my thoughts to come back to the room and concentrate again for the rest.
Recording (re-mastering) is a much more complicated issue. Iím pretty sure there was far too many microphones involved and the stereo image was created artificially in the control room. The sound image is horizontal and limited to the space between the speakers. I couldnít quite figure out where the cellos were, sometimes they were in the middle and sometime on the right, which made me think that there was a lot of re-miking involved as well. As much as I tried to place the instruments where they should be, I couldnít hear any depth, the woodwinds have the same presence as the strings and again all of them limited to the space between the speakers. But, on the bright side, there are no traces of the tape hiss and the overall sound is reasonably warm and natural. Dynamic range is also natural, but there was some strain in forte passages, with some unpleasant shrill edge, particularly in the strings.
How to wrap it up? So far not bad, I expected worse Ė Iíve heard some much worse SACDs, recording and performance wise, and for some bizarre reasons I always wanted these particular performances. Iím glad that I waited for so long and have them now on SACD and donít need to get rid of any previous incarnations. For the final decision I have to hear them all, but if you care about the marks, 3 stars for the performance and sound quality (No 3).

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Review by mdt November 7, 2003
Performance:   Sonics:
I think this is a great set.I have compared it to the release on cd and found even the sacd's cd layer to be superior.The string sound is beautifull and brilliant but still warm.I find the localization of the string sections to be precise and stable, the definition of the wood winds positions is given as well alltough there's no pin-point imaging but this is natural since they are further back and the entire orchestra was recorded in a church being a considerably resonant environement.The balance within the orchestra is natural with a good bass foundation,it doesn't show any signs of exessive multi miking like oversized solo instruments or things popping out of the sound immage all the sudden etc. in these aspects i consider the recording superior to many new digital recording.
The decission to release only in stereo makes sense to me since the mike set-up at the time was for stereo even if several tracks and/or mikes should have been used.
As for the performance in my mind following the Toscanini tradition is a compliment.However i've become curious and will listen to one of Furtwänglers recordings when i get a chance.But Karajan and Furtwängler being so different i think there will not be a winner, instead with both approaches being valid only a proof just how great Beethoven's music is and what it can say to different people.

ps.: about imaging : have a listen to the rehearsal disc, where different groups of the orchestra come to play separately.

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Review by Chris February 14, 2004 (3 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I bought this set from MDT UK, on special offer, five discs plus a special bonus disc for £ 42.50. And let me say it right away. This is in many ways my best SACD set so far.This classic, early sixties,DGG Karajan- Beethoven cycle has justly been considered something of a benchmark against which all new sets have had to compete.IMHO it still rules. Rarely has an orchestra been more naturally recorded in a wonderfully reverberant acoustic, than here!
And what an orchestra it is !!! Their playing leaves me with nothing but praise. And Karajan´s interpretations are, as far as I am concerned, if not unbeatable, at least as valid as former giants´ like Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer and both Kleibers.I have got very little admiration for modern conductors like Norrington,who IMHO distorts what Beethoven actually wrote,when he plays sforzati in cellos and contrabasses, so loud that they obliterate and disrupt the melody line in the marchia funebre of the Erocia for example. Karajan´s readings of the 3rd,4th,5th 7th and the majestic 9th symphony, my absolute favourites here, are pure "EARGASMS" !!! I was lucky to hear Karajan and his Berliners live in the Musikverein in Vienna, performing the Beethoven symphonies during the 1970 Beethoven Jubilee. In Vienna I also bought, and already then, found these recordings on LP, very realistic.Karajan´s remake in 1970 is much less well recorded,very dry with little natural acoustic information, and very obviously, multimiked and closemiked,robbing the instruments of the lovely bloom so obvious on these early sixties recordings. His digital set is even worse and best forgotten!
I have,for the first time since the introduction of SACD had a chance to compare the orginal LPs of a recording against the new SACDs. And although the 24/96 digital transfers may have lost some of the warmth, ultimate resolution and body of the orginal LPs ,the SACDs score over the LPs in dynamic range and clear, undistorted climaxes.And what joy it is to be able to leave pops, clicks ,end of side distorsion and other limitations of otherwise, good old LP, behind.
I was simply amazed by the sound quality of these SACDs. It is very difficult to believe that these recordings are now MORE THAN 40 YEARS OLD!!! In the choral movement of the ninth ,the angelic voice of Gundula Janowitz soars heavenly over both choir and orchestra in "Wer ein holdes Weib ...,mische seinen Jubel ein". What we hear here, is probably as close we will ever get, to the sound of the master tapes. Ok ,there are still a couple of moments of distorsion, especially in the choral movement of the ninth,with signs of tape overload.And the strings do sometimes lose a bit of their silky ,velvety sheen. There is also a bit of tape hiss audible here and there.But most of the time everything is just squeaky clean, clear ,open, utterly natural and realistic,in a way that VERY FEW modern recordings can equal!!! Strings, in particular cellos and basses,are about as realistically reproduced as you can expect in a recording.And the way everything is caught in the wonderful acoustic of the Jesus Christus church Berlin ,where almost all of the early sixties, DGG recordings with the Berliners, were made,is again, heavenly!!! Exactly the way I want an orchestra recorded.
The added, rehearsal, bonusdisc, is also pure joy,if you understand German.Hearing Karajan rehearse the slow movement of the ninth, not only reveals his incredible attention to detail, but also shows a conductor, formerly,not exactly known for his sense of humour.There is a clear sense of the mutual joy of making music ,shared by conductor and orchestra.
The joke Karajan makes about the brass players sneaking away for coffe,whenever they don´t have anything to play is also quite funny. "I´d like to do something against those guys ,compose a piece where they have to play all the time" ,clearly shows that playing under Karajan could be fun.
And again the sound quality is just unbelievable.Just listen to the different sections playing in the slow movement of the ninth and you will understand my admiration, not only for this orchestra and their fantastic conductor,but also for the realistic way they have been recorded here.Even if you already own the rehearsal disc on LP, get this one too .It contains things not included on the LP.
In one of my earlier reviews here I scolded DGG, for their artificial, multimiked and often strident recordings,But in the early sixties they ,together with RCA ,DECCCA and EMI, made some stunningly realistic recordings.The balancing engineer responsible for most of DGGs very good early sixties recordings, was Gunther Hermanns.It seems they are occasionally bringing him in as a consultant again,so there´s hope for more realistic not so manipulated SACds from DGG.I also wish DGG will release more early Karajan,Böhm Jochum and other artists´ recordings on SACD. Karajan´s Brahm´s German Requiem for example, still sounds fine on LP. And both the Brahm´s and Tchaikowsky symphonies might benefit from SACD release. This Beethoven set is definitely one of the all time classics in the history of recorded classical music!!! Don´t miss it!!!

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Review by stvnharr May 9, 2004 (1 of 1 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Hard to add much to what has been already written. I have listened to these recordings for years, on cd. I've had about every edition DG has come out with, each one being an improvement in sound from the previous. This SACD edition is far and away the best, and seems to have the best sound of the DG's that I have in the collection.
I think special mention can be given to the rendition of the Ninth here. Even on ordinary cd, this recording really stood out. In SACD, it stands out even more, and in particular the final Ode to Joy movement. No other recording I have heard stands out as much as this when Walter Berry leads off the final movement - the voice stands out from the orchestra in perfect placement and the chorus sounds big, as a real chorus. In cd this was always so, in SACD, it is even bigger as in real orchestra big.
In comparing this final movement to the other two recordings currently on my shelf, 2000 Berlin/Abbado and Runnicles SACD, the '63 Karajan and Walter Berry just plain stand out as superior. And the reason a lot of other recordings of the Ninth have come and gone from my collection, is that they just cannot compare to this one.
Much as I'd like to give the sound for this recording 5 stars, it's still hard to give a non dsd recording 5 stars, so I'll give it 4 1/2 stars. It really is close to the best.

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Review by tream June 8, 2005 (15 of 15 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
I acquired this set, originally recorded in sessions in 1961 and 1962, as part of the process of comparing performances of Beethovenís 5th on SACD (/showthread/6768//y?page=first) and have since been listening to the other symphonies. Except for the 8th and 9th symphonies, this was my first exposure to this Karajan cycle. I acquired those LPís of the 8th and 9th in the early 70ís, and then acquired the entire mid-seventies set, again on LP. Critical consensus at the time was that the newer set superseded the earlier one, so I saw no need to acquaint myself with it until now. I havenít heard the later set for many years now, so Iím not in a position to do a detailed comparison.

In general, I like this cycle very much, although it has its flaws. If Sony were to release the slightly earlier Szell/Cleveland complete on SACD I could easily imagine preferring that one virtually across the board, and as I noted, I also think Vanskaís new 5th symphony is superior to Karajanís. However, there is a lot of spirit and joy in this cycle, something Karajan wasnít always accused of. It proves that it always pays to listen with open ears before passing judgment.

Generalizing, I find the textures to be string dominated, with brass and wind relatively recessed. Masur, for example, in his set (I bought that one, too, review to come) does a better job than Karajan in bringing out wind detail. Percussion is quite emphatic, however, and it sounds like the timpanist is using hard sticks. A combination of the reverberant acoustic in the Jesus Christus Kirche, free bowing (more below) and a tendency for under articulation leads to a sweet, even gooey (donít know how else to describe it) string sound. The composer/conductor Bruno Maderna once referred to Karajanís ďchocolateĒ Beethoven, and I now understand what he meant.

Richard Osborneís excellent biography of Karajan (Herbert von Karajan, a Life in Music) relates that Karajan allowed his string players to bow freely. Given HvKís reputation, I found this hard to believe when I read it, even from as authoritative source as Osborne, but hearing these recordings I can well believe it. Most conductors require their string players to bow in unison, and typically mark the parts to show the bowings they want. With free bowing, you get a lusher but also less precise string sound, which is evident in many of these recordings. There are even a few instances (such as the first movement of the 4th) where the ensemble lapses are noticeable, possibly due to the use of free bowing. Leopold Stokowski was another famous advocate of free bowing, by the way.

With a few exceptions, tempos are relatively swift, and Karajan has a tendency to insert retards before codas and at the end of movements. Repeats are not taken in the first movements of the Eroica, Pastoral and 7th.

The most successful performances are the Eroica, the 4th, (despite a few retards announcing the trio sections in the scherzo), the 5th, and the 9th. These will sweep you along, but without slighting the music. Iím not crazy about Kmentt (the tenor) in the 9th, but the rest of the vocalists are superb, as are the Wiener Singverein. Karajan sets tempos that make utter sense in the context of the music, and pays close attention to tempo relationships as well. I am convinced by Karajanís way with the 7th for the first and second movements, but he loses me in the scherzo where he follows the tradition of converting the trio into a virtual dirge. While the score indicates a much slower tempo than the presto, listen to Toscanini (the incandescent 1936 NYPO recording) for an object lesson in the tempo relationships in this movement. To be fair, most conductors follow the tradition here for a very slow trio, but it is way more effective played up to the tempo indicated in the score. In the last movement, I feel that Karajan overplays the countermelody at the expense of the main line.

Karajanís Pastoral is controversial, with a very fast tempo in the first movement. Iím in a minority to think it works, mostly due to the beautiful string playing from the Berliners, but I too prefer a slightly slower pace, and a repeat if I can get one. Great storm. I have found that my own first choice for the Pastoral is idiosyncratic, since no one else seems to share this Ė Reiner and the CSO-just an absolutely beautiful performance, relaxed, limpid, stunning. Hope it comes out on SACD.

The first two symphonies feel overblown to me-large orchestra, emphatic rhythms, relatively moderate pacing of the scherzos-not bad, but not as good as these can be played. The 4th symphony, as noted, is very good. The 8th is quite good for 3 of the 4 movements, but Iíve always felt that Karajanís tempo for the 3rd movement is just too slow. Osborne, in his notes to the set, calls Karajanís tempo ďponderousĒ Ė I totally agree.

I cannot comment on the sound of this release vs. earlier incarnations Ė my LPís of the 8th and 9th are long gone. In general, the sound is good, but over reverberant for my taste, which leads to a certain opaqueness-at times I feel like I have to peer through a slightly fogged over window to see the performance, if I can use an analogy.

The packaging of this is first class. I really appreciate the layout Ė symphonies are coupled consecutively, which I much prefer. There is the bonus rehearsal disc (havenít heard it yet), and some excellent notes from Osborne. As individual recordings, the discs of the Eroica and 4th symphonies, and the 9th are highly recommended; however, I believe there is a lot of merit in listening to an entire cycle, and certainly this one afforded hours of unexpected pleasure; even with the flaws Iíve mentioned.

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