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  Deutsche Grammophon -
  474 600-2 (6 discs)
  Beethoven: The Symphonies - Karajan
  Beethoven: Symphony Nos. 1-9, Rehearsal: Symphony No. 9

Gundula Janowitz
Hilde Rössel-Majdan
Waldemar Kmentt
Walter Berry
Wiener Singverein
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan (conductor)
Track listing:
  Classical - Orchestral
Recording type:
Recording info:
  Recorded 1961-2.

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Reviews: 7 show all

Site review by Polly Nomial January 14, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:
The text for this review has been moved to the new site. You can read it here:

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.

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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Works: 9  

Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 "Eroica"
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 "Pastoral"
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral"