I picked up DG's el cheapo 13-CD reissue of "Beethoven/Karajan" the other week, mainly because it included his recording of the Grosse Fuge, which I hadn't noticed before on CD.
The set received, I loaded the symphonies into the CD magazine in the car and have now listened to all 9 symphonies. I remember these recordings from their initial CD issue back in the mid-80s. I also remember being none-too-happy about the recorded sound. I was among those who thought, "why bother? He's already done better than this." This set was later re-released in the Karajan Gold series in the mid-90s, but I avoided it as I felt these recordings were beyond salvaging.
Well, this new set features those Karajan Gold re-masterings, and I am shocked - SHOCKED! - to find myself pleasantly surprised with these recordings. The recordings have a much more natural front-to-back perspective than I recall. They certainly have more depth than his 1977 cycle, which up to this point has been my go-to set when it comes to Karajan in Beethoven. The oppressive mic closeness that compromised so many early DG digital recordings - and that was present on this set's initial release - has been tamed here.
As far as the interpretations, they are aggressive in the typical Karajan fashion. Andante tempi are sometimes slower than his previous recordings. Overall, the interpretations all make sense to me. This is big-boned Beethoven, but it isn't muddled Beethoven at all. On occasion, the solo winds seem a little distant when playing solo licks (notably in the Eroica). This isn't a problem in tutti sections where the winds are doubled. There, the balances are just fine between the choirs. But when it's a single wind soloist against the string section, the wind soloist can sound a bit distant. It comes off almost like a ripieno effect. I wonder if that was a conscious decision on Karajan's part, or if the soloists are simply over matched in the mix.
The set's outstanding feature is Karajan's musicality. His sense of legato and his ability to create that technicolor sound is impressive. Yes, he tends to ramp up the harmonic tension on occasion (often by having the players add an edge to their tone), but that serves Beethoven well, IMHO.
In short, everything that I look for in Beethoven - or in musical performance, for that matter - is here in spades.
A few specifics:
The first two symphonies are played at slower tempi than we've become accustomed to these days. Karajan plays the first movement repeats, which I assume is a gesture to their echt-classical form. The playing here is really clean but still luxurious. I think these may be his best versions of these early gems.
The "Eroica" is very powerful and fleet. Karajan knew how to build tension, and that serves him well in this history-changing work. The Finale is powerful, logical and exciting. The only real caveat I have was already expressed above - ie: the wind solos seem to be off in the distance on occasion.
The 4th - which happens to be my favorite among the 9 - comes off wonderfully. The move from the mysterious opening Adagio to the Allegro vivace of the first movement is expertly handled. I also like the recorded sound, which is hands-down better than that given to Karajan on his 1977 cycle. Karajan actually felt that this was the toughest Beethoven symphony to pull off, but pull it off he does. I get the feeling that he thought long and hard about this piece and came to terms with it on its own merits, and not as an imitation of the 2nd or a precursor to the 5th. As I tend to listen to the 4th more than I do the other Beethoven symphonies, it's nice to have another good version available to pull off the shelf to indulge my excesses.
The 5th is the typical Karajan 5th, but in the best sound ever. Hard to imagine I'm typing those words, as I spent the last 25-odd years believing the recorded sound on this digital cycle wasn't salvageable. The first movement is aggressive - there is very little time to catch one's breath. The second movement is beautifully realized. It's amazing how "personal" an interpretation can be when one maintains harmonic tension while trusting what the composer wrote on the page. I sat back and just enjoyed the final two movements as they unfolded, basking in the sheer musicality of it all. This is a keeper. No repeat in the Finale, BTW.
The 6th is shorn of its first movement repeat, which is a minus, as far as I'm concerned. I know that this symphony was coupled with the 5th on its initial CD release, and I wonder if the time constraints involved with fitting 5 & 6 on the same CD had something to do with that repeat being cut. The whole symphony is carefully judged and expertly balanced, though the storm that interrupts the village band is quite cataclysmic!
I was particularly pleased with the 7th, which I have always found to be problematic for Karajan. This performance is on fire! The finale is unbelievable. It's incredibly energetic, almost manic. The Third movement is a great example of Karajan's ability to sustain tension into a climax. The trumpets peal out magnificently when their big moment arrives and later repeats. The entire Symphony is given a glorious performance. The sound is also very natural and realistic, and - again - not at all what I remember from the initial CD versions.
Karajan was always successful with the 8th, and so he is here. The first movement is super energetic, the third movement more relaxed in tempo and feel than the more recent cycles by Chailly et al. Still, the overall approach is extremely musical. I'd think that performances like this should gain the 8th more popularity than it seems to enjoy. It's not an easy symphony to pull off, but in the best hands, it seems to play itself. A highlight of this cycle.
As far as the 9th - well, all good things must pass. This is definitely the weakest symphony in the cycle. Messy and imprecise. The Choral finale is a real disappointment, chiefly because the choir and soloists are particularly weak. There's lots of uninspired and out-of-tune singing to be heard. The Scherzo and the Third movement fare the best, but I imagine Karajan could pull those off in his sleep. I almost get the feeling that he had lost interest in this symphony by this point in his career, as if its public spectacle didn't sit well with him. Maybe that's why he elected to use such a light-voiced solo quartet, ie: as a counter to the bombast. In any case, you can go to any of Karajan's other (and many) recordings of the 9th to get a better idea of what he could do with this piece.
Over all, I was pleasantly surprised by the recorded sound on these discs. For once, the BPO sounds like a real orchestra on a DG recording. I'm sort of kicking myself for not having picked up the Karajan Gold issue when it was released in 1993. That's 19 years that I could have been listening to what is an impressive cycle, but that I wrote off based on the harsh sound of the initial CD release.
I may be coming around to thinking this set surpasses the 1977 cycle, except for the Ninth included here, which is - to my ears - Karajan's weakest-ever effort in the Ninth (and that includes his one-off audio and video performances as well, not to mention the complete cycles he did for Unitel and Sony video).
Prospective buyers should realize that DG still offers the Karajan Gold issue of Karajan's digital Beethoven Symphony cycle for around $80 as a 6-CD set. Considering one can get the same recordings in the same re-mastering in this 13-CD budget box for LESS than half the price of the 6-CD set, well, you've been apprised. The only loss is that the Overtures included in that 6-CD Gold set are marginally better performances than those included in the 13-CD set. The gain? The symphonies take only 5 CDs in the budget box, which means you get an additional 8 CDs of Beethoven for half the price of the symphonies alone.
Moving along, I next gave a listen to the 1985 recording of the "Missa solemnis," a recording that I somehow missed and was hearing for the first time. It's definitely different than Karajan's earlier versions. This one is much more rough-and-tumble, even a bit raw. It's certainly faster. There are any number of advantages to this approach, and I did find myself smiling at the uncluttered and un-messed-with nature of the proceedings.
That said, the recorded sound is both strange and frustrating. I don't get that this has been re-mastered á la the Karajan Gold versions of the symphonies which I reviewed above. The recording is top heavy, bottom shy and quite harsh. Some of the perspectives are plain old weird - the choir sounds like there was a small group of choristers in the foreground who were on different mics from the main group, and that rather destroys the concept of the choir having a homogeneous sound. The perspective is also rather flat, and this gets frustrating when one gets to the end of a movement like the "Gloria," where the final chord is sung and released, and a wonderful halo of natural-sounding reverb is heard that was no where to be found in the entire movement that preceded it.
The Vienna Singverein, however, has never sounded better than they do here. They have always come off to me as an amateur group that produced a rather thin sound for all their numbers (there are up to 230 people in the group), and that had a love-hate relationship with things like good intonation. I don't get that it did them any good at all as a vocal group to be under Karajan's direction for the better part of 40 years, but they're very accomplished here. Much better than they were in the contemporaneous 9th Symphony recording.
What can I say about the solo quartet? The women are OK, not stellar. The tenor - Vinson Cole - sounds like the best available choral scholar that the Presbyterians could muster the day the recording was made, while bass Jose van Dam is but a shadow of his former self, totally lacking in the lower register.
I think I would still go with Karajan's earlier effort on DG with Janowitz, Ludwig, Wunderlich and Berry, though that set also has its drawbacks. Perhaps Ks' best Missa solemnis is the video version he did for DG that was taped live at the 1979 Salzburg Easter Festival. That one seems to be a good blend of live-performance energy and Ks noted knack for nuance. It also features the under recorded tenor Eric Tappy, who retired in 1982.
I highly recommend James Levine's Salzburg version on DG in this work ( http://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Missa-Solemnis-Ludwig-van/dp/B000001GGK ).
Perhaps DG will remaster this 1985 "Missa" recording down the road using the same techniques they used to greatly improve the sound of Karajan's digital Beethoven Symphony cycle. That set had many of the same deficiencies in its sound as originally released in the mid-80s as does this recording of the MS. I'd like to imagine that a remastering of this recording along those lines could work similar miracles. It's hard to believe that in this day and age of classical recordings being remastered and re-RE-mastered that this Missa solemnis was allowed to be included in this set in such unacceptable and, frankly, horrible sound.
While we're in the realm of Beethoven's vocal works, his opera "Fidelio" is notably absent from this set. Karajan and the Berlin PO recorded the work for EMI with a pretty good cast that included Jon Vickers and Helga Dernesch. That recording fits comfortably on two CDs. As DG licensed the EMI recordings of Piano Concerti 2-5 with Weissenberg for inclusion in this set, I wonder why they didn't go the next step and include the EMI Fidelio under license as well. I doubt that the price point for a 15-CD box would have hurt sales potential compared to the present 13-CD set. Sales of a 15-CD set to the triskaidekaphobics out there alone could make up for any lost sales due to a 15-CD set's higher price point.
I will review the remainder of this "Karajan Beethoven" set at a later date.