This disc, well mastered from the original analogue recording of 1959, brings all the expected advantages of modern processing to bear on a disc that, on the face of it, would seem to be hopelessly out of sympathy with current musical thinking. Before going on to consider the performances, it is important to understand what has been achieved in this re-mastering and why it matters.
The mastering at 24 bits (dynamic range) and 96 kHz (frequency range) needs to be explained to be understood. Analogue recordings from the 1950's onwards had a wide dynamic and frequency range and certainly up to, and possibly beyond, the two above sets of figures. Early digital recordings were made on digital recorders with only 16 bits and 48 kHz of potential information. These figures clearly show the limitations of the recorded sound when comparing digital with analogue. Furthermore, the CD format was not capable of storing more information, unlike LPs or tape. All this explains why collectors using the top end of playback equipment were so often unhappy with digital sound. In summary this was simply a case of convenience over quality.
Nowadays it is possible to digitally record at these higher ranges and for discs, especially SACD, DVD and Blu-ray, to hold all the extra information. This is also why a remastering, such as we have here, from original wide ranging analogue tapes to modern wider ranged digital media, is so successful.
The result on this disc is the expected increased 'presence' with added dynamic and frequency response compared to the original CD releases. It is possible that by comparing original LP discs with these new CDs that the LP may still have the advantage, but that is not the real world for most purchasers.
Moving on to the performances, it is quite clear that this is big band orchestral playing that has little to do with period performances as heard from so many specialists and orchestras today. This is especially true of the Haydn 104. In addition, there are several later versions of the Beethoven 7 made by Karajan to consider such as those with the BPO on both CD and DVD.
In both works Karajan takes a brisk view of tempo and does not introduce variations of tempo as Thielemann does on his Bluray discs. These are features which fit very well with period performances and will feel very familiar to followers of many period conductors of today. There is no denying the thickening of textures in the lower areas of the orchestra resulting from orchestral size and a smoothing out of phrasing but also there is no denying Karajan's very clear sense of purpose whereby all movements conclude with that purpose fully delivered. This is distinctive and satisfying conducting with purpose.
The sound of the VPO as recorded is notably emotionally warmer than that provided in Berlin. The effect is of greater ease of expression while still moving on with purpose. Furthermore, there is less moulding of the lines than that of the later Berlin performances. This is to the advantage of these two recordings as is the more accurate tuning of the bassoon solo lines in the scherzo of the Beethoven, a lapse that is unfortunate and uncharacteristic in Berlin (1960's version).
I would suggest that if there is an interest in owning just one of Karajan's many Beethoven recordings, this disc has claims to be seriously considered. The Haydn, although clearly out of scale, is still convincing in its own way and has the advantage of cohesiveness and direction and at speeds that would not dismay modern period enthusiasts.
This then, is a surprisingly unexpected gem succeeding against the expected odds and, as such, is still a contender for consideration as a purchase. Best thought of as an alternative version though rather than as an 'only' version.