Perhaps the least known phase of Karajan's recording career comprises the handful of discs he made with the Vienna Phil. for Decca, mostly in the late Fifties. There's a great Richard Strauss collection and also, as Mr. Kwok notes, a world-class The Planets, among others. Here we have two long out-of-print recordings in vintage analog sound. The Beethoven Seventh straddles two other versions, the earlier in mono with the Philharmonia on EMI, the later in stereo with the Berlin Phil. on DG, part of Karajan's famous 1963 Beethoven ccyle.
This version has the freshness and direct expression of the Philharmonia recording, but in much better sound and played with incomparable stylishness by the VPO. While not as explosive as the Berlin reading -- this is one of Karajan's mellowest interpretations -- DG's engineers spoiled a great reading with edgy, blatty sound. Karajan's tempos are all traditional, yet he infuses inner life into them, unlike sober traditionalists like Bohm, Schuricht, and Knappertsbusch in their Sevenths. This for me was a must-listen since the Seventh was a Karajan specialty.
Not many critics nowadays favor Karajan's way with Haydn, which suffers from too large an orchestra playing in too sleek a style. There's nothing rustic or ebulient about it. Those flaws have kept me from admiring his other two readings of Sym. 104 with the Berlin Phil. on EMI and DG. Like them, this VPO reading is big, Beethoven-sized, but it has more grit to it and less suaveness. Even so, the star of the disc is definitely the Beethoven Seventh.