Karajan was considered by many to be the dominant Bruckner conductor of the postwar era - although there are strong partisans of Celibidache, Jochum, and Gunter Wand. Whatever cavils there are about his interpretations, there's no arguing the splendor of Karajan's approach, his technical mastery, and the grandeur of the orchestral playing his evoked. In the case of the Seventh Sym. we have three choices, dating between 1971 and 1989, in other words from the summit of his career to a few months before his death.
Berlin Phil., 1971 (EMI) -- Beginning at the beginning is a good idea in this case, because the first Seventh from Karajan is nothing less than stupendous. Recorded in the Berliners' best venue, Jesus Christus Kirche, this recording comes across with overwhelming force. The perspective is a bit too distant, however, and there's considerable reverberation, but Karajan favored such a sound to capture the grand sweep of his interpreation. At the softer extreme of dynamics, this account can hardly be bettered for refinement. The combination of power and delicacy sets Karajan's Bruckner apart, even if critics complained about a lack of soul, whatever that evanescent quality means. Total timing is 68 min., making tis the slowest of his three recordings. However, since the differences are half a minute here and there, one cannot point to an exceptionally fast or slow movement in any of them. My only serious objection to this magnificent account is that the fortissimo climaxes are brutal on the ear, thanks in part to the engineering (typical of Karajan's releases at the time, the dynamics vary from softer than soft to crushingly loud) but also to the conductor's desire to produce superhuman impact from the massed Berlin brasses.
Berlin, 1975 (DG) --One immediately senses that this is going to be a more propulsive, overtly dramatic reading, and it comes as no surprise that it's also Karajan's fastest overall, at 64 min. The sound, as caught in the Philhamronie, is more up front, with clearer woodwinds than before, but the brass are far away. As in 1971, I was struck by one of Karajan's greatest gifts, his ability to hold Bruckner's vast movements together, making them more coherently unified than anyone else can, except for Furtwangler, who at his best could apply more varied emotion and singular depth without losing the moving line (it's telling that Furtwangler considered the Seventh Bruckner's only work that was structurally not disjointed or flawed). I'm happy that the brass climaxes aren't crushing, but DG's engineering produces some congestion and microphone shatter at fortissimo levels.
Vienna, 1989 (DG) -- The farewell Seventh was also a valedictory for the aged conductor. Having split under rancorous circumstances from Berlin a few years earlier, Karajan's last phase is strange and touching: just as his powers were flagging, he let go of his tight control; this perfectly suited the Vienna Phil., which gave him more warmth and openness than he usually got. Not that this Seventh trundles along; at 66 min. it sits between the fastest and slowest renditions. There's no falling off in intrpretation. I don't know why the Bruckner Eighth, also made during this period, gained far more acclaim than the Seventh. It is more human in scale than the earlier two Sevenths, with an ordinary sonic perspective rather than the Shea Stadium sound they have. Being digital, there's no microphone distortion in the biggest climaxes, either. The only thing missing -- and this may be a major absence -- is the nuance of the earlier readings and most especially, the delicacy in soft passages. For all the orchestra can do, and despite Karajan's stature in Bruckner, this reading is a touch generic.
Which, then, to choose? If I were to own only one Karajan version, I'd go for Berlin 1975 because of its absolute command. Berlin 1971 is too artificially miked, and Vienna 1989 (my second choice) is perhaps too autumnal -- as with late Bruno Walter, one senses great affection and an undeniable rightness, yet the technical side isn't at its peak. But these are personal judgments, and no one could go wrong with any of these releases.