I have listened to most of the CDs. The sound is excellent on almost all CDs, and very good on most others, although that is in part because I am not bothered by older mono recordings unless there is distracting noise. The performances are all very good, and many are outstanding.
With some oversimplification, there are basically three periods of Karajan EMI recordings:
- post-war 1940s with the Vienna Philharmonic (WP)
- 1950s with EMI's own Philharmonia Orchestra (PO - before it broke with EMI much later)
- a few earlier recordings, but mainly 1970s to 1981 with the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO)
There are a small number of recordings that don't fit into this scheme, like some Ravel pieces with the Paris Symphony Orchestra.
Some of the highlights in terms of the contents:
- Karajan's first recorded Beethoven cycle, with the PO from the 1950s
- A complete set of Beethoven's piano concertos from the 1970s with Alexis Weissenberg and the BPO
- An excellent complete Schubert cycle from 1975-77 with the BPO
- All Sibelius symphonies except No. 3 -- there is quite a bit of overlap here between the PO and the BPO
- All Brahms symphonies (PO) except number 3
- A large array of Mozart works (Symphonies 29, 33, 35, 36, 39-41; horn concertos 1-4, Simphonia Concertante and many more)
- The historic Beethoven Triple Concerto with Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Richter
- Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies (two versions each)
- Dvorak's 8th and 9th (New World), plus Slavonic Dances
- Three Bruckner symphonies (4, 7 and 8), all BPO
- Haydn symphonies 83, 101 and 104
- Schumann symphony 4
- A good selection of overtures from Beethoven, Wagner, Rossini and others
- A large set of tone poems and other programmatic orchestral music (Richard Strauss -- sorry, no Zarathustra -- Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, Mussorgsky, Resphigi, Franck and others)
- Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with Peter Ustinov narrating
- A smattering of "moderns", including Stravinsky's "Jeu de Cartes", Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, Britten, Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler"
Of course this is an incomplete list, but I hope it gives an indication.
If the set is underweighted in any type of music, it might be violin-focused works. Of the standard repertoire violin concertos, only Brahms is present. The Meditation from Thaïs is present as another violin showpiece
The piano fairs better, with the Beethoven set, Tchaikovsky 1, Brahms 2, Rachmaninoff 2, Schumann, Grieg, and two Leimer concertos (including the very interesting concerto for the left hand).
Overall, there is considerable "duplication" in terms of getting the same work multiple times with different orchestras. Most works are included only once, but many are included twice. The repetition gets more pronounced with three versions each of the following pieces:
- Mozart: Symphony 39, the clarinet concerto and "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"
- Sibelius: Symphony 5
- Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4 and 6 (Pathetique)
- Strauss II: Several waltzes and polkas (4 versions of "Tritsch-Tratsch Polka" is probably the single most superfluous thing about the set)
- Chabrier: Espana Rhapsody (also 4 versions!)
If you want to know more about individual recordings, here's a tip: do a search for "Karajan EMI" in the Amazon search engine. The reviews of EMI CDs conducted by Karajan will hopefully tell you all you need to know about the individual recordings. If it's ever been available by Karajan on EMI, it will either be in this set or in the companion set Karajan 100th - Volume 2, Opera and Vocals.
I bought this set at a time when I was starting to rebuild a classical CD collection after years of neglect and other interests. I would recommend it absolutely for anyone building their classical collection from scratch or almost scratch, although obviously if you have most of Karajan's best EMI recordings you might well not need this at all. If you don't have any Karajan EMI recordings -- I didn't -- this is a tremendous bargain and a big jump start to a nice collection of music.