on June 8, 2004
In spite of the strange arguements against Herbert K's 6th, I find this to be one of the finest interpretations of the Pastoral about. Instead of the usual slow intro and gradual speeding up of the older fashioned models of this piece we have here a slick and unforced manner. Not for some, but really this is the genius of the interpretation. Richard Osborne for some reason really discounted Karajan in this movement. I think he was wrong...instead period instrument people tend to do this opening of the Pastoral at the same tempo with which Karajan pursued his arguement!
As to the 5th it is really an epic reading...no strange ritardando or even any affectation. Szell is let down by a recording that sounds monochrome in comparison to this one. The artistry of Karajan is that he tends to be lean and lithe, and he avoids excessive shaping of phrases but always has excellent rythmic playing. Never stodgy anywhere. As to dynamics his Sforznados are always a joy and yet he allows the music to breathe.
The 9th is really a very strong interpretation and leaves Szell and Toscannini in the dust...here we have gloriously warm tone from the strings and very polished brass. The solo team is first rate and and so is the chorus! This is one of the problems we encounter with a number of interpretations.
As to the 4th it is the best in the entire CD catologue..no where is anyone near Herbert in understanding this piece except form Klemperer...beautifully paced with wonderful nuance. Flute and horn work throughout this entire recording is incredible.
The 7th is among the very finest...the opening is truly exciting with a wonderful lilt to the 6/8. Karajan is really able to do things no one ealse could ever do...this is a fine interpretation.
The 8th in F Major is wonderful in the golden tone which permeates the playing...Berlin is on top form here. The finale has a lightness lacking in Szell in Cleveland.
the Eroica is intense and far more straightforward than Szell in Cleveland. No disdainful rallentando's when they are not called for...Karajn keeps close to the quarter note through the entire opening movement. The Finale is performed with the best horn work ever.
The 1st and 2cd are truly beatiful and given Mozartian elegance without bombast.
This is Beethoven!
on December 24, 2003
For me, one of the keys to realizing some measure of enjoyment from Karajan's Beethoven is to accept the fact he adheres to a certain kind of style that frequently projects drama, power and majesty, yet, at times, leaves something to be desired in terms of lightness of texture and emotional suppleness. This notwithstanding, there are moments when I feel his voice more closely resembles that of Beethoven than any conductor I have heard. I find this true especially in some of the more propulsive and imposing passages of mainly the odd numbered works. Sometimes, with other composers, I have been critical of this conductor's tendency toward muscular, smoothly molded contours, however, I feel this approach melds fairly well with a decent portion of the composer's persona. I'm certainly not alone when I state that while Karajan satisfies me in some areas of Beethoven, Walter, Cluytens and Bohm, for example, fulfill me in other areas, and, indeed, in some of the same areas as well. Concerning the various interpretations, I feel there is no "10" among complete sets of the Beethoven Symphonies, though of course many have their favorites, and aim to stand by them come "hell or high water".
I consider the 1963 Karajan to be among the best sets available. However, I feel the same about the sets of those conductors mentioned above. As for some other highly regarded conductors like Szell...well, let's just say it depends on my mood. Aside from his better moments, sometimes he gets a little too clinical and that tends to wear on me. I do admire Klemperer but there are times when I lose interest because of his slower tempos. The same is true for Furtwangler despite his fine moments.
In focussing on Karajan's individual performances, other than his partially misdirected "Pastorale" (where I feel Bohm reigns supreme), I have no glaring criticisms. The First is energetically paced, tuneful and nicely detailed. Though the Second is fine, there are moments when a little lightness in some spots would have helped. The Third is well paced and proportioned and powerfully executed. Very satisfying, except for the funeral march, which lacks real pathos. The Fourth is generally colorful and incisive. The Fifth is my favorite among Karajan's interpretations. It just seems right. Bold and grand, its tempos, pauses and inflections are on the mark. Especially satisfying is the way in which the horns are broadly and sonorously presented, though I wish the cellos in the third movement had more resinous bite. The Seventh is very good, but though emphatically stated and adequately charged, it remains earthbound, never really projecting that kind of Olympian quality found in the best versions, e.g. Reiner's with the Chicago Symphony. The Eighth is one of his best efforts. It is incisive and musical, with a nice third movement menuetto that is easy flowing and elegant. The Ninth, of course, is Beethoven's crowning jewel. After giving a good re-hearing to Karajan's reading, I still find myself impressed with its tremendous drive. Except for a few moments where things almost become a little hectic, I have little to criticize in the first movement. I find the second movement a shade too fast . The third is somewhat shallow in spiritual depth, a not uncommon characteristic of Karajan. Early in the last movement, the deep strings are not quite portentous enough. Otherwise, the last movement is very convincing, though it may lack the last bit of spirituality. This said, Karajan's Ninth remains one of my favorites. I also favor Klemperer's live stereo version on Testament (See my earlier review.) and Reiner's Chicago Symphony account (See my coming review.)
For those looking for a set, the task may take a while. If you wind up drawing firm conclusions after you've listened, that's fine. But try to go into the listening experience with as open a mind as possible. Some of you will feel the best approach is to avoid the boxed set and instead select single discs for the individual symphonies. Of course, there is no guarantee this will save you time and money or automatically reward you with "just what you were looking for". Happy hunting, though !
on August 15, 2004
this is a review of the much-maligned pastoral symphony is this set. most find fault with its fleet tempos but after listening to the much lauded bohm and walter, i find this is the only pastoral that doesn't put me to sleep, especially in the first movement. where with bohm you feel like it's a funeral march through the countryside, with karajan it actually feels like a joyous outing, full of sunshine, blue skies, and fresh air. it captures the sense of coming alive upon entering nature that the other recordings miss. my only gripe with this recording is that it has the karajan trademark string-laden sound. for the pastoral, i'd prefer a better balance with the winds. other than that, this is an excellent 6th. oh, the the rest of the cycle is pretty good, too!
on June 21, 2003
I never bothered to check the quality of classical music recordings until I bought this set. I'm used to listening to all DDD grade stuff, and this recording by Karajan is ADD. I'm sure some older listeners would rightly consider this set an improvement over a record or a cassette tape, and might even not notice any problem. But listeners acclimated to the more recent DDD recordings like me might be distracted. Because Beethoven's symphonic pieces fluctuate so much (volume-wise), I kept having to turn this ADD recording up because I couldn't hear, and then quickly turning it down again to avoid going deaf.
on April 17, 2003
Just remember, when someone says they like the Bohm/Vienna Beethoven, or the Klemperer Beethoven they're telling you very clearly what they like...they like their Beethoven plummy, over-serious, and altogether too square.
It amazes me how well this Karajan set holds up, even with all the fine Beethoven being recorded these days. The first and second symphonies are a bit heavy-footed for my taste, but not bad, considering when, and by whom, they were performed.
The from the Eroica on, though, Karajan nails things as well as anyone could. His 5th and his 7th are distinctly superior to the much-praised Kleiber/Vienna outing from the mid-70s...his Eroica is still one of the very best...and the 9th is still my personal favorite of all the recorded performances I've ever heard, bar none. The 7th from the 1977 cycle may have slight edge in overall excitement...but by then the orchestra was not playing with the same kind of care as in 1962...intonation is a big problem in the 1977 cycle, and the recorded sound is rather nasty at times.
So, others have revealed who else they like, and thus revealed their biases, so I will reveal mine. If I had to rank my favorite Beethoven Symphony cycles, more-or-less in order of preference, it'd go something like this:
1) Zinman/Zurich Beyond praise in every way. I swear, I don't think Zinman could conduct a bad note if his life depended on it.
2) Karajan/Berlin 1962. On balance, the most convincing and satisfying big-orchestra treatment of Beethoven available.
3) Bruggen/O18thCentury. Not to everyone's taste, I realize, but Bruggen's band is OUTSTANDING, and Bruggen himself has a very clear vision of Beethoven's symphonies, and realizes that vision with great verve, wit, virtuosity, and profound insight.
4) Gardiner/RRO Great stuff. It wouldn't be my only set, but, damn! What playing!
5) Harnoncourt/COE Wayward in places, but consistently interesting. I disagree violently with him on some things, love other things.
Others in no special order:
I haven't heard Mackerras's set yet, but it's supposed to be terrific.
As for the also-rans like Bohm, davis, Klemperer, the big problem is their Beethoven is often boring. Who needs boring?
on December 2, 2003
Still the best Beethoven cycle around, Karajan's 1963 run-through of the mighty 9 is also the best value for your music dollar. Sound quality is good (even better on the remastered German import version), and Karajan's dependable, straightforward readings go down smoothly. This was the first cycle recorded and released as a unit, and although other Beethoven cycles may offer better sound, period "authenticity", or some stagey fire in their readings (along with a higher price tag), none offers the listener a more sensible way to own a classic rendering by a premier orchestra of the most important music ever written.
on March 12, 2002
While I was initially very enthusiastic about this cycle, comparing it with several other sets has drastically reduced my opinion of it. The main problem of this set concerns the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. That may sound absurd, considering the stunning beauty and technical assurance of its playing, but it isn't really. The problem is not the technical aspect but the actual sound produced. Karajan had a very distinctive, unique orchestral sound that he used, basically without modification, for every piece he ever performed. The characteristics of this sound are refined beauty, streamlined, aerodynamic smoothness, and a texture heavily dominated by the strings. While this texture may work for Romantic works by composers such as Bruckner and Mahler, it definitely does not sound right in works of the Classical period, by composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Classical works require a leaner, more transparent, sound than the "Karajan Sound." Beethoven, contrary to popular belief, is a CLASSICAL composer, not a Romantic one. A good Beethoven sound requires incisive but resonant timpani, pure and transparent strings, sonorous, powerful brass and radiant woodwinds. The Karajan Sound gives us gorgeous but opaque string textures which dominate the rest of the orchestra. Therefore, I think Karajan's sound is inappropriate for Beethoven, and so seriously undermines the performance.
Take, for example, the first movement of the Ninth. The opening tremolo is ominous but unclear, and when the first subject emerges from the mists, the sound is dominated by those cloying string textures. What makes this especially disappointing is that Karajan is one of the very few people who judge the tempo in this movement correctly. But just comparing Karajan with superior performances by conductors like Klemperer will make my point. In that first movement of the Ninth, Klemperer's opening tremolo is perfectly clear, but is no less ominous or mysterious than Karajan's, and the first subject is given in an ideal blend of brass, timpani and strings. Another particular disappointment is the Allegretto of the Seventh. Karajan is one of the very few to take it at a true, flowing Allegretto, but the overweight string textures ruin it again.
My other problem with this set is that Karajan's conducting is too often static. This may also seem like a weird statement, because his tempi are often on the fast side; however, his conducting lacks forward impetus - the sense of moving forward, of going somewhere with the music. This is not the same thing as having a grasp of the structure of a piece, where Karajan is infallible, nor does it have anything to do with the actual tempo chosen: slow performances like those of Böhm can have momentum far greater than that of Karajan's fast performances. Here, the music never seems to be moving forward on its own, it never feels spontaneous and natural, and, most importantly, it never matches the emotional depths and heights characteristic of conductors like Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer and Böhm. I might go so far as to say Karajan's performances are ... emotionally cool. (To the reviewer below: isn't it possible that some of us just don't like a lot of Karajan's work?)
Aside from these two severe drawbacks, however, this is an admirable set. Tempi are perfect (with the exception of the rushed Pastoral, a disaster in every way - repeats, texture and tempos), and the orchestra is never less than beautiful. In addition, the Ninth boasts arguably the finest solo quartet on records (Janowitz, Rössel-Majdan, Kmentt and Berry).
The sound is often hazy and indistinct. The timpani are placed rather far back in the sound spectrum, which is a serious problem, particularly in places like the Scherzo of the Ninth, where the timpani are obviously crucial. Even more serious, though, is the backward balance and shifting perspectives on the chorus in the finale.
Overall, although these recordings have garnered much acclaim over forty years, I don't think they really justify it. I am still searching for the best Beethoven symphony set. Klemperer is very high on the list for his monumental grandeur and glorious orchestra (the Philharmonia), but his set is let down by extremely slow tempi in fast movements (in particular the Scherzos of the Sixth and Ninth and much of the Eighth). Colin Davis has wonderful playing, if a bit on the fat side, from the Staatskapelle Dresden, but he falls into the slow tempi trap, which is far more serious here than with Klemperer because Davis doesn't come close to Klemperer's electricity. Toscanini takes a very fast, intense approach. Karajan's performances have always been called Toscaninian, but I refuse to accept that because Toscanini's momentum and lean orchestral texture are on the other side of the spectrum from Karajan. Toscanini's approach works marvelously in the early symphonies, but his extreme rigidity, with an almost total lack of rubato, makes for serious problems in the later symphonies. Barenboim is currently at the top of my list for his wonderful orchestra and superb tempi, in addition to his intense, magisterial conducting. His failing is that he is in many places altogether too eccentric: the opening of the Ninth, for instance, is far too slow to be coherent, while the finale of the Seventh falls apart because of absurd tempo fluctuations. The set that looks most promising to me at the moment is Böhm's Vienna Philharmonic set from the 1970's. Böhm's slow tempos are not nearly so much of a problem as in Klemperer and Davis because of his rhythmic pointing and lyrical incandescence. His set also boasts glorious playing from the Vienna Philharmonic that meets all four requirements of the "Beethoven Sound" I listed above. If the rest of the cycle is anything like half as good as his 1971 Pastoral, it will jump to the top of my list!!
on November 7, 2001
How can one review do justice to the bulk of work contained in this set? I will start by saying that for the price, you ought to have your head examined if you call yourself a Beethoven fan and still don't get this cycle.
I have said that Karajan is a controlled conductor who lets the music speak for itself. Here is no exception. The performances are not muddled either. The Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan are a formidable team and play with measured precision and power characteristic of a German ensemble. This does not mean Karajan turns the symphonies into one of Lorin Maazel's staccato debacles. The music is soft and lush when it should be, and powerful and bold when appropriate.
Notable examples are the finales of the fifth and seventh symphonies. Every bit of Beethoven's emotion shines through, taking the listener for a roller coaster ride. Beethoven's magnificently plaintive second movements are divine on these recordings. Karajan and the BPO present a stark contrast between the passionate longing and majestic fire that characterizes Beethoven's symphonies.
One thing about sound quality- these are marvellous recordings. Although they are old, they are among the best ever. One small problem is that they are somewhat lopsided. By that I mean the volume inherent in the instruments matches the volume they achieve on the recording. The brass constantly outplay the woodwinds, even when the score calls for a more balanced sound. This is only a minor problem, but does detract from some passages.
Now let's move on to the Ninth- Karajan and the BPO are astounding in the first three movements. Karajan conducts at a good pace, one that leaves Bohm in the dust. The soloists in the fourth movement, especially that perfect moment when the baritone enters, are glorious. All four soloists are excellent, although I wish I could find a ninth with a warmer sounding tenor.
The chorus is superb. When the Vienna orchestra was first rehearsing this symphony so many years ago and the sopranos complained about the high notes of the finale, Beethoven (with characteristic charm) replied that he did not care about their "pathetic voices." All that mattered was the music. Well, if only Beethoven had worked with the chorus on this recording...! All said and done, a magnificent chorus.
If you are partial to the even numbered symphonies, this set delivers a romantic orchestra to what some call classical pieces. If you are in the mood for "orginal instruments" or anything closer approximating what these pieces originally sounded like, this set is not ideal. If you are looking for the best of modern recording and one of the best modern orchestras, this is a must-have. At such a price, you cannot go wrong with this set.
on June 17, 2000
Anyone who would give this cycle three stars has ears that are way jaded toward a particular "school" of performing practice. This set is excellent. These performances combine the athleticism, agility, and excitement of so called "period" performing practice, sans the sometimes annoyingly scrawny textures, with the weight of what has become a more "traditional modern" orchestral sound. Karajan's performances of 6-8 could stand to "smile" a little more, but those performances of plenty have excitement, and the rest of the cycle has adrenaline as well as grandeur. This is easily the best complete Beethoven cycle, regardless of price, if that's how you want to acquire these symphonies, and most of the individual performances are at the top of the list, as well, especially 2,3,4,5,&9.
on February 12, 2002
...These are fiery, robust, passionate performances. The sound of von Karajan and the BPO is strong yet agile--muscular, rich, and powerful.... These recordings "pop" out of the speakers. And von Karajan claims he's using the tempos that Beethoven set down in the score.
So I recommend this set of performances wholeheartedly. It has blown out the set by Bohm that I'd previously held dear......