Beethoven: Complete Symphonies
Following Karajan's death, we may expect a flood of reissues from his enormous gramophone legacy. Here now are two of his complete Beethoven cycles, including the first, made with the Philharmonia Orchestra between 1953 and 1956 and produced by Walter Legge, with the balance engineer Douglas Larter. All were made in the Kingsway Hall except the Ninth: as there was no Philharmonia Chorus then, Karajan took the orchestra to the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna, and used the Vienna Singverein.
The names Philharmonia, Karajan and Legge made this an historic recording enterprise, but to these personalities must be added the fact that the LP record was then fairly new, stereo was just happening and, as Karl Schumann's accompanying note reminds us, Karajan's Beethoven, energetic, strongly rhythmical and deeply concerned with beauty of sound, was the antithesis of Furtwangler's, who died while this cycle was still incomplete. Of course, Toscanini had already instituted a highly precise, and some would say soulless, interpretative approach to Beethoven. The young Karajan was an admirer of Toscanini. He learnt from him that Beethoven's titanic strength could emerge equally well from performances that were accurate and objective but being an Austrian he shunned Toscanini's rigidity and ferocity.
These Philharmonia performances represent Karajan's first attempt to formulate his own Beethoven style—it was to be a lifetime's search. They are still magnificent—brimming with youthful vitality but full, too, of those characteristic shafts of light turned on to Beethoven's scoring, as for example in the joyful account of the Pastoral Symphony in which the finale, taken slower than in the first Berlin cycle of 1962, achieves an extraordinary spirituality. In No. 4, too, the playing of the Philharmonia strings in the Adagio and of the prindpal clarinet in the same movement is a reminder of the standard to which Karajan had so quickly raised this new orchestra.
The performances of Nos. 3, 5 and 7 all have outstanding virtues. If one stresses the rhythmic vitality, especially in the finale of No. 7, and the fast tempos which came as something of a shock at the time but now seem merely to have anticipated by 30 years what we take on the chin from the 'authentic' school of conductors, that should not detract from our pleasure in Karajan's lyrical and flowing treatment of the slow movements. As for the recording quality, it is quite remarkable, with a range and balance that are enhanced by CD.
If one wishes to make a spot-check on how Karajan's Beethoven developed, or changed, in a decade, the Allegretto of No. 7 provides a classic example. The pulse of the music is quicker than in the Philharmonia performance the legato smoother, the tone-colour more sharply defined. There is no doubt, in my opinion, that this 1962 Berlin Philharmonic cycle is one of the greatest Beethoven series ever committed to disc, both as orchestral performance and conductor's interpretation, and also as recording. Although there are sublime individual passages in the 1982–5 cycle, it is not as consistently fine as the 1962 (and this earlier cycle had the advantage of being recorded in the Jesus-Christus Kirche).
Nor can one evade the fact that, fine as the Philharmonia of the 1950s was, the Berlin Philharmonic of 1962 was its superior in every department. The refinements of its playing are too numerous to set out in detail, but how anyone could listen to these performances and then say that Karajan was 'bland' is beyond my comprehension. The brass playing throughout, and particularly in the Eroica funeral march, is just wonderful. The pizzicato at the start of the Eroica finale has to be heard to be believed—precise, yes but how meaningful too. The playing of No. 4, too, has all the grace and beauty of the Philharmonia performance, and then some.
The crown of both cycles is the Ninth, with the quartet of soloists carefully chosen each time and the same choir in both. (My preference is for the 1955 quartet, mainly because the male singers are better.) But the Berlin performance has a certainty that comes to a conductor only rarely, and did not come again to Karajan in the 1980s (listed above). Both boxes are well presented. The DG set has a long and perceptive article by RO which is required reading. The EMI set also contains performances of the Coriolan and Egmont overtures.'