Beethoven Edition, Vol. 1 - Symphonies
Since it was Nikisch and the Berlin Philharmonic who, as it were, set the ball rolling in 1913 with their very fine studio recording of the Fifth Symphony, it could be argued that the most important Beethoven Symphony recording in this new Beethoven Edition is not here in Vol. 1 but in Vol 20 (reviewed below). Yet the 1961-2 Karajan set has its own historic importance and its inclusion in the new edition – ahead of rival DG cycles by Abbado, Bernstein, Bohm, Gardiner and Karajan himself – is not surprising.
This was the first set of the Nine to be planned, recorded and sold as an integral cycle. It was initially released as an eight-LP subscription set, handsomely boxed and annotated. I remember well what a stir that caused. For though the price (£14.8s.0d./$40) was merely a multiplication by eight of the cost of a premium-price LP, the idea of having to buy all nine symphonies at the same time was seen by some as an affront to choice, by others as a lure to insolvency.
That the cycle would be something remarkable – very different from the somewhat bland and brutish account of the Seventh Symphony Karajan had recently recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic for RCA (10/60 – nla) – had been flagged in advance by the live concert cycles Karajan and the Berliners had given in Berlin, Paris, London and New York. “Karajan presented the symphonies plus high fidelity”, Sir Neville Cardus wrote in one of his London reviews. Though he remained out of love with much that Karajan did and stood for, even he could not withhold a certain gasp of wonder for Beethoven playing of such pith and intensity.
The set was not simply an offshoot of the age of high fidelity – Karajan’s musical roots went deeper than that – but it was as a set that had been extremely carefully positioned from the interpretative point of view. Howard Taubman once said, “One suspects that [Karajan] could approach Beethoven in different ways and fashion convincing interpretations in several styles”. And William Mann, reporting on the sessions for the Ninth Symphony in The Gramophone in December 1961, noted: “I came to understand, before long, that for Karajan this recorded performance was like a new enterprise, in that the transitory factors – these singers, these players, in this church, with this recording staff – created new circumstances that had to be taken into account. You can see him thinking ‘That doesn’t work here’. And instead of compromising his ideal to fit the circumstances, he works out the best way of adapting the available conditions so that they serve the conception.”
In fact, the conception itself had, to some extent, been modified. Where Karajan’s 1950s Philharmonia Beethoven cycle (EMI, 1/90 – nla) had elements in it that owed a certain amount to the old German school of Beethoven interpretation, the new-found virtuosity of the Berliners allowed him to approach more nearly the fierce beauty and lean-toned fiery manner of Toscanini’s Beethoven style as Karajan had first encountered it in its halcyon age in the mid-1930s. Nothing demonstrates this better than the 1962 recording of the Fourth Symphony, fiery and radiant as Karajan’s reading had not previously been, and never would be again.
The old shibboleth among writers and musicians that the even-numbered symphonies were somehow less dramatic than the odd-numbered ones meant nothing to Karajan. His accounts of the Second, Fourth, Sixth and Eighth Symphonies were every bit as intense as their allegedly sturdier neighbours. Only in the Seventh Symphony’s third movement Trio and the Menuetto of the Eighth Symphony – where he continued to follow Wagner’s idea of this as an essentially stately dance, a kind of surrogate slow movement – did he deviate significantly from the Toscanini model. And it worked. True, the first movement of the Pastoral Symphony was a touch airless, lacking some of the easy wonderment of Karajan’s old Philharmonia recording (4/54 – nla). But, then, Toscanini himself had never managed to replicate the unique charm of his pre-war English recording (Biddulph, 5/94) with the BBC SO.
Above all, the critical predispositions of the age were well served. It was Klemperer who said of Karajan, in 1969, “He’s just the conductor for 1969”. Yet the prejudice – and it is a prejudice – in favour of an ‘objective’ Beethoven style was not the preserve of the 1960s, or of Karajan. All the commercially successful gramophone cycles of the Nine – Toscanini’s, Klemperer’s, Karajan’s in 1962 and again in 1976, and those of the period performers in the 1980s and early-1990s – have their roots in the neue Sachlichkeit (the “new objectivity”) of which Klemperer himself had been so influential an exponent back in the 1920s.
Edward Greenfield’s review of the set in February 1963 entered a number of caveats, some of which still pertain, though it is the lack of certain repeats and the non-antiphonal dispensation of the violins that worries me most nowadays. What so enthused EG was the urgency of the music-making, its vitality and, ultimately, a fierce sense of joy that had its natural point of culmination in a thrillingly played and eloquently sung account of the finale of the Ninth.
The playing of the new rejuvenated Berlin Philharmonic dazzled throughout (it still does), as did the recordings of the young Gunther Hermanns: clean and clear, and daringly (occasionally too daringly) ‘lit’ with a bright shimmer of reverberation. The recordings have always transferred effortlessly to CD and the present reissue is no exception.
The new set has been finely annotated. To have essays by H. C. Robbins Landon and Robert Simpson is a considerable privilege and the historical annotations are interesting. The illustrations are all from contemporary sources, though the artists’ iconography has been less carefully handled. The photograph of Karajan is that of the coiffured sage of the late-1970s, not the fiercely competitive 53-year-old with a crew-cut who made these remarkable recordings.'