INKPOT#51 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN Complete Symphonies/Karajan (DG 1963)


The Nine Symphonies No.1 in C, op.21 (1799-1800)
No.2 in D, op.36 (1801-2)
No.3 in E-flat, op.55 “Eroica” (1803-4)
No.4 in B-flat, op.60 (1806)
No.5 in C minor, op.67 (1804-8)
No.6 in F, op.68 “Pastoral” (1807-8)
No.7 in A, op.92 (1811-2)
No.8 in F, op.93 (1812)
No.9 in D minor, op.125 “Choral” (1817-23)

Gundula Janowitz soprano Hilde Rssel-Majdan mezzo-soprano Waldemar Kmentt tenor Walter Berry bass Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in 1961-2 (first released in 1963)

Deutsche Grammophon 429 036-2
5 discs [332’33”] budget-price

by Isaak Koh

Herbert von Karajan (right, right, right and right) recorded the symphonies of Beethoven four times in his remarkable career — once with the Philharmonia in the Fifties and three times with the Berlin Philharmonic (1961-2, 1975-7, 1982-5). In many ways, his 60s cycle stands out from the other three. It was the first recording of the Nine to be conceived, planned and sold as an integral set. The initial purchasers had to pay a subscription for the LPs which were sent to them symphony by symphony. Thirty-six years later, this cycle has become somewhat of a benchmark for these cornerstones of the symphonic repartoire.

Upon first hearing, I was struck by the tremendous enthusiasm in the playing of the orchestra. I can just imagine the excitement in the recording sessions, one of the finest orchestras of the time conducted by this energetic conductor at the start of what was to become a long tenure. This notion of a great event must have added a frisson to the atmosphere, and it certainly shows here.

I have yet to hear a badly executed First Symphony and this one is no exception. The Berliners play this elegantly and Karajan paces it just right. The forthright sound (with an occasionally background hiss) enhances the sprightly nature of this work. The Second Symphony is also carried off with great beauty of tone. The knife-edge precision of the players is evident in the third movement Scherzo. Karajan tends towards the Classical (rather than Romantic) view of these early works and the playing is very much straight-forward.

It is a great joy to hear such energy in the first movement of the Third Symphony, the “Eroica”. Karajan takes it rather quickly, although it never sounds rushed. What this version gains in excitement is sacrificed in majesty. The crisp sound, which added to the First Symphony, becomes a disadvantage in the Third. The lack of sonic weight (as compared to the NDRSO/Wand or the 1961 Philharmonia/Klemperer) reduces the solemnity of the work. The “Funeral March” is also taken at slightly too fast a pace, with frequent rubato that constantly threatens to unbalance the structure of the movement, again diminishing the sobriety of the symphony.

The Fourth is one of the highlights of the cycle. It is played sleek and smooth, showcasing the immaculate technical skills of the orchestra. I was taken aback by how Karajan glides through the first movement, winsomely conveying the joie de vivre. The Fifth Symphony is predictably powerful, given that the nature of the work benefits from the aggression and precision that Karajan is so well-known for. The opening movement is played with spectacular attack, and the final movement is highly charged and dramatic. However, I did detect a gradual acceleration in the tempi as the movement was played, resulting in the speeds at the end of the movement to be noticeably faster than at the beginning.

The Seventh Symphony is given (as Chia Han-Leon, my musical partner puts it) a noble reading. As in the “Eroica”, the second movement “Allegretto” could have had more impact and weight if it were taken slower. The swirling last movement is played at a breath-taking pace. Karajan succeeds in pulling the listener into a frenzied vortex of glorious sound. There is, however, that unexpected acceleration that marred the Fifth Symphony. Try Carlos Kleiber’s stupendous recordings of the Fifth and Seventh with the Vienna Philharmonic for an even handling of both final movements while still able to communicate the sense of power.

Karajan is commanding in the Eighth, in which the orchestra dispatches the difficult passages with ease. Some conductors have trouble with this symphony (witness Gardiner’s unwieldly handling of the first movement in his recording for DG), but Karajan is impressive in his perky handling of the work. The “Choral” Symphony is a very fine reading, but Karajan again sacrifices majestic grandeur for dramatic impact. He dives straight into the first movement, with speeds on the fast side. The second movement is well-paced, but the “Adagio” could have been slower for greater subliminity (which Karajan did achieve, with spell-binding effect, in his 1977 recording). The finale is very good, but it does not have the stabbing quality of either his 1977 version or the Gardiner recording.

You may have noticed that I have kept my comments on the “Pastoral” Symphony to the end. This work is the infamous weak link in this otherwise fantastic set. Karajan takes it way too quickly, and the entire work comes across as taut and lifeless. It sounds more like someone running away from the countryside to get back to the secure confines of the city more than a country lover taking a pleasant stroll through the woods. I have certainly heard more geniality in Bruno Walter’s or Karl Bohm’s recordings, and I fear that Karajan misses the point here.

Right: ‘Beethoven Composing the Missa Solemnis’ (1819).
Anonymous, after a painting by Josef Stieler

As I have mentioned before, the sound is vibrant and forthright, with a slight hiss in the background. At less than S$50 for a complete set of Beethoven symphonies that is both truly famous and accomplished, this is undoubtedly a great bargain (ask at the counter at HMV). Take note: DG has reissued this set in the recent Beethoven Edition, with more colourful covers, new write-ups and remastered sound, but at mid-price. The Ninth has also been re-released in the Originals series with the Coriolan Overture.

For those deciding between the two sets, my advice is to get the old set with the maroon and gold slipcase and spend the excess $30 on other things. The notes written by Richard Osborne are concise, informative and perfectly adequate. This is a great set to buy for those who require an inexpensive complete set by a single orchestra/conductor. I suspect, however, that Karajan’s aggressive perfection will pale to some years after some time, and most people would also want to supplement it with another reading of the Sixth Symphony.

This set is readily available for around $48 at HMV. It is set up on one of the listening booths, so you can sample it to your heart’s content.

Isaak Koh is still highly strung on caffe mochas.

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