Four decades separate Karajan's classic Beethoven Fifth with the Berlin Phil. from 1962 and the new one from Abbado. In between we've had the historical performance revolution and a new critical edition from del Mar. Abbado, never a great Beethoven conductor in the past, found religion, he says, and rethought the symphonies in light of new practices. Has it made a big difference?
Yes and no. The opening of the first movement, which includes the most famous five bars in classical music, sounds quite different. Karajan was a modernist in his day, and when he performed the famous da-da-da DUM motif, he didn't pause overlong between each statement or draw out the culminating fermata, or held note. Abbado, however, gives us no pause, and instead of swelling at the end of the DUM for dramatic effect, he actually softens and falls away. One gets the sense of a single long phrase, not a repeated theme chopped into dramatic slices.
The first movement isn't appreciably faster than Karajan's, but the textures are much lighter--this is more apparent live than on recordings. The Berlin Phil. sounds sizable here whereas in concert the reduced forces are very evident. The other movements don't sound as different. The Andante con moto is tkaen too fast by Abbado and comes off as an allegro, while the Scherzo is repeated enitrely, making it twice as long, another mistake since we are robbed of the marvelous tension between this brief, mysterious transition and the explosive finale--mysteries wear out the second time around. The finales from Karajan and Abbado sound identical and have nearly identical tempos, except that Karajan skips the exposition repeat.
In terms of sound, the remastered Karajan in SACD more than keeps up with the Abbado, which admittedly has less glare at loud volume. However, this advantage is offset because the orchestra is set so far back that you have to turn the volume up quite high, which in itself brings about more glare and glassiness.
In all, I would say this performance is half a step ahead of Karajan's. There are new things about this Abbado Fifth--it's leaner and more compact. However, the same heroic spirit breathes through both performances, and I'm grateful to own them both.