In a recent BBC3 "CD Review" broadcast, Alexandra Wilson made a gallant attempt to achieve the impossible task of choosing amongst forty or so recordings of "La Boheme" - and while I agreed with her ultimate choice of the Beecham recording with Bjorling, Merrill and De Los Angeles, I have rather more regard for the discarded Karajan recording simply because Pavarotti's voice, in its prime, as she herself put it, "runs through the recording like a golden seam". The rest of the cast is wonderful, too, although Karajan's love for the score is manifested in a rather deliberately "beautiful" approach and thereby slightly undercuts the drama. I cannot be without either recording of this eternally youthful and moving opera, and although Freni was captured in slightly fresher, more limpid voice in the earlier Schippers set, for me Gedda is absolutely no substitute for Pavarotti at his best. Both Merrill and Panerai are infinitely touching in the great duet "O Mimi, tu piu non torni" and although Beecham's recording is a little rough around the edges, he conveys greater energy and fun in the slapstick scenes while, Karajan extracts slightly more pathos from the last act, in better sound. Acquire both sets for the complete experience - especially at this price, remastered to Naxos' usual high standard.
However, since having another careful listen to the Callas/Di Stefano/Votto account re-issued on Naxos (see my review), I must concede that it is up there with these two. We are spoilt for choice: all three are equally valid and moving but still very diferent.