There is surely no argument that Karajan's best work is to be found in his many and multiple recordings of the works of Richard Strauss. He returned again and again almost obsessively over a lifetime of engaging with Strauss' music to refine his interpretations and re-record them in better sound as new technology emerged. I vividly remember acquiring the big, black, DG box set of LP's with the customary hagiography of the conductor in its cover photo and thinking of it rather as middle-aged men might regard the Jaguar XJ 4.2 litre in the garage: not perhaps for everyday use but so comforting to take for a spin when one tires of the workaday Ford and wants to indulge in unparalleled quality and luxury. While an attachment to some of the earlier analogue recordings from the 70's and even back to the 1959 "Also sprach Zarathustra", is understandable, these digital versions happily re-mastered for the "Karajan Gold" and now in a bargain box must represent the best buy for anyone wanting the lot.
There is certainly nothing routine or comfortable about these performances; they are stunning in their sweep and power. Some of them, especially the "Alpine Symphony", when they were first released in early digital, were seriously compromised by a harsh glare in the sound; the shrieking strings have now been tamed and the ambience is wholly acceptable.
There isn't much point in my attempting a detailed analytical comparison of these landmark recordings; they are very much of a piece in style and execution, thrillingly executed by the foremost twentieth century exponent of Strauss' music directing the Rolls-Royce (to continue in vehicular vein) of orchestras with verve and passion.
Karajan was consistent in matters of tempo and phrasing once he had hit upon what worked and the differences between these and earlier recordings are mostly in the quality of sound rather than interpretation. If anything, and in contradistinction to other aging conductors, his speeds are generally distinctly swifter than of yore. For example, in the "Four Last Songs" here he was no doubt aware that his soloist, Anna Tomowa-Sintow could not emulate Gundula Janowitz for breath so the first three songs are almost brisk. As it is, she spoils her otherwise affecting rendition of "September" by taking a breath before "Augen" at the close of the song. For the last song, "Im Abendrot", Karajan risks a more leisurely pace at a timing of 7:06 and Tomowa-Sintow copes admirably. He doesn't drag them it in the manner of Eschenbach (8:45) for Fleming in the first of her two recordings, or Masur for Jessye Norman (an extraordinary 9:56), where despite the glory of their singing, there is a suggestion of ponderousness. Tomowa-Sintow makes the same clumsy gaff in the last notes of "Die heiligen drei Könige", taking a gasping breath in the middle of the last word "sangen". Goodness knows why she ran out of wind or why they didn't re-take as she was surely capable of bridging the gap. These flaws, the slight tremulousness and lack of real deep-pile velvet in her tone mean that for me this is perhaps the only performance which cannot stand comparison with Karajan's previous version. Good though Tomowa-Sintow is, Janowitz reigns supreme.
The only thing in this set new to me was that little carol about the Magi, with its gorgeous orchestral postlude so redolent of the sound-world of "Capriccio". I love the way Strauss musically points the link between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion with a momentary disturbance at the words "das Öchslein brüllte, das Kindlein schrie" (the ox bellowed, the baby cried") before restoring serenity.
The last disc forms a kind of postlude to what precedes, which is essentially music of epic scope and ambition: life and death, faith and philosophy, heroism and perseverance. Only Mahler and Wagner work on a similarly large and varied canvas and for me Karajan's deployment of the forces before him confirms my conviction that the 100-piece symphony orchestra in full flight is one of the chief glories of civilisation. Some do not get on with Strauss' overt emotionalism and find his effects calculating or contrived; I have even read complaints that his music never achieves a suitably climactic resolution. Listening to how Karajan builds towards the overwhelming paean to Creation at the summit of the mountain in the "Alpine Symphony", or the explosion of erotic passion that depicts the Hero's love for his Companion, I cannot begin to comprehend how a sentient being cannot respond to such magnanimity of soul. But as George Eliot so wisely observed, there are some like Mr Casaubon who, upon determining "to abandon himself to the stream of feeling...perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was."
A short note and full texts in three languages are included. There is a slip in the liner notes which omit the recording date for "Tod und Verklärung"; it's January 1982. This bargain box set is one of the new illiterately entitled "Collectors (sic) Edition" series from DG and Decca featuring staples from their back catalogue repackaged in a "postal" design.