I've never fully heard these recordings in any previous incarnation, so can't comment on improvements in the CD layer (of the 3 CD issues, the middle one, in DG's Beethoven Edition is the only one with Original Image Bit-Processing).
I am not really a 'Kara-fan', certainly not in Beethoven although I do enjoy his digital Leonore III Overture - I feel Karajan is at his finest in Sibelius and Richard Strauss, particularly his 1960s DG recordings.
For this set I started with the Eroica and did compare the SACD (stereo only of course) with the first CD incarnation of the cycle (in the maroon box). The old CD sounded fine with a full rich bass, but there is a definite gain in clarity and detail with the SACD layer. Slightly less bass perhaps, but this sound is more vivid and realistic, and sounds phenomenal considering its 40+ year age.
As an interpretation this Eroica gains in distinction as it progresses: the lack of the exposition repeat in the first movement is a snag, but after an intense Funeral March the last two movement are very compelling with wonderful hunting horns in the Scherzo. In fact the playing throughout is pretty stellar. This one ranks alongside Kleiber, Scherchen, Klemperer and Rattle - as well as my own favourite, Abbado's VPO recording on DG.
I found the SACD of the first 2 symphonies to have very slightly inferior sound and the orchestral sound is slightly more robust in scale than we are used to on modern recordings (but never bloated or overblown), and Karajan's interpretation of the First Symphony is not as compelling as the others - the performance is fairly genial, and the finale is relaxed, without the crispness and hint of tension that, say, Wand or Rattle bring to it in their fine recordings.
With the Fourth, Karajan is really back on form: excellent playing, with a characteristically swift performance of the slow movement which otherwise can seem too long (Klemperer's on EMI seems to go on forever). Vivid detailed sound again - with the superb Eroica coupling this is perhaps the best CD to sample separately, especially with a playing time of over 80 minutes.
Karajan's Fifth is a phenomenally powerful performance: here as elsewhere throughout the set woodwind solos are very clear, belying the view that Karajan's recordings were string-dominated, at least at this point in his career. You hear more wind, brass and percussion here than in Carlos Kleiber's famous recording. The Andante is perfectly judged, and if Karajan can't quite inject the unique charge that Kleiber puts through the scherzo and finale, there are compensations: the impetus and weight of sound are thrilling here, with instrumental lines more clearly delineated.
Sadly, the Pastoral coupling is a write-off: devoid of charm and rather introverted, and there are far finer Sixths from Boehm, Klemperer and a host of others.
The Seventh and Eighth are predictably good (neither are favourite works of mine), but these are just a precursor to a wonderful Choral which ranks alongside the best I've heard. I never cared for Karajan's 1977 version which is perhaps the best regarded of his 5 recordings - but this early 1960s performance sounds superb to me: the quartet of soloists (particularly the men) are excellent and the chorus are well in the aural picture, in the modern style (if not quite as vivid as in Abbado's fine live CD on Sony). Fricsay's otherwise excellent 1958 version with the same orchestra is slightly flawed in this respect. Elsewhere the performance is very powerful with magnificent playing, with a wonderful sense of spiritual repose in the Adagio.
All in all a superb SACD cycle: the First is slightly less than compelling and you will need another Pastoral, but otherwise this is a wonderful set. 4.5/5 stars.
on 26 February 2004
I have always liked Karajans Bethoven especially the 1977 cycle which I have had had in my CD collation for as long as I can remember. These recordings from the 60s have always been well thought of by others, but I havent listened to them much over the years. That is untill I bought the SACD version. They sound absolutlely stunning, and the electricity of the sessions comes across vividly as it never did on CD. I even prefer the Karajan version of the 5th to the Klieber which is also avaialble on SACD.
on 9 April 2008
I own this set, his 1950s cycle with EMI, his 1975-77 cycle on DG and his last 1980s digital cycle, again on DG.
For me, this one is just about preferable to them all. It has an urgency and something very exciting that can't be put into words. It's something to do with the world's best orchestra of the time working with an up-and-coming 'wunder' maestro, playing the greatest symphonic canon of them all.
The SACDs are a huge improvement on the earlier issues.
on 20 August 2007
I have long been an avid admirer of Herbert von Karajan, and consider this the best of any Beethoven symphonic cycle that I have heard.......of the three complete cycles of 1962, 1977 and 1985, this cycle is definitely Karajan's best by a long mile (next I would put his 1985 cycle). Klieber's No5 does not add up compared to Karajan, Karajan's sym No 8 easily beats the likes of Beechams, his sym 7 his absolutely cracking (easily prefered to the much overhyped Klieber version) as is sym No 3, 1 & 2. The 9th is gloriously done. Which leaves the Pastral No 6.........don't be fooled, this is best 6th I have ever heard, Bohem's 6th is as dull as ditchwater, whilst Karajan brings the whole scene of nature to life, Beethoven would never accept the usual sentimental bland performances which many conductors just churn out.
Get it now!