on 18 February 2012
Yes, as we all know, 90% of listeners prefer the 1963 cycle, relegating the likes of me firmly to the Minority. Here is my Apologia for the 1976 / 1977 cycle (& please note, given the endless debates, plagiarism is unavoidable):
1 - The 1977 Ninth is widely considered to be among the greatest recordings of all time - it is the Transit of Jupiter set to music. In the very least, it is the equal of its predecessor as a performance and the choir do not sound as if they were recorded at the bottom of the River Spee. As others have noted, Herbie red-lines himself at the end of the symphony and this is a rarity for such a highly controlled conductor. The sheer ferocity of the first movement is sui generis (with apologies to Toscanini). When comparing cycles, the better Nine must surely carry weight.
2 - The Pastoral is a far more relaxed affair than the overly tense 1963 performance and the key repeat in the scherzo is observed. Many people are not convinced by Herbie's reading of the Pastoral per se: again, I am in the Minority and this 1976 performance, IMO, is the best actualisation of his approach. For instance, the great Brucknerian blaze-ups in the finale are 'Affirmations of Being' - and how they resonate!
3. Again, as others have noted, the October 1976 performance of the Seventh is a once off. It might seem too 'stringy' to modern ears but what strings they are. The 1963 performance is superlative, but there is something about its successor that is ultimately inexplicable and thus all the more electrifying. The opening of the slow movement is the Oresteia set to music.
4. Herbie excelled in the Eroica. Indeed, even the 1984 'Karajan Gold' performance has strong - if not stronger - claims on a collector (along with the superlative 8). I concede the excellence of the 1963 alternative but again, the first movement of the 1977 Eroica is a once off. The Penguin Guide was right to highlight its peculiar nature but errant in their choice of words. Far from being edgy, it is akin to the young Napoleon heatedly scaling the Alps like Hannibal in search of his destiny. To my mind it has no peer - and the other three movements are comparable.
5. The other symphonies - 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 - to my ears do not differ greatly from their predecessors with one exception: the Berlin Philharmonic itself. The orchestra evolved over time (and under Herbie's tutelage)to become a near-infallible ensemble by the mid-1970s when these recordings were made (infallible in terms of its core repertoire, not, say, Bach or Stravinsky). Most of its recordings from the 1970s radiate a supreme self-confidence if not a swagger, married to virtuosity of the highest order. To use a well worn, if not worm-ridden cliche, they play as if their lives depend upon it - such could be the epithet of these leonine performances.
Make no mistake: this cycle is Beethoven writ large - a Colossus who bestrides the earth - whereas at his feet lie the puny creations of Norrington, Jeggy, Abbado ( x 3), Harnoncourt, Rattle, Zinman, all of whom are infected by Hogwood-itis to varying degrees. Longevity is not theirs; the ignoble grave beckons.
As demonstrated by a once-off release of 5, 6 & 9, the entire 1976/77 cycle could benefit from a remastering. Even so, do not look past this cycle. Rejoice in dissent.
on 20 March 2012
Beethoven Symphonies 1 - 9. Berliner Philharmoniker and the Wiener Singverein. With Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Peter Schreier, Agnes Baltsa and Jose van Dam. Recorded 1977. Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.
Karajan's second cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic immediately strikes you as 'heavy'. This is especially so if you have been listening continuously to performances more conscious of historical practices. This, as opposed to those performances where a conventional orchestra is used and a more 'lofty', personal view is imparted. From my perspective, many of these performances are often quite beautiful and have all the best hallmarks of what could be called the Karajan middle-late period (1970s). I think what I like best is the fact that he seems to have never compromised on his 'vision' of these works - even though the individual interpretations changed quite a lot between the 1963 and 1977 cycles - he never sacrifices his own feeling for precision and seamless beauty. That commitment is why I admire this conductor so much.
Between the two cycles (1963 and 1977), there are sharp contrasts and with mixed results. On the plus side this time, Karajan observes the repeats in the Sixth and the performance is more reflective as a result. Additionally, his more relaxed approach (more distinctively 'Karajan' than 'Karajan looking back at Toscanini') tends to let these amazing works radiate with more humanity. I have read elsewhere that Karajan's approach can be rather strict and icy cool - in the 1977 cycle at least, there is a much stronger sense for a human touch (in the Eroica and the Choral, the impression of the latter is 'dramatic' rather than 'firebrand' as in 1963).
From an orchestral viewpoint, not much needs to be added the superlatives rightly bestowed by the critics on the virtuosity of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, I must say, in direct comparison with the Chicago forces under Sir Georg Solti, the timpani are not always particularly enjoyable - they have a 'clamorous' rather than a pounding and 'deep' sound (this is apparent especially in the Eroica and the Fourth). This may have a lot to do with different performing practices between European and American orchestras, as I have noticed that the percussion in many of the New York Philharmonic's recordings from the 1960s have that wonderful 'punchy' quality which I prefer. A small point perhaps. As with almost all of Karajan's later recordings, the strings are incredibly beautiful. This is especially the case in the Eroica and the Ninth, with perhaps the best playing from the basses you are likely to hear. Overall, people who prize orchestral fullness and a rich, opulent approach to Beethoven will be totally satisfied. There is almost no hint of error or ensemble breakdown: this is playing of the highest order.
Concluding thoughts? Comparison will endlessly link this cycle with Karajan's more famous accounts from 1963. Personally I think this cycle just edges its predecessor, but only by a small margin. Certainly, in the case of the First and Fifth symphonies, the predecessor is streets ahead. But when it comes to the Eroica, Seventh and Ninth, this set clearly outranks the 1963 versions. This recommendation is of course for people who do not object to the conventional 'old style' of Beethoven interpretation. The newer school of historically informed performance is completely foreign to these interpretations and listeners should go elsewhere if that is their priority (Harnoncourt or Norrington, as just two examples). Overall this is an often inspired set, and with such gorgeous playing, you will be able to indulge in Beethoven's many joys and passions.
(PLEASE NOTE: I have reviewed each symphony in this cycle in the Amazon pages for those works).
on 19 January 2011
I have listened to many sets of Beethoven Symphonies - in my opinion this is the best. Many rate the earlier Karajan 1966 set, but this one is far better - the only slight reservation being around No.4 which is rather less spontaneous than the earlier version. Symphonies 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and especially 9 are great performances. The added overtures make great fill ups and are excellent performances too. The sound throughout is fantastic - far better than the later digital cycle. At this price you can't lose.
on 13 July 2011
With an energy right through the heart of every symphony and amazing sound from the Berliners, Karajan here delivers arguably his greatest Beethoven cycle (ardent fans of the 1960's set will argue.)
The 9th is the standout performance from the set but the sheer depth of sound in the 3rd and 7th is spine tingling. This for me is the best of all Karajan's stereo Beethoven symphony sets and should be sampled without hesitation.
When I was growing up, this seemed to be the set of Beethoven Symphonies to go for. I used to love the covers with the number of the symphony in various designs [the 5 on a pedestal, the 3 on fire etc]. Karajan recorded complete cycles in the 1950s with the Philharmonia and recorded sets in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with the Berlin Philharmonic. This is a review of the 1970s recordings; I do not feel qualified to judge on which was the best of the 4 sets but I would say that they all say something unique about Karajan's approach to Beethoven.
The first thing I would say about Karajan as a conductor in this music is that he is never boring. Having had a wonderful 7 hours listening to each symphony in succession, I never felt the urge to go off and do something else or wish he would just get on with it. Instead, I marvelled at his interpretive understanding of the music and the consistency of his approach.
There are always caveats. Although these performances are thrilling and exciting in places, they are also very civilised. It does feel like a superbly engineered Mercedes Benz that can drive at high speeds without giving any impression that the engine is under any strain. Long experience of Beethoven makes me prefer the music to sound more raw and revolutionary. This doesn't sound like music to storm the barricades.
Having said that, I don't think that I have heard a better recording of the 9th Symphony than the one in this set. It really sets of the cycle and is superbly sung and played in every department.
Whatever misgivings I have voiced, I still recommend this set very highly and think that no-one should be disappointed in owning it.
on 8 March 2015
If you want Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in a complete set (and why not?) then this mid 1970s set is probably the most satisfying. The later digital set from the 1980s adds nothing in performance terms, and the sound - well, as an example of early digital, it is dreadful. It belongs to an era of sound recording when volume levelling and multi-tracking transformed hi fidelity. No longer was the aim to create a soundstage similar to the reality of the "sweet spot" or "best seat" in the concert hall - although there is a pleasing amount of depth and spatiality captured here - but instead the emphasis is on a rich voluptuous sound amounting to what some critics described as "BBC Radio Two". Which is a snobbish way of saying in short, the techniques and sound values of easy listening applied to the summit of western classical music. Plus sometimes the Phil Spector "wall of sound"...
...and do you know? It works!
Highly enjoyable, and though Karajan isn't the last word in some of these symphonies (the Pastoral 6 is rushed yet again and charmless) there is a consistently superb level of playing from the Berlin players that outshadows even the Vienna Phil and Concertgebouw (just listen to the silvery and fleet strings!) testifying to the fact that throughout Karajan's time on the podium the BPO was the best orchestra in the world. Then there is his clear tight direction and excitement aplenty throughout.
This is a thrilling box set and version and deserves to be on everybody's shelf.
on 18 September 2013
I have all four of Herbert von Karajan's Beethoven cycles and for me, of the three he recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic, this is the best. Although his first Berlin cycle, recorded in the '60s, contains some remarkable things, I always get the feeling that Karajan and the Berliners had yet to fully adjust to each other. On the other hand, the final (digitally recorded) cycle of the 80s seems to reveal an over-familiarity between Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. There is a distinct feeling of 'going through the motions' as both conductor and his virtuoso orchestra revisit ground they have trodden so often in the past, but this time without much joy in making music together (the relationship had soured by then and the seeds of rebellion were germinating in the ranks). One only has to hear the plodding Symphony No. 1, the rushed, perfunctory first movement of the Pastoral or the 8th, where the fun appears to have been replaced by naked aggression, to get a feel of the situation.
In contrast, the 1970s cycle reveals a conductor and orchestra at the peak of their powers, completely at one with each other and thoroughly enjoying themselves in effortless music-making. There is a spring-like energy bubbling up the first two symphonies, a powerful Eroica with a wonderfully atmospheric funeral march, a dynamic 5th, a gloriously relaxed Pastoral which vies with Karajan's classic 1950s Philharmonia recording (for me, the finest of all von K's Beethoven cycles), a great, energetic 7th, an ebullient, cheeky 8th and a superb, fully mature 9th. The recording (in the Philharmonie) may be a little over-resonant for some, but all the clarity is there (in fact, some passages sound more detailed than in the later digital account).
Comment has been passed by other reviewers on the timpani sound, particularly in comparison with that of Solti's Chicago cycle for Decca. Karajan's timps are certainly very present and on the bright side in tonal quality in comparison with those in Chicago, but I think this has more to do with differences in the type of instrument used and in the way they are recorded rather than in the playing, although it has to be said that Karajan seemed to like a far more forthright timpani sound than Solti, who preferred a more integrated approach from his timpanist (I know this from having played for Sir Georg myself).
All in all, I feel that the 1970s cycle in the most even and the most satisfying of Karajan's three stereo cycles, although I find myself returning more often to the 1950s Philharmonia set which I think embodies the best of Karajan's Beethoven.
on 24 August 2012
Karajan's rendition of Beethoven's symphonies is gripping. Especially, I am in awe of the ninth where the sublime meets the exuberant. Attend to the moment in the last movement, just before the bass soloist sings the recitatives already anticipated by cellos and basses. It feels very much like the Apollonian transfigures itself into the Dionysian. And Karajan is superb in achieving this miracle.
on 18 January 2013
This 1977 set of recordings is Karajan at his best. The recording quality is excellent and the Berliner are, in my opinion, on top form. I have other Beethoven recordings with Carlos Kleiber which I really like, but these are my favourite.
Karajan's third complete cycle of the nine Beethoven Symphonies, these performances are replete with the maturity and assurance you'd expect. As such, they would make a fine choice for anyone who wants just one set of these works, and is happy with pre-digital recordings (of which I have many myself). I also very much enjoy Karajan's digital cycle, also for DG, even though this does not seem to find as much favour with critics.
If any slight criticism can be levelled at this modestly-priced box set, it is that sometimes there can be a feeling things are being played a little too safe. However, the full five stars are still fully merited.