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Disappointing sound and balance
on 11 November 2009
I more or less grew up with Karajan. If my parents bought classical music in the seventies and eighties, it was usually on a DGG record with Karajan at the helm of the BPO. German television, which we used to watch a lot (there wasn't much else besides our own two Dutch networks), broadcast a classical concert every Sunday at noon (Das Sonntagskonzert) with, more often than not, Karajan and the BPO. When I started buying classical music on CD myself, it was only natural that I should pick Karajan's as the preferred version.
Only later did I come to appreciate that Karajan's way of conducting wasn't always how the music was best served (his Mozart being too syruppy and too string-laden) and I struck him from my list as first choice.
I strongly hesitated therefore to let him have a go at Mahler's Fifth, but on the strenght of some the very positive reviews on Amazon (UK, German and US) I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I must admit the Adagietto is heavenly (despite its extraordinary length), but only marginally more so than Bertini's (WDR 1990), Gielen's (SWR 2003), Neumann's (Leipzig 1967), Solti's (CSO 1970) or Chailly's (RCO 1998). True, Karajan/BPO attack the Stürmisch Bewegt and the Rondo-Finale with a gusto seldom heard from these Siamese twins, but less so than Barshai (JDP 1999) or Levine (PSO 1976) whose barnstorming handling is truly revelatory. (A very rare thing in a Karajan performance is that the first trumpet plays a wrong note (first movement at 7:20) and the first horn is flat at the entry of the Scherzo.) Similar observations could be made of the other movements. So there is nothing extraordinary in this performance that sets it apart from other ones (negatively or positively) or that would make it a clear first choice (which, as far as I'm concerned, there never is).
The big let-down is the recording quality. The balance is mainly in favour of the strings, while brass and tympani crescendos disproportionately explode from the speakers. The bass-tuba is almost absent from the aural picture in its short solo; the important bass drum and tam-tam strokes are hardly audible; the very last bars of the Rondo-Finale are so unbalanced that you don't hear the triangle or the boom-ching of the bass-drum and cymbal at all; the fast rising string figure just before the end is one big blur; often it is as if one of the engineers thought it it a good idea to turn a microphone up or down without any preconceived idea. The booklet indicates that Karajan couldn't stop listening to the master tape of this recording and he seems to have uttered "loud exclamations of delight at the quality of this recording". Well, I for one didn't and if I return to it, it will mainly be for the Adagietto.