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The Summit of Beauty: Karajan's Third Beethoven Cycle,
This review is from: Beethoven: 9 Symphonies; Overtures (Audio CD)
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).