Schumann once described Beethoven's Fourth Symphony as a slender Greek Maiden between two Norse Giants - that's crap if you ask me but even so: the adage lives on. Similarly, Karajan's 1978 Brahms cycle could be likened to a middle child; it has always suffered by comparison with the superlative '63 cycle - not least sonically - whereas the '86-88 cycle has attracted attention because of the performances of the last two symphonies where fatigue beset both the conductor and his orchestra. Elsewhere, Osborne fails to mention this cycle in his biography on Karajan: the silence is telling.
Nor does the Original Image Bit Processing overly revamp the performances. I had the original CDs and there is no marked improvement. In certain instances, the sound is still pancake flat. More on that later.
But what of the interpretations themselves? Karajan was well known for ossifying an interpretation once it had been settled in his mind - even so, the wind blows where it wills - or not.
First, an overarching point: the Berlin Philharmonic play magnificently. At this point in time, they had as much thrust as a Saturn V Rocket. They are almoners of ecstasy. If anyone could have kept up with Furtwangler in the Brahms Third, it was the line-up of the Berlin Phil that Herbie used for this performance of the Second.
Everyone knows that Three is hard to pull off. There is an exquisite ambiguity in the first movement: is it an exposition of power or valediction? The Gramophon is normally caustic towards Karajan in the Third but they hail this performance "as satisfyingly virile and forthright reading. There is no exposition repeat, but the first movement is in every other respect conveyed in masterly fashion . . . . Throughout the work, in fact, the music's pulse beats pretty strongly." I agree. Much like the contemporary Schubert Ninth on EMI - a work which he likewise labored over - Karajan threw caution to the wind and let fly. It may not displace the Furtwangler in the last analysis but my god it is a thumper. The first violins cut through the choppiness of Brahms' passagework like the prow of a Greek trireme.
Little needs to said of this Second. Karajan is a master in this work. Not one of his performances on disc is anything less than superlative. Just listen to the last movement - it is virtuosity incarnate. Not even Furtwangler surpassed Herbie in this symphony. The only rival is the '86 remake Brahms: Symphony No. 2 / Haydn Variations.
There is not a lot wrong with the First here. It is frequently beaten with a stick to the effect that Karajan was fresher in the '63 alternative. If so, it's marginal. The leitmotiv of the work `per ardua ad astra' (through Adversity to the Stars) is fully encompassed in the finale. The heaviness of the orchestration is clarified. Much like the Second, Karajan was always a master of this symphony, his one relative failure being the mushy version he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic in the early 1960s. His last two renditions - one studio in 1987 (Brahms: Symphony No. 1) and one live in 1988 (Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht) - are craggily prophetic like Michelangelo's statue of Moses.
The real problem with this set - and it is a relative one - comes with the Fourth. The two inner movements are fine. In the last movement, the intensity dips - and the same could be said of the first movement. Both Furtwangler (Brahms: Symphony No. 4; Haydn Variations / Furtwängler) and Kleiber are faster and more ferocious than Karajan and that adds to the drama. All in all, this is a compelling performance of the Fourth but a Sibylline utterance it ain't.
Back to the sound. This is going to sound unsophisticated in the extreme but the answer is this: crank it up. Yep, just turn it up and blow your speakers. For whatever reason these performances shed most - if not all - of any flatness at a high volume. And it also evangelizes unbelievers in the vicinity.
In short, this is a top notch cycle. It may be harder and more brutal than the '63 cycle but Brahms can withstand this approach.
Living with, and loving, the Brahms 1st and 2nd recorded by von Karajan in the 1960s I thought I would see what he did in the 70s. The later ones are good, but I feel that in the 1960s version (all with Berlin PO and DGG} he has a greater control on the ensemble playing and just that bit more searching interpretation throughout. Please yourself - at these prices one can afford to have different versions.
In many ways ok but his 1960s versions are better readings and better recordings. HvK had nothing new to say in the 1970s about these works and despite that plethora of hyped up publicity at the time and subsiquently there are far finer performances on disc elsewhere.
I would recommend you avoid this set set and investigate others.
Herbert von Karajan made recordings of the Brahm's Symphonies many times through his long career and this Deutsche Grammophon 2-CD set contains what, by common consensus, is regarded as the most successful set. I'm not so sure about that, as I often find with this particular conductor that the earlier the recording, the better. This late analogue set does sound superb in it's CD incarnation, but I suspect that the original LPs sounded even better.
What I can be clear about is that this 1970s set is more impressive than the late digital set Karajan made Brahms: The 4 Symphonies, although the version of the fourth symphony in that particular set is the same as the one here as, for some reason (probably the congested sound quality), the DDD Brahms 4 was not included in the later compilation Brahms;Symphony No.4.
I purchased this recently for £5.99 in an HMV shop so did not even have to pay the postage for it to be sent to me! It is obviously outstanding value and every performance is fully satisfactory. I also have all four performances from the later digital cycle, originally inexpensive second hand individual cds but now stuffed in a single double jewel case for the sake of convenience. Overall they are not better as performances and any advantage in sound quality is very questionable. Even more than in Beethoven and Richard Strauss Karajan became the leading expert at conducting Brahms and in Brahms 2 never ever put a foot wrong. Some of his versions of Brahms 3 have been criticized because it is a tricky symphony to pull off for the reasons mentioned in Bernard Michael O'Hanlon's lead review. Toscanini once approached the problem by trying in a single performance to reproduce his best previous performance of each movement. That approach signally failed but he got it right by the time of his last visit to Britain in 1952 when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in all four symphonies. Bernard mentions Furtwaengler as a comparator in Brahms 3 and overall he was a great Brahms conductor. However, it is quite wrong to think of F as the author of a single magnificent precedent in Brahms 3. Ardoin, in his biography of F considers that the conductor never got that symphony completely right. F's legacy in Brahms is largely of live performances and in the case of Brahms 3 there are two live performances in contention, the 1949 and the 1954 each with its drawbacks. In 1949 the important first movement repeat is included but F's mighty (possibly over-mighty and more suited to Brahms 1) conception is too too much for even his BPO and ensemble suffers. In 1954 the repeat is dropped but the ensemble of the BPO improved. Frankly, Karajan's rendering in this set is in the round as good as either of these and also a challenge to other famous Brahms 3s such as Reiner/CSO, Cantelli/Philnarmonia or Szell/Concertgebouw. Customers purchasing this set cannot go far wrong whether they are new to Brahms or the greatest of experts.
The most impressive thing for me listening to the 3rd Symphony, was the superb sound quality of this recording. The discs have been specially processed to enhance the depth of the orchestra and this works a treat. An excellent value purchase.