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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
The Nine Symphonies
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op.21 (1800) [23.11]
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [48.48]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.36 (1801) [31.27]
Symphony No. 7 in A, Op.92 (1812) [37.36]
CD 3
Symphony No. 4 in B Flat, Op. 60 (1806) [34.00]
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op.67 (1808) [30.53]
Coriolan Overture Op.62 (1807) [9:08]
CD 4
Symphony No. 6 in F, Op.68, Pastoral (1808) [37.30]
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op.93 (1812) [26.27]
Egmont Overture Op.84 (1809) [8:36]
CD 5
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op.125, Choral (1824) [65.32]
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano); Marga Höffgen (contralto); Ernst Haefliger (tenor); Otto Edelmann (baritone)
Chor der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, November 1951 (Symphony 7 ), November 1952 (Symphony 3), June-July 1953 (Symphony 6, Egmont, Coriolan), November 1953 (Symphonies 1, 2, 4, 7), November 1954 (Symphony 5), May 1955 (Symphony 8) and Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, July 1955 (Symphony 9)
EMI CLASSICS 5158632 [5 CDs: 72.04 + 69.07 + 74.03 + 72.38 + 65.32]
Experience Classicsonline

Herbert von Karajan’s first cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra on EMI has always been something of an ugly duckling when compared to the various Berlin Philharmonic incarnations on Deutsche Grammophon. Now reissued in a bargain 5 CD box, this is part of the truckload of Karajan 100th anniversary releases, which will no doubt raise controversy in some quarters and be welcomed in others. For me, if it’s nicely produced and cheaper than a box of quasi half-decent cigars then ‘bring it on’ as they say, and this box is certainly no slouch when it comes to presentation.
Housed in a slimline case with nicely firm cardboard sleeves for the discs, the booklet has an introduction and a wealth of information on each symphony by respected Beethoven writer Richard Osborne. There is, somewhat to my amazement, no text on the conductor at all – no gushing tributes or masses of photos – all this has apparently been left for the website, which is fine by me, even though some context and comment on the relationship Karajan had with EMI and the Philharmonia might have been interesting. The only indication that this is anything special is the ‘approved logo’ on the box, but at least we are spared artefacts such as the gloriously cheesy photos of the maestro and the sections of the orchestra in the original 1977 DG Beethoven Symphonies box set of LPs.
The only anecdote I can contribute to the general centenary rush is the way my old flute teacher Gareth Morris once described Karajan’s conducting: “He conducted with his eyes closed, you know. He’d only look up if someone made a mistake ...” followed by an unforgettable impersonation of the grand maestro ‘looking up’- a nightmarishly minimal and menacingly slow-motion gesture which no doubt ensured that such a mistake was never again repeated. Every time I see a photograph with Karajan conducting with his eyes open I still think ‘oops, someone must have made a mistake’ – which would appear not to be the case judging by some of the pictures, but you get the drift. Morris much preferred working with Klemperer – a favourite with many Philharmonia players, and to whose Beethoven cycle I shall briefly return later.
With Pletnev’s Beethoven symphonic cycle still rattling around in my head (see review), I was quite pleasantly reminded of the reasonably no-nonsense approach Karajan had to these works way back when. The recordings are very mono, but while the 2008 remastering and ‘noise shaping’ has to my ears lost a little of the warmth of the original LPs, there are at least none of the nasties described in some of the EMI GROC series of late. The balance is bright-ish, but not unnaturally so, and there has been no artificial bass-boosting that I can tell. Tape hiss is still present, which is always something of a relief these days – no attempt to compress the signal in that way at least. The old recordings have that thinner sound that one might expect – oboes sounding a bit leathery, timps and basses a bit tubby, that kind of thing. It’s no worse than an equivalent black-and-white film of the period, so no complaints. Just don’t expect the superior quality and stereo of even the earliest DG Karajan set.
What you do get is little moments of marvel such as the excellent horn section lead by Dennis Brain in full cry in the Scherzo from the Symphony No.3, and little touches such as the gorgeous solos in the post-storm scenes in the Symphony No.6. While the greater perfection of the Berlin recordings might be a while off, there is no denying the power of Karajan’s Symphony No.5, which holds a vice-like grip on one’s attention from start to finish – this is a truly heroic reading, and set the standard for what was to come. Strong readings of both the Symphony No.3 and 7 are also part of the firmer foundations for preserving this set, but, as with all things regarding this release, the comparatively murkier recordings alone mean that they are unlikely to replace anything you might already own.
There has been comment that the even numbered symphonies are supposed to be weakest in this set, but I don’t really ‘get’ that when listening to the Symphony No.2, which is full of youthful high spirits and brimming with energy. Symphony No.4 does have a hard time lifting off, and the opening movement remains somewhat stodgy. The Adagio is also rather leaden-footed, but there are fewer moans about the remaining Menuetto and Trio, or the Allegro ma non troppo, which is the equal of many I have heard. I also quite like the Symphony No.6, which, if it lacks a little in genuine pastoral lightness and charm, at least has a fine sense of narrative. It is however interesting to compare this with Otto Klemperer’s 1958 Philharmonia recording, which teases greater sensitivity from the strings, more playfulness from the woodwinds, and has a warmer, somehow more humanly responsive relationship with the score. Returning to Karajan after Klemperer is a little like getting back into a bathtub which is beginning to need a hot top-up: it’s OK, but you won’t be that sorry to get out. The shock of hitting the stereo Symphony No.8 on the same disc is quite striking, especially when listening on headphones, and one instantly regrets that not all of these recordings were made in this way. To my mind, Karajan always responded well to the sunnier nature and the twists and turns of this symphony, and this version is no exception. The contrasts of sheer lyricism and dramatic darkness in the opening Allegro vivace e con brio are finely wrought, as are the lighter rhythms of the Allegretto scherzando. The Tempo di Menuetto wouldn’t have anyone up on their feet and dancing however, and that movement is not helped by a split trumpet note 14 seconds in.
The Symphony No. 9 has recently re-appeared in a 1947 incarnation with the Vienna Philharmonic, sharing the same soprano soloist and recording location. I don’t have this version to hand, but it would be interesting to compare with the London forces, transplanted to Vienna eight years later. The change in venue doesn’t help much with the recording in this case, the orchestra seeming further away, and while the resonance indicates a larger space the orchestra seems to be sitting up to their necks in porridge – in sonic terms at least. There is an unfortunate mid to low range bloom which doesn’t help at all. The timpani are a bit large in the balance, but otherwise one can listen through and hear most of what’s going on, even though this recording seems to have posed the greatest problems when it comes to re-mastering. The choir are part of the same broth occupied by the orchestra but the soloists are further forward and all convincing enough, topped off by the ineffable Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. This isn’t a 9th which will make you ditch any of your others, but it is a fitting enough conclusion to this set.
Many of Otto Klemperer’s Philharmonia recordings came pretty hard on the heels of Karajan’s, and with improved stereo recordings these are, in my opinion, the ones to go for if you want the Walter Legge-produced Philhamonia while still in its full post-war glory. There are some interesting differences, although these can often be summed up in terms of tempi – Klemperer’s control being one in which the inner dynamics and strength come through; conjuring expansive fields of powerful sound, where Karajan is more viscerally dramatic. As has been pointed out before, Beethoven’s symphonies are about control in many ways, and this is one of the reasons they respond well to Karajan’s approach to conducting. In Berlin his control was absolute, whereas in London it was more or less tolerated rather than genuinely absorbed into the orchestra’s psyche. Klemperer’s slowness can make an eccentric initial impression, but, as with the tempi in some of Barbirolli’s Mahler, the consistent integrity and conviction ultimately surmount all preconceptions. Klemperer’s recordings are available on a very reasonably priced EMI Classics 9 CD box which also includes the piano concertos with Barenboim. If, however, you are a huge Karajan fan and want more clues to the genesis of his legendary Berlin Beethoven cycles, then there has never been a better time to splash out some loose change on what is, and always has been, a pretty darn good Beethoven Symphony cycle in its own right.
Dominy Clements


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