Herbert von Karajan’s cycle of the Beethoven symphonies with the Berliner Philharmoniker was first released long before I started collecting recordings – I was an eleven year-old schoolboy at the time. In fact, I realised when this present set arrived for review that I’d not previously heard this cycle in its entirety. The cycle was lionised when it first appeared and sales vastly exceeded even the wildest expectations of Deutsche Grammophon executives, some of whom were apparently very cautious about the sales prospects for such a venture.
It’s been particularly instructive to listen to these performances shortly after reviewing
a set of wartime performances of six of the symphonies conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, especially since five of those symphonies were played by the Berliner Philharmoniker of the day. The Furtwängler readings, captured between 1942 and 1944, are suffused with that conductor’s famed intensity, no doubt heightened by wartime exigencies. These Karajan recordings were made at a time when conditions in West Germany were easier in many ways though there were still tensions, especially in Berlin where the construction of the wall that divided the city began in August 1961, just before the first of these recordings.
Since these sessions took place the number of Beethoven recordings available to collectors has exploded and there is a bewildering choice available, including ‘period’ performances and also many performances given prior to 1963 which at that time were simply unavailable at that time. So how do Karajan’s readings measure up fifty years after they were first released? In terms of how far we have come in Beethoven performance terms I found it particularly instructive to do a few comparisons with a Beethoven cycle set down not so long ago by another German orchestra with an even longer Beethoven tradition than the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Leipzig Gewandhausorchester performed a complete cycle of the symphonies as long ago as 1825, when the composer was still alive. Between 2007 and 2009 they recorded all of them with their current chief conductor, Riccardo Chailly and Simon Thomson rightly acclaimed the set
on MusicWeb International. It’s especially relevant to compare Chailly with Karajan, I think, because in the booklet accompanying his set Chailly states that in his view Toscanini, Karajan and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, in their different ways represent “three roads that all lead to Beethoven.”
In the First Symphony
Karajan and the Berliners offer spruce playing in the first movement after a seamlessly moulded, spacious introduction. Turn to Chailly and you hear a much leaner, more muscular orchestral sound and there’s a greater use of accents to give the music impetus. Also, you find the woodwind and brass come through with much greater clarity under Chailly. The Leipzig account of the main Allegro con brio
is much more agile and, overall, I got much more of a sense of Beethoven the revolutionary whereas Karajan’s performance seems well-upholstered and urbane. Chailly adopts a much sprightlier tempo than Karajan in the slow movement. I like the sparkle of the Italian conductor’s performance. However, Karajan’s nicely fluent speed seems more Haydnesque and it’s closer to my idea of an andante
though Karajan makes the music rather too smooth. In an ideal world I’d like Chailly’s sparkle and Karajan’s speed. In the third movement, once again, Chailly’s performance is fleeter of foot and he invests the music with greater dynamism and momentum than Karajan. Karajan’s performance of the finale is very good but it’s in this movement especially that you realise how integrated within the orchestral sound his woodwind and brass are: I prefer the greater but not exaggerated prominence that Chailly gives these instruments. The Italian’s speed is swifter than Karajan’s and I love the teasing way he plays the first few bars. In this symphony my preference is for Chailly.
When I turned to the ‘Eroica’
, however, it was a rather different story. Karajan’s approach to the first movement is very traditional and his way with the first movement is imperious and purposeful, the pace measured yet mobile. Karajan clearly sees this movement - and the symphony as a whole – as epic in conception. Chailly is considerably faster. Some indication of how much swifter he is may be given by noting that he takes 15:11 over the movement, observing the substantial exposition repeat, whereas Karajan, who eschews the repeat, takes 14:50. I find Chailly’s performance bracing and impressive but I think he misses the breadth of Karajan. I’m even more inclined towards Karajan in the Marcia funèbre
. In his hands the music is broad, patrician and elegiac – and one marvels at the depth of orchestral tone. As a ‘traditional’ interpretation it’s very impressive, though I fancy that Furtwängler probes more deeply. Chailly’s speed is one to which one could genuinely do a slow march – indeed, perhaps it’s on the brisk side for a slow march. At 12:11 his reading takes five minutes less than Karajan’s and that’s a tremendous difference. It seems to me that Karajan conveys the gravitas and the import of the music, not just through his pace but in the way
he plays the music. In the finale it comes as no surprise that Chailly is consistently faster. There’s much to admire in his performance until we get to the slower section where his sprightliness rather skates over the music’s surface. You could argue that Karajan digs a little too deeply at the start of this passage but overall his account of the finale is magnificent. I find Chailly’s reading of this symphony intriguing and illuminating but it would be to Karajan that I’d turn for a sense of the work’s true stature and import.
I’m not going to go through the remaining seven symphonies making detailed comparisons between Karajan and Chailly. I hope I’ve given a flavour of how Karajan’s performances stand in relation to a distinguished set of performances played by a modern symphony orchestra that take into full account how Beethoven performance has developed in the last fifty years. Karajan reminds us that not all this development in our approach to Beethoven has been gain: we ignore the performance tradition of conductors such as Karajan and Furtwängler –and Klemperer too – at our peril, though I hasten to add that I will not be parted from Chailly’s important set in a hurry for it is very stimulating.
Returning to Karajan, I like his performance of the Second Symphony
. After a big, imposing introduction he leads an excellent performance of the first movement while he judges the second movement very nicely; in the latter grace and elegance combine very successfully. The explosive and innovatory finale is played with a fine mix of gusto and polish. The Fourth
opens with an extensive slow introduction and here Karajan generates a good degree of suspense The Allegro vivace
leaps out of the blocks and then Beethoven’s good humoured, energetic music comes over well. The playing is predictably excellent and I especially admired the wonderfully quiet passage around 6:30. The slow movement is characterised by long, legato lines – some may feel it’s too smooth – and by burnished orchestral tone. In the third movement the nicely turned trio stands out while the finale is spirited though Karajan sensibly observes that the Allegro
tempo marking is qualified by the crucial words ma non troppo
. I don’t have a score to hand but I don’t believe the repeat is taken.
With the Fifth Symphony
another comparison seems in order and, perhaps inevitably, I chose the famous recording by Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmoniker (review
). Karajan injects plenty of drive into the first movement. Perhaps Kleiber provides a bit more of an electric charge but there’s not a lot in it and Karajan is splendid in the development section. I find his account of the second movement noble and he’s very good, too, in the third movement. The BD-A sound really comes into its own in the fugato section, giving excellent definition to the cellos and basses especially though, in truth, the CD sound isn’t far behind. The spectral section towards the end of the movement is very well handled by Karajan and the sound he gets from the orchestra as the finale bursts upon us is commanding. Kleiber is, if anything, even more imperial at this point, his trumpets ringing out in splendour. Unlike Kleiber, Karajan omits the repeat, which I regret, but his reading is fiery and powerful and, in truth, I think both conductors convey the dynamism and grandeur of Beethoven’s conception very well.
As the Kleiber disc was to hand it seemed logical to use his equally celebrated account of the Seventh Symphony
as another reference point. Both conductors impress in the first movement though the Kleiber version seems to me to be a bit lighter on its feet and more urgent. Kleiber takes the exposition repeat, Karajan does not. In both versions the slow movement is nicely paced; the speed is mobile and fluent yet the pace is not so fleet as to compromise the stature of the music. Karajan offers a clean, rhythmically pointed account of the scherzo but Kleiber is like the wind. Since he is also more generous with repeats he’s the clear winner here. On to the finale where Karajan’s athleticism and drive is impressive. His speed is similar to Kleiber’s but Kleiber, once again, offers more repeats and the leaner sound that he draws from the Wiener Philharmoniker is better suited to the music. Kleiber sweeps all before him in this movement but Karajan seems to me to be a notable rival, even if his parsimony with repeats counts against him. I still find Kleiber remarkable in this symphony but Karajan is highly competitive.
I usually do my review listening through loudspeakers but I decided to switch to headphones for the two F major symphonies, the better to appreciate the playing of the orchestra at close quarters. I found much to like in Karajan’s ‘Pastoral’
. The first movement benefits from a nice, lithe tempo. I had feared Karajan might be too slow for my taste here but that’s certainly not the case; the gait of the performance seems ideal. There’s a cheerful character to this refined performance and I really relished the playing of the Berlin woodwinds. In the second movement we’re on the banks of a brook that flows easily. I just sat back and enjoyed the peerless playing. The third movement is nimble in pace but short on repeats. The storm is suitably tempestuous, though scrupulously controlled. When the storm recedes we’re encouraged to venture out of our shelter by some glorious playing. The sweetness with which the violins intone the song of thanksgiving provides a feast for the ears. The whole movement is beautifully sung, providing a marvellous conclusion to a very fine traversal of the symphony.
I’m less impressed with the Eighth
which seems to me to be more of a mixed blessing. The first movement rather suffers from too much opulence – I was tempted to say corpulence – in the orchestral tone. The bass end of the string section is too heavy when the dynamics are loud though the lighter-textured passages come over well. I fear that Karajan’s conception of this movement is on too big a scale. The second movement is much better. Everyone is on tip-toe at the start and, when allied to a nicely chosen tempo, there’s much to enjoy in this movement. Sadly, I can’t get on with Karajan’s lumbering pace for the Menuetto; the music lumbers along. The finale, however, is more to my taste. The performance has brio and I like the spirit of the music-making.
So we reach the Ninth
. This recording was made less than a year before Karajan chose the symphony to inaugurate Berlin’s new Philharmonie in October 1963. His reading of the first movement is imposing and dramatic. It’s a tense interpretation, emphasised by the lean, virile orchestral sound. There’s real urgency in the development section. Ironically, in view my above comment about the opening movement of the Eighth Symphony, there were times when I would have liked to hear more of the cellos and basses in the turbulent passages when the orchestra is in full cry. The scherzo is taken at a quicksilver pace and the trio is deftly done. I didn’t have access to a score but I’m pretty sure that Karajan ignores some repeats.
The marking for the third movement is Adagio molto e cantabile
and that’s just what Karajan serves up in a long-breathed traversal. The playing is sovereign in nature and is superbly controlled from the podium. We are left in no doubt that this is one of Beethoven’s finest lyrical utterances. This is a very distinguished performance indeed. The finale caps the performance, as it should. For the most part Karajan has a fine solo quartet though Waldemar Kmentt seems to try too hard, especially in his admittedly unforgiving martial solo. Walter Berry, on the other hand, is splendid, not least in his highly impressive opening solo. It’s a real treat to hear Gundula Janowitz’s gleaming tone. The Wiener Singverein makes a fine contribution. Karajan’s direction of the movement is excellent, culminating in a jubilant account of the closing pages.
On the BD-A only there is an appendix of nearly half-an-hour of rehearsals for the Ninth Symphony. We hear Karajan and the orchestra working on part of the first movement, on the opening of the slow movement and on some of the first pages of the finale. Karajan talks a lot and pays great attention to issues of rhythm and dynamics. Having just listened to the finished article it’s reassuring in a way to realise that even the members of the great Berliner Philharmoniker had to work jolly hard to achieve those results. Karajan’s voice can be heard very clearly. Unfortunately DG have not felt it necessary to include in the documentation even a synopsis of what was going on so non-German speakers such as myself are at a severe disadvantage. An opportunity has been missed there.
That leads me on nicely to the documentation and presentation. There are no notes whatsoever about the music though the texts and translations for the finale of the Ninth are supplied. In one way I can understand that since most people buying this set will be familiar already with the music but I think it’s a pity that no musical notes are included. Otherwise the documentation is good with a useful essay by the Karajan biographer, Richard Osborne about how the recordings came to be made and their initial reception. The discs are housed in a hardback book-style casing with each disc in a separate wallet; each wallet carries interesting and relevant contemporary photographs and other illustrations. This aspect of the presentation is excellent.
What of the sound? Well, on my equipment I have to say that the differences between the BD-A and the CDs was not significant. There is, perhaps, a slight mellowness to the BD-A sound that is not so apparent on the CDs but, in truth these recordings reproduce very well indeed in both formats. This was the first time that Günter Hermanns had worked as Karajan’s principal engineer. I’m sure that the conductor, who was renowned for his interest I technology and the recording process, was impressed with the results that Hermanns achieved. Richard Osborne refers to the “clean, clear, daringly “lit” recordings” and I think that’s right.
As I said at the start, since these recordings were first issued there has been a veritable flood of Beethoven recordings. Yet I hope that the very limited comparisons I’ve made and my comments on all the readings indicate that even fifty-one years later these Karajan recordings occupy an important place in the catalogue. Hearing them for the first time as an integral cycle has been a fascinating and rewarding experience. I can understand why they were so highly regarded in 1963: they deserve no less in 2014.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphonies
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 [25:06]
rec. December 1961
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 [31:14]
rec. January 1962
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ [50:00]
rec. November 1962
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 [31:09]
rec. November 1962
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [31:09]
rec. February 1962
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op, 68, ‘Pastoral’ [35:53]
rec. February 1962
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 [33:52]
rec. February 1962
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93 [26:37]
rec. January 1962
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 [67:03]