Joy To The World On One Thin Disc: Vintage Beethoven

DG’s stocking stuffer — Beethoven symphonies by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, from ’61-’62, on a Blu-ray disc.

Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies. Gundula Janowitz (soprano), Hilde Rössel-Majdan (mezzo-soprano), Waldemar Kmentt (tenor), Walter Berry (bass-baritone), Berliner Philharmoniker, Wiener Singverein, Herbert von Karajan (conductor), Deutsche Grammophon 479 5977, Blu-ray Pure Audio.

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — When it came to running up the score on Beethoven symphony cycles, Herbert von Karajan was the all-time champ — and given dire prognostications about the future of the recording industry, he will probably always be the champ. From 1951 into the 1980s, Karajan recorded four complete audio cycles of the nine symphonies and two more for video. In addition, there were individual recordings of symphonies made earlier in Vienna and various bootlegs of air checks.

Herbert von Karajan recorded six complete Beethoven cycles, including two for video.

Was all of this duplication justified? That’s a good question, for while Karajan was strenuously trying to keep up with the latest technological “advances,” his overall musical conceptions did not fundamentally change. In a nutshell, he found a way to balance the notion of fidelity to the score that Arturo Toscanini championed (but did not always achieve) with the weight of German tradition as exemplified by Wilhelm Fürtwangler while creating his own brand of sleek surfaces over at times undeniable virile fervor.

A kind of consensus among many buffs and critics has formed around Karajan’s second Beethoven cycle, recorded in 1961 and 1962, as being the best of the six. That’s debatable, as we shall see, but there is no doubt that it has become the most popular one: the box of eight Deutsche Grammophon LPs reportedly sold nearly a million copies in its first ten years. DG has been reissuing it ever since in every format that they can think of — and now, in plenty of time for the holiday season, you can have the whole set on one little Blu-ray audio disc. On Amazon, it currently goes for about $28 — a great stocking-stuffer!

Karajan in rehearsal LP, originally released as a budget sampler.
Karajan in rehearsal LP, originally released as a budget sampler.

It’s a tempting package — a single disc set in a CD-jewel box-sized, glossy-covered book that is loaded with photos, facsimiles of the session files and a Karajan letter, an interesting essay about how the set came to be recorded over a period of just a year, but no notes about the music itself. Tacked onto the end of the Ninth Symphony is half an hour of rehearsals for the recording (in German, with no English translations), originally issued in Europe with the fourth movement on LP in 1968 as a budget-priced sampler.

To clear up a couple of things that might be misunderstood in the booklet notes, this was not the first boxed set of the Beethovens. Boxed sets by Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Hermann Scherchen, Josef Krips, and Otto Klemperer came out well before the Karajan set appeared. Nor was it the first time that the Berlin Philharmonic had recorded the Nine: André Cluytens beat Karajan to the punch with the Berliners a few years prior, for EMI.

Karajan in the recording studio with aide Michel Glotz. (Siegfried Lauterwasser-DG)
Karajan in the studio with longtime assistant Michel Glotz.
(Siegfried Lauterwasser-DG)

One question is whether having all nine symphonies on one disc is really as convenient as it would seem. This is a Blu-ray audio disc, meaning that it can be played only on Blu-ray players and newer computers with Blu-ray-supported disc drives; this rules out car stereos, CD and DVD players, and most older computers. Also, you have to have the TV on in order to see the tracks that you are trying to select.

For me, it meant a compromise. My Blu-ray player is connected to a new-ish flat-screen TV with an HDMI cable, and my audio amplifier — a really good one that I don’t want to give up — doesn’t have an HDMI port. Standard brand components have become less versatile these days, shedding what the manufacturers think are unnecessary, outdated connectors. You can run standard audio cables from the Blu-ray player to the amplifier, but that means disconnecting the HDMI cable; you can’t use both cables at the same time. Another way around the problem is to run a Y-cable from the audio out jack on the TV into the amplifier. I doubt whether most people with older components would want to bother.

Another, more important question is whether Blu-ray really makes a big sonic improvement. I was able to compare the Blu-ray Ninth Symphony with several versions of the same performance: a CD transfer from the late 1980s, and in the fourth movement, a pristine LP pressing from 1982. The CD and the Blu-ray ran a nearly dead heat in the first three movements: there was barely any difference. The Blu-ray sometimes could be a tad clearer, with more separation between the left and right speakers, and the CD sometimes had slightly more bass.

Yet in the finale, the LP sounded consistently more “alive” than either the Blu-ray or the CD, with more air around the notes, more impact in the climaxes. I would give the Blu-ray an edge over LP in clarifying the individual sections of the chorus, while acknowledging that technology can do only so much for the limitations of DG’s engineering, which wasn’t up to the standards of, say, Decca or Mercury in 1962. But in every other way, the LP made a better case for this exciting performance.

Karajan’s 1977 cycle of the symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon.

At certain times while listening to the whole set, I compared it with passages from the third Karajan cycle of 1977 (also DG) and found that I prefer the latter cycle to the more famous 1962 one on the Blu-ray disc. In general, Karajan’s performances had more intensity in 1977; the superb strings dug in deeper, the tempos were usually somewhat faster, and the sound quality is the best of any of his cycles. Another difference is that, in 1962, Karajan took the repeats in the first movement of the First Symphony and in the scherzo of the Ninth, whereas he omitted them in 1977. In the final analysis, though, the theory that his basic conceptions varied little over the years held true.

The 1962 Pastoral Symphony has a reputation of being the low point in the whole set – and true, it sounds alternately too glib and too fierce where it shouldn’t be. Karajan’s 1977 Pastoral was a big improvement, and his swift, highly-buffed 1982 recording was also somewhat better than 1962. But none of these recordings could compare with the unbelievable live performance of the Pastoral that I heard Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic deliver in Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium in Oct. 1982. It was unearthly: the whole hall seemed to be breathing in and out in time with the spellbinding playing of the Berliners. Whatever voodoo they had then was gone only a month later in front of the microphones.

Karajan’s wildly popular 1962 cycle sold nearly a million copies.

Yes, Karajan’s Beethoven is still a powerful, invigorating experience when heard in one fell swoop, still a potent contender in an overcrowded field. And you don’t have to choose Blu-ray in order to hear the 1961-62 cycle; it remains available on CD, as a download, on streaming services, and yes!, in response to the LP boom, DG made it available again last year on LP in a facsimile of the original box. But you had to be there in person for the real Karajan deal.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.