Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Sibelius, Strauss, Tchaikovsky etc

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven,Brahms,Grieg,Sibelius,Strauss,Tchaikovsky etc
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Collections: Karajan Gold
WORKS: Music by Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Sibelius, Strauss, Tchaikovsky
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Vienna PO/Herbert von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: 439 000-2 DDD
Notionally to mark the 85th anniversary of Karajan’s birth, Deutsche Grammophon has re-released 20 CDs under the banner of Karajan Gold, available together or individually (also on DCCs), and consisting of the Eighties recordings of the conductor’s central orchestral repertory. Many of these were widely felt to be less than satisfactory when originally issued, especially the Beethoven symphonies, with an opaque and reverberative sound that marred the climaxes, and DG seem to have been prompted into developing a new remastering process, the grandly named ‘Original-Image Bit-Processing’.

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The results are indeed fairly impressive, removing the shrillness from the strings and clarifying the orchestral texture, in particular rendering the woodwind warm and immediate, so that now these recordings can stand direct comparison with their earlier counterparts. Those who found the 1977 Beethoven cycle oppressively slick might be more sympathetic to these accounts, recorded relatively quickly and in long takes: there is an unexpected spontaneity here, and the seamless Karajan sound is relaxed to the extent of allowing greater local detail and dynamic contrast, while (of course) retaining a magisterial rhythmic and structural control.

Particularly fine are the intensely felt Eroica (439 002-2), coupled with the Egmont Overture, and an expansively Romantic Eighth (439 005-2), with the Fidelio and Leonora No. 3 overtures and a monumental Coriolan (Performances ***** Sound *****). The First and Second (439 001-2) are somewhat patchy, however, and the soloists in the Ninth (439 006-2) don’t quite match those in either the 1962 or 1977 DG versions (Performances **** Sound *****).

Perhaps the highlights of the series are the two Richard Strauss discs: the Alpine Symphony (439 017-2) and Also sprach Zarathustra with Don Juan (439 016-2). Here, the Berlin Philharmonic demonstrates its supremacy in this territory, performing with rare virtuosity, intensity and concentration, and here also DG’s technological enterprise can be heard to best effect, allowing great clarity to Strauss’s huge orchestral demands (Performances ***** Sound *****).

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Less extravagantly, EMI has released a four-disc retrospective from the Seventies, each disc generously filled at over 70 minutes. Despite some overlapping, this collection is complementary to DG’s series and devotes its first disc to Mozart’s Jupiter, Haydn’s 104th and Schubert’s Unfinished symphonies, which are here, through Karajan’s typically full-blown and unhurried approach, almost press-ganged into the Romantic cause. Other discs are dedicated respectively to French music, operatic and concert overtures (a brooding Freischütz and a driven Flying Dutchman characterfully contrasted by the Berlin Philharmonic with the rollicking Viennese froth of Die Fledermaus), and to a pair of celebrated symphonies: Dvorák’s ubiquitous New World and, better still, a taut and remorseless account of Sibelius’s Fifth. (Performances **** Sound ****). William Humphreys-Jones