Herbert von Karajan was once the high-holy name in classical music. So much so it was inevitable that the historical pendulum would swing the other way. And so he became something of an outcast among the self-declared cognoscenti. When customers asked for Karajan at the Tower Records store I worked at, we subtly sneered: “Karajan in whichever-composer? Pooh-pooh. Tut-tut!” His seminal 1960s Beethoven cycle might have been given a grudging exemption, ditto a bit of late Bruckner and an opera or two. But not a whole lot else. And certainly not the later Beethoven recordings.
But the nature of pendulums is that, eventually, they slow down and come back to the neutral zone. This allows us, for example, to look again at Karajan’s oft-overlooked 1970s cycle of Beethoven symphonies, right between the revered first Berlin cycle and the reviled digital cycle from the ’80s. And it’s quite a surprise what obvious qualities it showcases to unbiased ears. If Karajan’s 1963 set of Beethoven symphony recordings is generally hailed as Karajan’s best Beethoven cycle, Karajan-’77 might in some ways be the better Karajan-Beethoven cycle—namely because it is more typical of Karajan and what he had achieved with the Berlin Philharmonic in the many years it was his orchestra. In the same way, the [also underrated] 1980s cycle might [but need not] be considered as the exaggerated characteristic of everything that was questionable about Karajan’s particular approach—a trend toward homogeneity gone wrong, with edges first overstated, then smoothed over, and captured in sound worse than either of the predecessors.
Perhaps we are not quite ready to vindicate the ’80s cycle yet, but a defense of the ’70s cycle is easy. The performances sound great and are totally assured and rock solid. The orchestra follows Karajan with staggering ease. This sometimes makes them seem less abrasive or riveting or aggressive than the rigorous interpretation and chosen fast tempos might otherwise warrant. But then they are also that: riveting and driven with energy that suggests that Karajan was actually quite ahead of his time.
You have to look far into the HIP-influenced future to find a finale of the First symphony that is obviously more stirring. Or listen to the Eroica. Even accounting for the missing exposition repeat, this is his fastest on disc. Perhaps inadvertently Karajan comes close to Beethoven’s metronome markings. In fact, Karajan makes Frans Brüggen sound like Daniel Barenboim (and Barenboim like Wilhelm Furtwängler), in comparison. That’s not a qualitative dismissal—Brüggen’s set is very fine and Barenboim’s is absolutely fantastic—if you want dark veneer, old-world Beethoven. It’s just surprising how far away Karajan is from this approach. And compared to contemporaneous cycles of Haitink I (LPO), Jochum III (LSO), Solti I (Chicago), or even Maazel I (Cleveland), you get a rush of adrenaline with Karajan and a tempered dose of polite beauty or, at best, exciting but brash insensitivity (Solti) from the others.
Fast forward to the Seventh, if you don’t believe me: It’s one for the ages. Karajan whips up amazing energy and weight in the Presto and then propels us right into the Allegro con brio with amazing verve. Some will prefer the rawer energy of his 1962 Ninth, but the much better sound-quality makes up for a lot here. Even if you have listened to modern versions of these symphonies, say by Osmo Vänskä or Paavo Järvi, you will still feel tickled by old Herbie.
All of this is true about any of the re-releases of this set. What makes this one special? First of all, beware: Unlike many similarly re-issued classic sets, this does not contain regular CDs and a Blu-ray but only two Blu-ray discs. The kicker here is presumably the Dolby ATMOS 5.1 LPCM surround sound, but alas, I listen in stereo. And comparing the dedicated stereo Blu-ray audio vs. the red book CDs, the former mix is notably more subtle and warmer whereas the latter is more direct, slightly more hard-edged and therefore superficially more impressive, if presumably not in the long run. For friends of stereo, especially now that manufacturing of serious Blu-ray Pure-audio players with dedicated stereo outputs has ceased, the CD version(s) should do. Multi-channel mavens will want to go for the Blu-ray set. And both sets of music-lovers should re-acquaint themselves with Karajan’s ’70s Beethoven in one way or another.