9 Symphonies (1977) [6 CD Box Set] Box set
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Beethoven: 9 Symphonies · Overtures (6 CDs)
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MP3 Music, July 17, 1990
|Audio CD, Box set, July 17, 1990||
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This is hedonistic Beethoven, though in listening to these accounts one wonders sometimes whether Herbert von Karajan may not have confused sex with love, and physicality with emotion. At least he seems more concerned with opulence of sound and weight of texture than with psychology or substance. Yet while his interpretation has neither great emotion, nor struggle, nor a sense of spiritual release, it certainly has great beauty and exhilaration. The readings are typical of the "massaged" style of performance Karajan cultivated in Berlin during the 1970s, and which Andrew Porter famously critiqued when he likened the results to Kobe beef. There is a certain softness under all that muscularity, though for the most part Karajan shows his usual strong grip and maintains the balance of lyrical and kinetic elements. The Berlin Philharmonic, at its peak when these recordings were made, is a marvel: even if its playing is rarely fiery or spontaneous, its sound is plush, succulent, and exilaratingly rich. Karajan uses a big orchestra all the way through, even in Symphony No. 1--which as a result sounds rather massive, though not heavy (the brisk scale in the violins at beginning of the fourth movement is delightfully airy). In addition to their polish, his readings are notable for their high energy level. This is particularly true of the Eighth, one of the most successful items in the set, which is interpreted in a way that clearly shows its connection to Seventh. On balance, the accounts run from very good to outstanding (Nos. 4, 8 and 9), but only rarely do they approach the transcendent. The recordings, made in Berlin's Philharmonie, are close-miked and mastered at a fairly high level, and sound is impressively firm. --Ted Libbey
Top customer reviews
Music is so dense that only about half the CDs are playable on my Linux system. However, all are playable on my Sony audio system and in my car. Dynamic range is immense, no harsh compression, so you really need a quiet room to fully appreciate these.
I honestly bought this set as a space-saver compared to the six original discs, and on that count I'm a bit disappointed, since the rather klutzy packaging is as thick as five normal jewel cases, and the liner notes are briefer (and different) than the ones in the original releases. The six discs are laid out exactly the same as the original releases, which also means that the symphonies are not in numerical order, which may annoy some. Fortunately, nothing is split between discs.
Even if you have other Beethoven symphony cycles on CD, this one is worth auditioning.
1 - The 1977 Ninth is widely considered to be among the greatest recordings of all time - it is the Transit of Jupiter set to music. In the very least, it is the equal of its predecessor as a performance and the choir do not sound as if they were recorded at the bottom of the River Spee. As others have noted, Herbie red-lines himself at the end of the symphony and this is a rarity for such a highly controlled conductor. The sheer ferocity of the first movement is sui generis (with apologies to Toscanini). When comparing cycles, the better Nine must surely carry weight.
2 - The Pastoral is a far more relaxed affair than the overly tense 1963 performance and the key repeat in the scherzo is observed. Many people are not convinced by Herbie's reading of the Pastoral per se: again, I am in the Minority and this 1976 performance, IMO, is the best actualisation of his approach. For instance, the great Brucknerian blaze-ups in the finale are 'Affirmations of Being' - and how they resonate!
3. Again, as others have noted, the October 1976 performance of the Seventh is a once off. It might seem too 'stringy' to modern ears but what strings they are. The 1963 performance is superlative, but there is something about its successor that is ultimately inexplicable and thus all the more electrifying. The opening of the slow movement is the Oresteia set to music.
4. Herbie excelled in the Eroica. Indeed, even the 1984 'Karajan Gold' performance has strong - if not stronger - claims on a collector (along with the superlative 8). I concede the excellence of the 1963 alternative but again, the first movement of the 1977 Eroica is a once off. The Penguin Guide was right to highlight its peculiar nature but errant in their choice of words. Far from being edgy, it is akin to the young Napoleon heatedly scaling the Alps like Hannibal in search of his destiny. To my mind it has no peer - and the other three movements are comparable.
5. Unlike the heartless 'Gold' performance of the Fourth from 1984 (where Herbie and the Berliners were not bosom-buddies at the time), this is a relaxed, joyful account of this life-affirming work.
6. The other symphonies - 1, 2, 5, and 8 - to my ears do not differ greatly from their '63 predecessors with one exception: the Berlin Philharmonic itself. The orchestra evolved over time (and under Herbie's tutelage)to become a near-infallible ensemble by the mid-1970s when these recordings were made (infallible in terms of its core repertoire, not, say, Bach or Stravinsky). Most of its recordings from the 1970s radiate a supreme self-confidence if not a swagger, married to virtuosity of the highest order. To use a well worn, if not worm-ridden cliche, they play as if their lives depend upon it - such could be the epithet of these leonine performances.
Make no mistake: this cycle is Beethoven writ large - a Colossus who bestrides the earth - whereas at his feet lie the puny creations of Norrington, Jeggy, Abbado ( x 3), Harnoncourt, Rattle, Zinman, all of whom are infected by Hogwood-itis to varying degrees. Longevity is not theirs; the ignoble grave beckons.
As demonstrated by a once-off release of 5, 6 & 9, the entire 1976/77 cycle could benefit from a remastering (Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 & 9). And indeed, this has actually ocurred (thanks to Sean Pak for making this known to me):
Beethoven: the 9 Symphonies Overtures
You no longer have to put up with the remasterings from the mid-1980s. While this 2007 remaster might have been designed primarily for surround sound, it had a beneficial impact across the board. I have lived with those old remasters for well over twenty years - they're the glorified Galleria issues - and this new set is like chalk and cheese, even on standard equipment. Consider the Eroica disc with its timpani throughout the Funeral March; the brass at the apotheosis of its finale and the Overture "Leonore No.3", Op.72b per se: there's greater warmth and detail. Indeed, the sound is sumptuous - again, even on a normal CD player. This was worth the wait.
Do not look past this cycle in its refurbished state. Rejoice in dissent.