Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is one heck of a fine Beethoven cycle. That said, David Patmore assures us in his booklet notes that of the four complete cycles Karajan left us, this one “is generally considered to be the best.” By whom, I wonder? That honor belongs to the 1963 release with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG, and there’s no question about it. However, Karajan’s Beethoven remained amazingly consistent throughout his career, the interpretive differences between performances often quite miniscule. What this performance has, and it’s no small point, is the Philharmonia Orchestra rather than the Berlin Philharmonic, and the English orchestra’s less blended sonority (including those vinegary oboes) will appeal to listeners who find Karajan’s Berlin sound too smooth and too string-heavy.
While this may not be Karajan’s “best” Beethoven, whatever that means, I would argue that it is his most consistent. His later cycles were marred by his evident dislike of the “Pastoral” Symphony, and controversy over his increasingly slick handling of the “Eroica.” Here the performances seem all of a piece, especially in the Sixth, where Karajan does not sound as though he wants to get it over with as quickly as possible (sound clips, for comparison). Although he still only goes once round the scherzo, he lets the music breathe. The Seventh, too, features those joyful horns in the outer movements poking through the texture more prominently than they did later in Berlin.
In the Ninth we are treated to the first ever release of the performance in stereo (alongside the mono version), although the sonic differences really are pretty minimal–a bit less boomy in the bass, perhaps, and better balanced. The most important difference with this latest remastering is that the scherzo now starts on track two, as opposed to the end of track one as in the previous 88-disc big Karajan box. It’s good to see this error corrected. In general, the sonics have come up very well and seem to have a bit more warmth and naturalness as compared to earlier issues. It is easy to understand how this cycle was regarded as a major achievement in its day. It still is.
-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com