Incredible Odyssey Through 50 Years of Karajan Releases. RECORDINGS. REVIEW
AMONG other landmarks for Herbert von Karajan in his 80th year, he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his recording debut. Unlike the great maestros that preceded him, Karajan's entire career has been chronicled, step by step, with recordings. It's impossible, of course, to discuss even a representative sampling here. But with Deutsche Grammophon's (DG) release of the six-CD set ``Herbert von Karajan: The First Recordings'' (423 525-2), as well as of a special 26-CD mid-priced series of Karajan performances under the general title of ``100 Masterpieces,'' two pivotal eras of that career are neatly summarized.Skip to next paragraph
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Karajan has also been associated with EMI/Angel and London (Decca in England) recordings, but the core of his studio work is on DG - a relationship that began in 1938 and continues to this day.
Listening to the 100 works that comprise this new series, one is reminded of how good DG's sonic standards were in the '60s and what extraordinary performances Karajan often conjured out of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Doubtless, Karajan knew that recordings were going to be the centerpiece of his career. And he has always kept abreast of acoustical and electronic innovations, though his ear has often been suspect in terms of final mixes in the editing room. Increasingly this fault was to mar his recordings, particularly for EMI/Angel, in the '70s. Happily, none of the DG performances in ``100 Masterpieces'' suffers from these problems.
At their best, these Berlin Philharmonic recordings set new standards for their time, and some have yet to be equaled. Take the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony (paired with the same composer's First Symphony (423 216-2, 58 min.). It remains, to these ears, the great recording of the work and has been given a new lease on life in the CD remastering. And Karajan's conducting of works by Richard Strauss was at peak form in the early '70s. The CD that includes ``Till Eulenspiegel,'' ``Don Juan,'' ``Death and Transfiguration,'' and ``The Dance of the Seven Veils'' (423 222-2, 72 min.) is as fine a Strauss release as one is going to find on CD.
There are, however, occasional duds here, such as the '64 account of Stravinsky's ``Le Sacre du Printemps.'' At a Juilliard master class in the mid-'70s, Karajan publicly ``disowned'' this reading, and the composer himself was especially scornful of it. It is hard to imagine why it is included here, particularly since the Mussorgsky-Ravel ``Pictures at an Exhibition'' with which it is paired is so handsomely played (423 214-2, 71 min.).
A Bach CD including the Second, Third, and Fifth Brandenberg Concerti and Suite No. 3 (423 202-2, 73 min.) will not be to all tastes - luxuriant, superbly virtuosic, grand-scaled, very un-early-music. Of his four complete Beethoven Symphony sets, his '62 cycle was his most satisfactory, overall, and DG has included the Ninth (423 204-2, 67 min.) and the Fifth and Sixth (423 203-2, 68 min.) from it here, but not his remarkable ``Eroica'' or Seventh.