NEW YORK — 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.
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.
His Brahms has never been altogether to my liking, and the Fourth Symphony (which shares a CD with the ``Tragic Overture'' and the ``Haydn Variations'') finds him on the surface of the score most of the time (423 205-2). Nor has his Tchaikovsky been universally admired, though I find much of the Sixth Symphony (``Path'etique'') irresistibly well done here, as is the ``Romeo and Juliet'' it is paired with (423 223-2, 67 min.).
The ``100 Masterpieces'' series shows us the artist in his late 50s and early 60s in peak form, with an astounding orchestra that can can do everything asked of it. That Karajan was in love with sound for sound's sake is evident; that he knew how to dig under the skin of so much of the broad range of repertoire heard here remains remarkable. And though he has improved on some of the readings in releases made during this past decade, the core of his legacy will clearly be found in much of this series.
What about ``The First Recordings'' series? It is not for everyone, to be sure, but if the chance to hear just how ``Karajanesque'' Karajan was in his early 30s tempts you, then by all means pick it up.
His Tchaikovsky already bristles with the drive and drama he later brought to it. His opera preludes show that he was able to take a mediocre orchestra, such as the RAI Tornio ensemble, and make it care about nuance and phrasing.
His Brahms First finds him already obsessed with the idea that music must be made on a steady beat, with all the musical strands unfolding effortlessly, clearly, so that one hears not just the arching line of the main melody, but the structure on which that line rests.
The Strauss works that share this particular CD - all performed with the Concertgebouw - are remarkable, in that, even at 35, Karajan already knew how to mix the volatile with the controlled to create a Strauss reading at once deeply effective as sound and explosively gripping as drama.
``The First Recordings'' series proves that he was already, in 1938, a ``modern'' conductor of the Toscanini school, who heard music in terms of a steady forward motion altered only subtly for interpretive effect, relying far more on balances and textures rather than the often-willful tempo variations favored by conductors of the older traditions.
Karajan's more recent recordings have tended to be with the Vienna Philharmonic rather than his own Berlin Philharmonic. And clearly, Berlin's loss is Vienna's - and our - gain. The Vienna is most solicitous of legends like Karajan, and their working relationship has gone on since the early postwar days. The Vienna is the resident orchestra in the summer Salzburg Festival, which is the venue of the most recent Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic release, taped live at the '87 Salburg Festival.
This all-Wagner concert with Jessye Norman singing Isolde's ``Liebestod'' (DG 423 613-2, digital, 55 min.), their first collaboration, is a remarkable document. Karajan's Wagner has never been to all tastes, with its tendency to replace massive sonorities with a broad palette of colors that allow the entire spread of Wagner's orchestration to come through. In other hands, this approach could be disturbing. But Karajan is, after all, steeped in the Wagner tradition. He is a man of the theater and is a law unto himself, which makes this a particularly fascinating reading.