Karajan's fourth complete Beethoven cycle, his third for Deutsche Grammophon, has had a somewhat muted reception in these columns and elsewhere. Familiarity with the broad outlines of his readings—re-recorded as recently as 1977—seemed to have merged with some general disquiet about aspects of the recorded sound of the new cycle to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of a number of people. The unevenness of the recorded sound (it is no worse than that) can be attributed to an array of possible factors: the intrinsic difficulties the Beethoven sound presents to engineers, the wide range of tonal and textural perspectives Karajan now draws from his orchestra in this music (the sound worlds explored here in, say, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are radically and revealingly different), the recent variability of some of DG's own Berlin recordings, and—last, but I suspect by no means least—the hitherto unexplored factor of having a film company, Karajan's own Telemondial, intimately connected with the project.
The principal technical disappointments to date have been the cavernous sound (and unduly legato playing) at the start of the Seventh Symphony's second movement, the grey and somewhat costive choral sound in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, and some variability of instrumental 'placing'. Moving from symphony to symphony it is often difficult to decide where precisely in the sound spectrum the bass line is meant to be.
Some of this may be a reflection of Karajan's own changing priorities, symphony by symphony. The Eroica, which Karajan has again recorded very late in the sequence, is given as lucid and natural-sounding a recording as any in the cycle, similar to the kind of sound we have in the 1977 set; but the Fifth, recorded nearer the start of the cycle, is altogether tougher and gruffer. What was in earlier sets a thing of burnished splendour now more closely resembles a comet burning across darkened heavens.
The new cycle begins, as did the 1977 cycle, with a rather laboured ('autumnal' would be a politer and more poetic epithet) reading of the First Symphony; and the Fourth, which has put on weight since the ravishing 1962 performance, reappears in the grander and gruffer of Karajan's two readings. The reservations noted above notwithstanding, the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies go very well, though Karajan still declines to take the big exposition repeats in the Third and Seventh Symphonies. (It would be interesting to know his thinking on this). I had a faulty pressing of the Sixth Symphony (track five going haywire) but the performance is a joy, the best account of the Pastoral Karajan has given us since his widely admired 1953 Philharmonia version. There isn't here the sheer vernal freshness of the recently reissued Erich Kleiber LP recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca France mono 1592105, 10/85) nor does the Karajan outclass the pre-war Toscanini, but the orchestral playing provides miracles of fine-grained detail and exquisite tone-painting, and the climaxes have their own special lambency. Karajan doesn't attempt to disguise the fact that he knows every inch of the terrain he is crossing, but the performance avoids all sense of routine or predictability. It is also a joy to put on the fast movement of the Ninth and hear a reading so rhythmically accurate and authoritative as this. Not since Toscanini has there been a conductor who conveys so acutely the movement's fraught oscillations between rhythmic drive and charged songfulness: the tragic confrontation between Dionysus and Apollo which the finale will resolve.
The latest account of the Eroica, which is also issued separately this month, hasn't quite the uninhibited fieriness of the Kleiber, reviewed below, though it is beautifully played and projected at a comparably quick tempo in the first movement (dotted minim = 53). The sound has pleasingly natural perspectives, though I thought horn and flute a shade too distant at the crucial lead back to the recapitulation, bars 408-24. Unlike many conductors in their later years, Karajan does not take an apocalyptic view of the first two movements. The Beethoven hero, Karajan intelligently suggests, is not a tragic figure consumed by the experiences he confronts, but a man who sits easily in the saddle, riding out his destiny, Karajan's reading of the Funeral March, underpinned by hi fabled mastery of the long musical paragraph, is eloquent and long-breathed, a threnody for a dying Antony rather than the troubled obsequies of an Oedipus or a Lear. It follows that where a conductor like Furtwangler, increasingly gloomy and obsessed, grew to see the symphony's last two movements as an irrelevance, Karajan sees them more than ever as the symphony's true goal and resting-point. The Scherzo is bouyant rather than quick (dotted minim around 104, slower than Beethoven's metronome but establishing an identical pulse relationship between first movement and Scherzo to that suggested by Beethoven), the finale dazzling in its joyous revelation of Beethoven's contrapuntal string writing. The oboe-led Poco Andante is played more ravishingly than on any previous Karajan recording, ushering in a paragraph of quiet awe—the playing utterly simple, from the heart, as it were—which steals over the face of the performance like a benediction.
The Eroica record is completed by a performance of the Egmont Overture which has one surprising lapse of intonation and some more tonal commutings between sound that is full blown and sound that is sinewy and spare. This is a pity when Karajan's reading is intinct with a sense of theatre. (Even though he makes less of Egmont's deathblow than Furtwangler used to; there may be an edit or new take here.) There are some similar unevenness in the new account of the Eighth Symphony, also issued here for the first time. The symphony needs to sound terse and epigrammatic if it isn't to become too overweening a display of the obsessive and self-dramatising elements in Beethoven's personality. Karajan's 1962 recording seems more careful and keener-eared than this one, though the reading is essentially unchanged. The Fidelio and Leonore No. 3 are strongly played in the German style. There's some staggeringly fine playing in the coda of Leonore No. 3; and there is also a powerful account of the Coriolan Overture, its monomaniac passion throwing interesting light back over the Eighth Symphony which it follows.
Karajan's admirers will want the entire cycle; others would do well to investigate the Eroica and the single-disc coupling of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies before completing the purchase (CD 413 932-2GH, 1/85). The longer term significance of this cycle is that it is the first specially made for film, an enterprise which promises revealing insights into the processes as well as the results of Beethoven interpretation. I hope, too, that in the fullness of time Karajan's earlier Beethoven cycles will find their way on to Compact Disc, along with the Beethoven recordings of Karajan's principal mentor in Beethoven interpretation, Arturo Toscanini.'（Gramophone 6/1986）