As we leave CDs behind and move into downloads – where music will no longer be a collectors item but just another dreary list on your computer screen – somebody at Universal Classics at least has a sense of history.
It is five decades since Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 set of the Beethoven symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic was released. It was not the first recording of these works by the one orchestra and conductor – Karajan himself had recorded them in the 1950s with the Philharmonia – but it was the first to be released and marketed as a set. DG executives were worried the gamble would fail and they wouldn’t break even, but within ten years a million copies had been sold. I once stayed with two lumberjacks in Banff, Canada: these were only classical records they owned. It was everybody’s introduction to Beethoven.
The orchestra made these recordings after five years with Karajan in charge. During that time he had hired young players and retired older ones. He also had begun to insist on the ‘long line’ of lyrical impulse, but not yet the moulding of orchestral balance to prioritise beauty of sound over energy and attack. In short, this set represents the best of all possible Karajan worlds.
There is exuberance in the first movement of the Seventh; great warmth in the final movement of the Pastoral. This reading of the Sixth was once thought brusque; now all we hear is its fresh, open air quality, rather than a faded oil painting of a long-departed countryside scene. Nos 1 and 2 may be heavier-handed than we expect today, but the Fourth, Eighth and especially the Ninth are still to be reckoned with. The remastered discs are in booklet form with erudite notes and many period photographs.