Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan / Janet Perry

Beethoven: Symphonie No. 9 [1983]

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Admirers of Herbert von Karajan have four Beethoven symphony cycles to choose from, and out of these, his 1962-1963 recordings are almost universally praised, with the rendition of the Symphony No. 9 in D minor singled out as one of this conductor's greatest achievements. Over 20 years later, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra took on the Ninth again, but the urgency and excitement that made the earlier recording such a landmark are replaced with an extremely studied and subjective approach, favoring a rich and lovely orchestral sound but losing control of the symphony's trajectory in the process. By this time in his career, Karajan was a legend and he could ask anything of the BPO. But his sense of symphonic form and famous ability to maintain the pulse through the work failed him in this performance, which seems distracted and meandering because he lingered too long over beautiful passages or dropped the dynamics to a hush for temporary dramatic effects. This interpretation is self-indulgent, and perhaps that is understandable, if Karajan felt it was his last chance to make the Ninth sound the way he heard it in his mind. However, the early digital recording doesn't make the BPO sound especially wonderful or impressive because the shallow dimensions and overly bright sonorities make it a little shrill. In the end, Karajan left a digital recording that didn't sound as good as his 1962 analog version, and left a lot of his fans puzzled over his expressive choices.

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