Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 9

Herbert von Karajan

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Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 3 & 9 Review

by James Leonard

For dedicated fans of Herbert von Karajan, this two-disc set with the late Austrian conductor leading the Berliner Philharmoniker in Beethoven's Third and Ninth symphonies will be mandatory listening. Karajan had recorded the Ninth once before with the Wiener Philharmoniker in 1947 and had already embarked earlier on recording the composer's complete symphonies with London's Philharmonia, including a Third in 1952 and a Ninth in 1955. But he had not yet recorded these works with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the orchestra he had recently inherited from the late Wilhelm Furtwängler. His three cycles with the German orchestra from 1963, 1977, and 1984 were yet to come, and these 1953 and 1957 recordings show how the Austrian conductor and the German orchestra were getting along before their relationship had been formally immortalized in studio recordings.

The performances contain no special surprises. At this point in this career, Karajan was still just a very famous conductor and not quite yet the so-called "General Music Director of Europe," and his interpretations here are far more about the music and far less about Karajan the interpreter than they were to become. This doesn't mean these performances don't sound like Karajan performances. The same emphasis on the linear over the horizontal, the surface over the depths, and the beautiful over the profound characteristic of his later Beethoven interpretations is clearly manifest here. Thus, the 1953 Third is straight, smooth, and direct while the 1957 Ninth is big, refined, and polished, and though neither performance can really match the conductor's later recordings for tonal opulence, both are still pure Karajan in conception and execution and the Berliner Philharmoniker seems more than happy to provide a well-tuned sound and brilliant ensemble virtuosity. For those listeners who abjure the Austrian conductor, this will be all they need to hear to know to stay away from these performances and stick to their Furtwänglers. But dedicated fans will be no doubt find these recordings fascinating. It should be added that Audite's live monaural sound is dim, distant, and gray, with little detail and less impact.

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