Herbert von Karajan / Michel Schwalbé

Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Schumann: Symphony No. 1

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Admirers of Herbert von Karajan often point to his Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the 1960s and '70s as his best work, and note that this was a highly productive time for him and the Berlin Philharmonic, when they recorded prolifically and perfected the burnished sound that became their stock in trade. To be sure, these performances of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, recorded in 1963, and Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, "Spring," performed in 1971, are sonorous and rich in orchestral colors, and only the most stubborn critics would deny the seductive power of the sound of these recordings. However, there are more things to consider than their excellent ensemble blend and the great audio reproduction. Karajan's interpretation of the Brahms is surprisingly analytical and detached, not at all what is expected in this noble Romantic symphony, and there's a calculated approach to the timing and movement that emphasizes effect over emotion. It feels as if Karajan's hyper-awareness of what will translate to a recording interfered with his ability to passionately communicate the range of Brahms' expressions, so there is an aloof quality that keeps the music at arm's length. The performance of the Schumann is considerably warmer and more spontaneous in feeling, and this suggests an increased rapport between Karajan and the orchestra that yielded better music. The "Spring" is at its best in the first movement, thanks to the BPO's joyous outbursts, and in the Finale, where Karajan's pacing is a little more flexible than in the two previous movements. DG's ADD sound is clean and clear, and the performances were captured with pleasant resonance.

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