Right off the bat, it has to be acknowledged that these recordings of orchestral favorites by Debussy and Ravel don't sound the least bit French. Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker are many things, but they are not French. And while critics have complained that in these performances La Mer sounds like the North Sea, Daphnis et Chloé sounds like Siegfried und Brünnhilde, and Boléro sounds like a polka, it's simply not true. Naturally, they don't sound French: the lightness, elegance, and luminosity that are hallmarks of the French style are wholly wanting here. But with Karajan on the podium and the Berlin orchestra in the pit, these performances have other virtues.
First, they are supremely polished. Everything -- the quietest pianissimo, the tiniest detail, the trickiest balance, the loudest fortissimo -- emerges with precisely the right degree of emphasis. Second, they are super virtuosic. Everything -- the impossibly sustained flute playing of Karlheinz Zoeller in Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, the impossibly opulent 16 cellos in De l'aube à midi sur la mer, the impossibly loud final climax in the "Danse générale" at the end of Daphnis et Chloé, the improbably prominent strings at the close of Boléro -- is accomplished. Third, although this may seem redundant, they are practically perfect. Every mark in the score is realized in Karajan and the Berlin's performances, and no one, not even Pierre Boulez, has illuminated this music so lucidly. So while it is both possible and reasonable to prefer performances that are light, elegant, and luminous, it cannot be denied that Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker have in these 1964 and 1966 recordings turned in performances of unqualified, if un-French, excellence.