To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the late Austrian conductor's birth, EMI released this eight-CD set called Herbert von Karajan The Great Recordings. Some listeners might object that Karajan didn't do his best work for EMI, but rather for Deutsche Grammophon, a defendable position in light of the fact that the majority of his recordings were made for the German label. But even listeners who defended the primacy of Karajan's work for the English label might say the performances included here don't represent his best work for them.
Why, they could ask, are the majority of the performances from the '70s and not from the '50s? Karajan's best work for EMI, they would assert, was done in the '50s when the maestro was at the peak of his powers, but not yet at the peak of his hubris. And why, they could also ask, are none of the performances here with the Philharmonia Orchestra, EMI's studio orchestra and, it has well been said, the finest studio orchestra of all time? With the Philharmonia, Karajan had a virtuoso instrument to do his bidding, but because the orchestra was the label's and not his, it did not always roll over when the dictatorial Austrian was on the podium, but more often worked with him to achieve mutual goals.
There are listeners who will rightly point out that the late-'40s recordings here of Brahms' Second Symphony and Strauss' Metamorphosen with the Wiener Philharmoniker are as finely played and even more deeply felt than the conductor's later recordings of the same works with the Berliner Philharmoniker, like there are listeners who will rightly point out that the '70s recordings here of Ravel's Boléro and La valse with the Orchestre de Paris are less well played and far more superficial than the conductor's earlier recordings of the same works with the Berlin orchestra. But anyone hearing these beautifully played but expressively bland accounts of works by Wagner, Bruckner, and Sibelius would find it difficult to argue they are improvements on Karajan's accounts of many of the same works with the Philharmonia. Of course, one must add that the performances here of Beethoven's Triple Concerto with violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and pianist Sviatoslav Richter and of Strauss' Don Quixote with Rostropovich are as superbly played and as emotionally effective as the best ever recorded by Karajan or anyone else, though it should be noted that both recordings are available outside this set. In sum, then, though this set has some undeniably great recordings on it, it is by no means a uniformly outstanding collection of great recordings.