Some listeners assert that Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan made his best recordings for Deutsche Grammophon in the late '70s, while others argue he did his best work for EMI in the middle '50s. But there are those, a minority but not an altogether insignificant minority, who say he made his best recordings for Decca in the early '60s. This nine-disc collection of those recordings makes a highly persuasive case for that point of view.
Working with the Wiener Philharmoniker and Decca producers John Culshaw and Erik Smith, Karajan got virtuoso performances from both the orchestra and the recording team. The Viennese musicians play with their characteristic ease and elegance, and their richly upholstered ensemble sounds lush and deep in everything from the surging rhythms of Holst's "Mars" to the heroic climaxes of Brahms' First. Culshaw and Smith capture their performances in stereo sound that rivals the best digital recordings in color and clarity and surpasses them in presence in everything from the shimmering winds in Grieg's Peer Gynt to the bludgeoning timpani of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Because he was working with the self-governing Viennese orchestra, Karajan was less domineering than he was in his later Deutsche Grammophon recordings with the Berliner Philharmoniker, the orchestra he ran as music director. These performances have a sense of measured strength that his DG recordings can't match; listen to the supple intensity of his tempos in Beethoven's Seventh. And because he was working with the Viennese orchestra, he was more relaxed than he was in his EMI recordings working with the Philharmonia, a studio orchestra that worked for producer Walter Legge, and these performances have a feeling of relaxed power that the EMI recordings can't touch; check out the burnished warmth of his Brahms' Third. In short, anyone who admires Karajan should certainly hear these recordings. And anyone who doesn't admire him might do well to check them out as well since they show a side of his work that is less often heard.