Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Karajan (1963)

Beethoven: 9 Symphonies - Karajan (1963)

Deutsche Grammophon  4793442


Classical - Orchestral

Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 + rehearsal extracts for Symphony No. 9

Gundula Janowitz, soprano
Hilde Rössel-Majdan, alto
Waldemar Kmentt, tenor
Walter Berry, bass
Wiener Singverein
Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

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4 of 4 recommend this, would you recommend it?  yes | no

Analogue recording
Resolutions (3)
  • 2.0 Dolby TrueHD 24bit/96kHz
  • 2.0 DTS HD MA 24bit/96kHz
  • 2.0 LPCM 24bit/96kHz
Comments (1)

Comment by Ramesh Nair - December 23, 2015 (1 of 1)

COMMENTARY, 2015, on Karajan's Beethoven Ninth symphonies on high-resolution media.
I have placed this preface and review of his 1962 Beethoven 9 SACD under the blu ray audio version of the integral set, since the SACD series appears to be almost out of print. The 'limited edition' blu ray audio/CD set is still readily available. [ This version was taped in late 1962, though the set was released in 1963.]

Having listened to Karajan's 1962 and 1976 Chorals on SACD, the blu ray video of his 1977 New Year's Evening concert performance, along with the DGG Abbado studio BPO set, the Furtwängler versions from Bayreuth and Lucerne, plus the Vänskä version from his acclaimed BIS cycle [ using the new Del Mar edition published by Bärenreiter ], this 1962 version is still a leading contender. Surprisingly, Karajan's 1976 studio performance, with its more searching Adagio and ecstatic closing minutes is less impressive as sound on SACD than this 1962 version either on SACD or blu ray audio. It appears that in 1976, DGG's or Karajan's obsession with employing a forest of microphones detracted from the final stereo mix, probably due to a combination of phase effects and the solid-state electronics in the recording chain.

Comparing the SACD and blu ray audio versions [ I briefly borrowed the latter ] of the 1962 recording, I had assumed they would sound identical through the same 24 bit 96 kHz reprocessing of the original tapes. They didn't, at least through my system. I played both through an Oppo BDP 105 used with its digital volume control straight into a valve power amplifier. I'm told the ESS Sabre chipset in the Oppo apparently has a DSD-dedicated filter, but this apparently only operates with a fixed volume out. The variable volume control engages the PCM filter architecture of the chip, whether the source is the SACD layer of the SACD, or the blu ray audio layer. Hence I reasoned that both the SACD and blu ray would undergo the same filtering through the player. The blu ray audio version sounded slightly bolder and better defined than the older hybrid SACD, while the SACD sounded mellower, less detailed but more relaxed. The differences weren't great, but those were my impressions.

This year, the Euroarts label released a blu ray video version of the 1977 New Year's Eve concert, where Karajan had the services of soprano Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, René Kollo and José van Dam. [ The disc comes with the substantial bonus of the 1966 black-and-white studio performance and staged rehearsal of Beethoven 5.] The blu ray transfer seems to be an economy job, with minimal restoration of the blemishes in the individual frames of the film stock. The audio is marked only 'PCM stereo'. Despite this, the concert performance is quite magnificent, more electrifying compared to the 1962 studio performance in every movement of the symphony except for the first movement. All singers except for the soprano marginally outshine their 1962 counterparts. [ Who could equal, let alone better, the young Gundula Janowitz in her dazzling ascent to her part's summit, or hold that golden tone there so ecstatically?] The 1977 performance to me seems identical interpretatively to the 1976 studio version. To my pleasant surprise, though the sound of the concert recording doesn't have the bass reach of the compromised studio recording, the audio as a whole sounds much more appealing. Maybe that's due to the distraction of being privileged to watch such a sumptuous performance.

With the caveat that the SACDs from both labels which issued Furtwängler's 1954 Lucerne performance with the Philharmonia are now deleted, the 1977 Karajan Beethoven 9 on blu ray video for me is the most appealing Karajan Beethoven 9 on high resolution media, and one of the very best overall choices for a Beethoven 9 in better-than-CD sound, along with Vänskä's Minnesota studio recording.

Review by ramesh April 20, 2005

I heartily recommend this magnificent performance on stereo only SACD, not only to listen to again and again, but to introduce a neophyte to SACD, to show how classic old performances can be rejuvenated by the new medium, assuming the reproducing equipment is of more than 'mid-fi' level. For the purposes of this review, for recording quality I compared it to the 1976 Karajan Choral which has been well reviewed here very recently. I have DVDAs of the Barenboim and Abbado cycles, though not of the Choral, for spot checks of 24/96 PCM digital. To compare recording quality of a DSD transfer of an analogue master, I used the excellent Pentatone Masur Beethoven 'Pastoral', which I would urge readers to consider as a more mellow and humane performance than the 1962 Karajan. Artistically, my references for the choral were Klemperer on Testament, and a clutch of Furtwanglers and Toscanini circa 1944.
The 1962 Karajan has been a stalwart recommendation over the years, in tandem with the 1976 version, as shown by the Gramophone and Penguin guide reviews. (For those with library access,search the Gramophone issue from December 1962 for a fascinating review by William Mann of the recording sessions. This isn't on the Gramophone website. Karajan had a Toscanini LP in the recording booth for spot comparisons.)

Compared to the DG 'Originals' RBCD transfer, the current PCM track of the SACD is significantly better in timbre, and the SACD stereo track is superior in the usual audiophile parameters by the same margin over its RBCD counterpart. This is despite DG utilising a 24/96 PCM digitisation of the master tape. There is still a hint of brightness to the string timbre, but far less than on previous transfers.The Berliners under Karajan were renowned for the unsurpassed richness of their string sound, to my ears more flexible in its application than the Philadelphia strings under Ormandy and Stokowski. Comparisons to the 1970s Leipzig Gewandhaus under Masur, as transferred by Pentatone, show this analogue DSD transfer as the most natural orchestral recording of all.( I have just received the Pentatone of Beethoven 1 and Haydn 88 and 99 conducted by Colin Davis, and this too has wonderful orchestral sound, though the prewar Toscanini BBCSO Beethoven 1 runs rings round Davis and his BBCSO in terms of elan and esprit. But then, so does this prewar performance over all comers. ) Playing this Masur Beethoven SACD in my universal player and then comparing it to the Abbado and Barenboim Beethoven symphonies on 24/96 PCM, my ears preferred the concert hall naturalism of the Pentatone, though the PCM digital tracks had a less tubby bass. Hence, it is impossible to tell whether DG could have improved their SACD even more,if they used a direct to DSD transfer. I don't want to make too much of this though.

The Karajan 1976 Berlin performance, which in my view is equal with the '62 Karajan as the most recommendable non-period instrument stereo ninth, I found came second to its earlier counterpart in terms of the immediacy of the sound in stereo, though things may be different in the multichannel mix. It too is a 24/96 digitisation, but the apparent phalanx of microphones Karajan succumbed to from the Seventies onwards to tweak the internal balances of the sound has midwived a synthetic tonal palette, especially in the first two movements, especially detrimental to strings in terms of immediacy and impact. The strings appear from the vantage of the back of a hall, under a balcony, the woodwinds pop up from the woodwork at a much closer distance. The multimiking has reduced some of the bloom in the sound. I played the comparison to a classical musician who knows these recordings. He agreed, with the caveat that the SACD of the '76 Karajan is still a mighty improvement on his RBCD. The leonine power from the strings especially leaps out in the first movement of K '62 compared to K '76. If you only hear K '76, you won't be disappointed if you crank the volume up, but the '62 performance shows how a good analogue tape with minimal miking, recorded in a sympathetic acoustic (the '62 cycle was recorded in a church, the '76 in the Philharmonie in Berlin), can still thrill despite its age. Although the tape hiss is quite audible in the '62 performance, such is the intensity of the performance one forgets all about it after the opening measures, save for the ethereal hush of the adagio's opening. Two nonaudiophiles who know this recording well were amazed at the clarity of the pizzicati in this movement.The tape hiss is less evident than on a preceding RBCD transfer, and I am beginning to wonder whether PCM filtering and other phase effects makes pink noise and hiss more audibly acerbic, or subjectively more intrusive.

As for the quality of the performance, its virtues are well known. It is fiery and single minded in the Toscanini vein. The string articulation of the opening measures is fastidiously precise but not rigid, in contradistinction to Furtwangler's depiction of it as the mists of Creation. (The score notates semiquaver sextuplets, not tremolo. Furtwangler plays it tremolo, which may be more philosophically apposite; Karajan and Toscanini delineate it as sextuplet semiquavers; most other conductors fall somewhere in between. On my system, K 62 sounded more ominous and anticipatory than K76, despite being hissier; ironically the hiss makes it more atmospheric!)The climax of the first movement is more volcanic than on any other stereo version I know of. A caveat here is that for me Furtwangler is the greatest artist for Beethovenian tragedy. Under Karajan's baton, the concluding eruptions of the allegro are cinematic in their authority, but Furtwangler somehow manages to conjure up Shakespearean tragedy. What I mean by this, is that F and Klemperer, in the latter's more plodding meat-and-potatoes way, elicits the more humane element of pathos, by various inflections; these devices, the actor's equivalent of pauses and colouring of line, make the Furtwangler interpretation more rhetorical, of the human voice. Karajan wants to show us he has built an orchestra of unsurpassed aptitude, and builds his version of the tragedy in terms of orchestral dynamics and biting rhyhmic attack. I can imagine between my speakers some panoramic visual tragedy unfolding when I listen to the Toscanini or Karajan, but Furtwangler's portrayal is complete of itself. The finale shows all the experience of Karajan as an operatic conductor. The chorus is backwardly set, but this is mitigated in the SACD because of its superior low level clarity. The chorus is well captured in '76 though still a bit musty around the edges possibly because of multitrack mixing and editing; this is rendered irrelevant by the thrilling commitment of the singing, which gets even more delirious in the unanimous sprint to the finish. Janowitz in '62 has an unequalled ascent and placement to her radiant high B. This is unique in my experience, it would be worth buying just to hear this. Schiller's words speak of 'feuertrunken', drunk with fire. Simply put, most sopranos scale this dreadfully high note and we metaphorically mop our brow, Janowitz exults up then onto the note, with sublime intonation and bloom, feuertrunken. As a concluding example of the intensity of the orchestral response, just listen to the semi-fugato section for strings after the final chorus of 'freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen' ( bars 101 ff the allegro assai vivace; alla marcia); has there been any recording of this work, before or since, which has such intensity married to a burnished tonal perfection?


1xBD (symphonies and rehearsal extracts) + 5xCD (symphonies only)