April 5, 2008 will mark the centenary of the birth of Herbert von Karajan, without question one of the major musical figures of the last century, given the informal title "Generalmusikdirektor of Europe" because of his positions in Berlin, Vienna, Salzburg and Paris and his prestigious connections in London, Milan and elsewhere. His most important post was as Furtwänglers successor with the Berlin Philharmonic: He was appointed "conductor for life" in 1955, and did not announce his retirement from that post until his 81st birthday, three months before his death in 1989.
He was very serious about recording, and conspicuously active with the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. The ten CDs that make up DGs set of "Karajan Master Recordings" are also offered separately, and these are the two I find most interesting. The 1959 Heldenleben was the first stereophonic recording Karajan made, and it still holds its own with the landmark recordings under Reiner and Haitink for the substance and, yes, nobility these conductors and their powerhouse orchestras found in this score. The EMI remake, even with Karajan in a leather jacket on the LP cover, did not come close to the sustained intensity of this earlier version. The 1973 account of Till Eulenspiegel remains remarkably competitive among all versions of that much-recorded piece. Sonic restoration is eminently successful in both works.
Karajan was remarkably modest about his way with Schuberts "Great C major" Symphony, and seldom performed it, but both of these Schubert performances from the middle and late 1960s are models of balance and sheer orchestral virtuosity in the very highest sense. The same two works on EMI 64628 (from Karajans later set of all the Schubert symphonies) are somewhat more expansive, with all repeats given in the scherzo of the "Great C major," but these on DG show a greater sense of momentum, and the refurbished sound is cleaner and richer, despite EMIs ten-year advantage -- benefits that outweigh those repeats in the scherzo.
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