May 2005

Beethoven - Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, "Eroica"
Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor
Sony Classical
Released: 2005
Format: DVD

by Wes Marshall

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality *1/2
Image Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment *1/2

In 1882, conductor Benjamin Blise booked the Blise Orchestra in fourth-class compartments to travel from Berlin to Warsaw. When the orchestra found out their boss thought so little of them, they struck and started their own orchestra, vowing that from then on that the orchestra would be the boss and the conductor would work for them. It was a bold move, one that most orchestras today wish they could emulate.

The Blise Orchestra, after firing their boss, changed their name to the Berlin Philharmonic. Since then, it has taken a pretty tough maestro to deal with these players. Herbert von Karajan had something they liked. He started conducting the orchestra in 1938; by 1956, he was named Music Director for Life, a position he held for 33 years.

Karajan was known for having a phenomenal memory for scores, a brilliant ability to shape sound from an orchestra, and an ego that would allow him to receive praise and accolades as though they were inherently deserved. When the laserdisc was invented, he saw an opportunity to re-record the standard repertoire in digital sound with video, so the world and posterity would always be able to marvel at his perfection. Sony Classical is undergoing a re-release of these laserdiscs, this time -- without any obvious changes -- on DVD.

What we get is a mixed bag. The 74-year-old Karajan’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony has a classicist’s restraint, but without any of the research we would have gotten from Gardiner or Norrington. The sound is early digital: multi-miked with a vengeance and with a soundstage flatter than Kansas. Karajan liked to use Schoepps CM 55 and Neuman KM 84 spot mics, both of which needed some taming in the early digital era. Some of the harshness has been cleaned up, though the sound remains gritty.

From a picture standpoint, all is as the maestro intended. In other words, the spotlight is on him as much as possible. When it is not, it is focusing on the instrument that Beethoven is highlighting, seldom on the face of the player. The audience is polite, quiet and appropriately in awe. There are no extra materials on this DVD.

If you would like to hear Karajan the musician, as opposed to Karajan the icon, go instead to his 1963 set of all nine Beethoven Symphonies on DG. For a street price of around $30, you will get great sound, extraordinary musicianship, and recordings in service of the composer instead of the conductor.