The third of the four boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition that covers the work of Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra is titled simply Herbert von Karajan: Philharmonia Orchestra 1951–1955. That title overlooks the significance of this particular collection, whose six CDs cover the first cycle of the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven that Karajan recorded. (The second cycle would take place during the following decade with the Berlin Philharmonic and would be recorded by Deutsche Grammophon.) The box also includes three overtures, the third of the so-called “Leonore” overtures (Opus 72b), the Opus 62 overture for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s tragedy Coriolan, and the overture from the Opus 84 incidental music that Beethoven composed for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont. Finally, because the Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor was originally released as a monaural recording, the box includes both that original release and the subsequent remastering for stereophonic sound.
As the title of this article suggests, the recordings themselves are as much a testament to the production techniques and values of Walter Legge as they are to Karajan’s approach to conducting Beethoven. Indeed, when I wrote about the Deutsche Grammophon recordings for Examiner.com half a decade ago, I suggested that Karajan’s work with Legge amounted to an “apprenticeship” in recording technology, meaning that, by the time he had moved to Deutsche Grammophon, he was well equipped to both advise and instruct the technical crew to the point where the resulting recordings were decidedly Karajan’s own. During the Fifties, on the other hand, Karajan had already cultivated a meticulous command of every detail on Beethoven’s score pages; and he saw his partnership with Legge as an opportunity to make sure that all of those details came through in the resulting recordings.
This was not necessarily an easy matter. Karajan was a real stickler for precision whenever rapid tempi were involved. My guess is that Legge had to jump through a fair number of hoops (and probably trial-and-error experiments) to come up with recordings that would do justice to that precision. There is no denying how impressive the results are; and, for anyone interested in “looking under the hood” of Beethoven’s music (or “going down to the engine room,” as Peter Grunberg likes to put it), these recordings are a score-followers dream. For those serious students who have worked their way through the four-hand arrangements of the Beethoven symphonies, these recordings take one to the next level with insights regarding Beethoven’s approaches to instrumentation.
Nevertheless, there is more to performance than the interpretation of marks on paper. In the seven “liberal arts” music may have been assigned to the “scientific” quadrivium, alongside arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. However, as has previously been argued on this site, the “humanities” trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has a role to play when one turns from what is being performed to how it is being performed. From this point of view, Karajan has much to offer to the curious listener when it comes to the overall structural logic of each of the symphonies, both in the entire plan and in the specifics of each movement, and in how grammar imposes structural constraints on factors such as harmonic progression and voice leading in counterpoint.
On the other hand these Karajan recordings seem to be less sensitive to the rhetorical side of Beethoven’s “utterances.” Beethoven knew well that the “rules” of both structural and grammatical constraints could be bent or broken, just as well as he knew that listeners of his day would know when he was breaking them. Thus, his capacity for wit often involved straying from the “straight and narrow,” deliberately leaving the listener perplexed about when and how he would get “back to the path.” (This was probably a significant inspirational factor in the work of Franz Schubert and is particularly evident in many of the works he composed during the final year of his life.) One does not get perplexed when one listens to Karajan’s Beethoven recordings, which means that there is little to convey Beethoven’s imaginative capacity for wit, an element that is already being writ large in the final movement of his first symphony (Opus 21 in C major).
Then there is the matter of instrumentation. Karajan clearly attached high priority to well-polished sonorities. While we can appreciate that priority, we must also bear in mind that most of the instruments at Beethoven’s disposal, particularly among the wind and brass sections, were nowhere near as polished as they are today. Thus, when we hear a “historically informed” performance, we are not surprised when, for example, the horns sound intrusively rambunctious. As learned exactly a week ago, when Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of the Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, one can capture many of those intrusive moments in Beethoven’s instrumentation even with more “polished” instruments; but Karajan never shows any sign that this effect is part of Beethoven’s rhetorical stance, even when the horn is as comically intrusive as it is when coming in too soon for the recapitulation in the first movement of the Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major.
Thus, while there is much that one can learn about the performance of Beethoven through the recordings in this Karajan collection, one should not come away thinking that “the whole story” is being told (while remembering that “the whole story” can never be told by any single recording or performance).