clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


BEETHOVEN: The Nine Symphonies; "Coriolan" & "Egmont" Overtures. Anna Tomowa-Sintow, soprano; Agnes Baltsa, alto; Rene Kollo, tenor; Jose van Dam, bass-baritone; Deutsche Opera Chorus, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conducting. Deutsche Grammophon 072230/3-1 (four laserdiscs).

BEETHOVEN: The Nine Symphonies. Lella Cuberli, soprano; Helga Mueller Molinari, alto; Vinson Cole, tenor; Franz Grundheber, baritone; Vienna Singverein, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan conducting. Sony Classical SLV-46363/7 (five laserdiscs).Even on audio discs, one complete Beethoven cycle was never enough for Herbert von Karajan. Now the same appears to be true on home video as well.

Thus we are here treated to not one but two posthumous sets of the nine Beethoven symphonies, on four Deutsche Grammophon laserdiscs or, if you prefer premium prices and packaging, five of the same from Sony Classical.

Each features the conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra with which he was most closely associated the last three decades of his life. Layouts are such that only the Ninth Symphony is not complete on one side. And since the discs that make up each set are available separately, some mixing and matching is possible.

Nonetheless I suspect most listeners will gravitate to the DG videos. Not only do they offer what seem to me the generally superior performances, but the monetary advantage - four discs at $34.95 each vs. five at $64.98 ($54.98 for the one pairing Symphonies 1 and 8) - is considerable. At the same time there are other distinctions that need to be made.

By the time of his death, in 1989, Karajan had probably become the foremost proponent of "big-orchestra" Beethoven in the world. No other conductor had recorded the symphonies as often as he, with four complete cycles to his credit. Nor had any so successfully cultivated the high-priest-of-the-podium image that remained with him pretty much to the end of his run.

That image is a familiar one, especially to anyone who caught any of his concerts. Head slightly bowed, eyes half-closed (he never seemed to be looking at the orchestra), deadly intent on his work - the effect was to suggest the mystical, almost trancelike state of a divinely appointed intermediary between the composer and his audience.

It can be seen here, too, although interestingly it is less pronounced on the 1980s Telemondial cycle Sony gives us than the earlier Unitel films offered by DG. I'm not sure any of the latter correspond exactly to the conductor's mid-'70s LP set, the dates here running from 1967 (the "Pastorale") to late 1977 (the Ninth, taped live at the Philharmonie).

The Telemondial films, by contrast, appear to be identical to DG's all-digital CD cycle, except for the Ninth, which likewise derives from a tape. Otherwise the Sony issues are pretty much of a piece, offering technologically, if not musically, superior remakes of the Karajan/

Ernst Wild collaborations that make up the bulk of the DG videos.

That means a more sharply defined visual and aural image (although, where I have been able to compare, the CDs strike me as marginally brighter and more spacious) and a conception in which the focus remains almost exclusively on the conductor to the point where, despite the interpolation of taped sectional shots, we never once see the orchestra as a whole.

That is less true of the Unitel films. Still, there is never any doubt who is in charge. Or in the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth symphonies that these are in fact studio productions, which never give the viewer the sense of a concert performance the way Leonard Bernstein's do, for example.

The Third, Sixth and Seventh are likewise studio productions, but in this case with a difference. Because for the three earliest of these films Karajan got himself a director, Hugo Niebeling, who was not afraid to play around with the camera. Thus this "Pastorale" offers a visually impressionistic view of the piece, with deliberately blurred and distorted shots of the orchestra, some of them superimposed over the conductor's face, and lighting that even indulges in "Fantasia"-like silhouettes and colored backgrounds.

The irony here is that Karajan's "Pastorale" has tended over the years to be one of his least impressionistic interpretations. Witness the Sony/Telemondial reading, an often driven account almost completely devoid of warmth or merriment. By contrast the DG video features softer, generally more expansive treatment, with a certain suppleness to the playing. Both, however, boast a titanic thunderstorm and an incandescent finale.

"Titanic" and "incandescent" are likewise words I would use to describe Karajan's "Eroica," long one of the great interpretations of that symphony. Many, myself included, found his 1977 LP a bit rushed in places. But, I am happy to report, the 1971 performance enshrined on DG 072232-1, although not slow, seems closer in spirit to his 1962 recording, a performance of remarkable power and nobility, with a Toscanini-like thrust in the more dramatic pages.

With the orchestra arrayed vertically on three grandstands, Niebeling's camera work is likewise more dramatic, including a number of 180-degree tracking shots and, in the climaxes, some extreme close-ups of the trumpets. (He uses a similar, if more brightly lit, setup for the Seventh.) And although the Sony "Eroica" is pretty much from the same stamp, albeit leaner and meaner, the earlier one offers just a bit more in every department. Unless, that is, your laser player is not equipped for the digital tracks, which for some reason on all these DG discs offer considerably more volume and presence than the analog.

I find the extra muscle welcome in Sony's First Symphony. DG's is sometimes slowish and monumentally heavy by comparison, and that despite a faster minuet and more mercurial finale. The DG Second is likewise more cavernous in sound, although again in each the vitality of the music is often diminished by the claustrophobic, largely impersonal camera work.

Nor does their Fourth make the best case possible for Karajan's polished, essentially oversize view. (Sony's is even heavier in sound and articulation.) The DG Fifth, by contrast, fairly bristles with power and suavity, a taut but virile realization whose essential qualities are carried over, with just a bit less refinement, into the Sony performance. Still, it is DG's that remains the more compelling, and their disc is further enhanced by the addition of the "Coriolan" and "Egmont" overtures, as opposed to Sony's two unfilled-out 34-minute sides.

Between the Sevenths, my vote likewise goes to DG, where Karajan even manages to have some fun in the scherzo (although he is stingier with repeats than Bernstein, also on DG). Conversely, except for a lethal minuet my vote in the Eighth goes to Sony, a strongly Germanic view that doesn't smooth the music over as much.

Which leaves the Ninth, and here I have to say both entries come up winners. Of the two Sony offers the more disciplined performance, a hair less cataclysmic but still notable for its crack-of-doom quality, and the better balanced vocal quartet. I also like the extra degree of militancy Karajan brings to the finale, if not a video conception that frequently shows us more of him singing than the soloists. And again our view of them is as visually constricted as the compartmentalized shots of the obviously regimented chorus.

The 1977 performance, on the other hand, is just that, a live concert from Berlin that shows us real musicmaking in progress and, remarkably, the Generalmusikdirektor at his most human.

Here there is no prerecorded soundtrack, no calculated highlighting of soloists (although director Humphrey Burton usually hits the right instruments at the right time), and for once the audience is clearly part of the proceedings. But the performance that emerges nonetheless stands as one of the great ones, with an urgency and expanse that compel from first note to last, and a strength even in the singing Adagio that few conductors could equal.

In short, it now becomes my favorite video Ninth, followed by Toscanini's - in its way almost as immediate - the Sony Karajan and the Bernstein Berlin, as unique as the chain of events that brought it into being. Certainly Karajan never rivaled the latter conductor's spontaneity, but he comes closer to it here than might be imagined. And in a way that I prefer to remember him by, as opposed to the canned, almost worshipful monuments that even in these two surveys too often constitute "his legacy."