℗ © 2014 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin Under exclusive license to Universal Music Classics, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
The 9 Symphonies
Gundula Janowitz, soprano
Hilde Rossel-Majdan, alto
Waldemar Kmentt, tenor
Walter Berry, baritone
Reinhold Schmid, rehearsal director
Herbert von Karajan, conductor
From the included liner notes by Richard Osborne:
Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 set of Beethoven’s symphonies was a landmark in the history of the gramophone. Never before had all nine symphonies been recorded and released as an integrally planned subscription set, handsomely boxed and annotated. Not that this was merely a logistical phenomenon. The superb quality of the music-making and the unique overview of the nine symphonies which the cycle provided caused it to win golden opinions with press and public alike. Like Decca’s pioneering Ring cycle and the first Beatles album (which was also released in the spring of 1963) the set quickly became one of the icons of a new musical age.
Karajan signed his first post-war contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 1957, two years after his election as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. That same year also saw the beginning of his remaking of the orchestra, with a programme of conservation and renewal one of whose goals would be the recording of the orchestra’s first ever complete Beethoven cycle towards the end of Deutsche Grammophon’s five-year contract.
Karajan’s ambition for the Berlin Philharmonic was the creation of what one musician described as “a wonderfully responsive, infinitely flexible instrument that could embody the sound ideal that had coursed through his veins for decades.” What Karajan achieved in the first phase of his chief conductorship was the creation of a uniquely effective palette of sounds available to him and his players for the exploration and delineation of works of widely differing musical styles. “They are like a body of chamber musicians, minutely listening to one another and adjusting their volume of sound and degree of dynamic accentuation to a nicety,” noted the London Times in 1964. “His art”, the conductor Mariss Jansons later recalled, “was to make the orchestra listen to itself. Critics sniped but, for musicians, what he did bordered on the miraculous.”
Part of Karajan’s inheritance was the visceral intensity of the Berlin playing, a temperamental predisposition – very much evident in the orchestra’s pioneering 1913 recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – which can be traced back to Arthur Nikisch’s time as chief conductor. This was an important factor in the success of the 1963 cycle. “Karajan presented the symphonies plus high fidelity,” wrote the English critic Neville Cardus in a review of the orchestra’s 1961 London Beethoven cycle. “The playing throughout the evening was truly superb, every instrumentalist bowing and blowing and thumping as though for dear life … We heard things which usually we are obliged to seek out with eyes alone by reading the score.”
The costs involved in recording the cycle were astronomical. It was estimated that over 100,000 boxes would have to be sold if Deutsche Grammophon’s 1.5 million Deutschmark investment was to be recouped. The head of a rival company predicted that Deutsche Grammophon was heading for “a colossal financial catastrophe”. Some board members at Siemens, Deutsche Grammophon’s parent company, were also decidedly nervous.
Their nervousness was not shared by the board’s chairman, Ernst von Siemens. He had every confidence in Karajan, a friend and listening companion of 20 years’ standing, and in the diminutive but formidable Elsa Schiller, whom Siemens had appointed in the late 1940s to steer Deutsche Grammophon back into the mainstream of international classical recording. In the event, his faith in the project was amply rewarded. By 1973 nearly one million sets had been sold, ten times the original break-even estimate. Fifty years on from its original launch, the set remains the best-selling Beethoven cycle of all time.
It was, it has to be said, a case of the right people in the right place at the right time. During the 78rpm era only one conductor, the elderly and authoritative Felix von Weingartner, had recorded all nine Beethoven symphonies. The arrival of the long-playing record in 1950–51 paved the way for late-harvested cycles from a number of distinguished Beethovenians: Toscanini (1951–53), Klemperer (1955–57) and Bruno Walter (1958–59, the first widely collected stereophonic cycle). All three conductors were in their 70s or early 80s at the time. Of conductors born after 1900, it was Karajan, then in his mid-40s, who had the stature and the skill to blaze a trail for a younger generation. A precociously gifted talent who had served a long and distinguished apprenticeship, Karajan was already deeply versed in the whys and wherefores of competing schools of Beethoven interpretation. Equally importantly, he understood recording as older colleagues raised in a pre-gramophone era never quite did. The set of the nine symphonies he made with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London between 1951 and 1955 confirmed his ability to enter a recording studio and secure, exactingly but with a minimum of fuss, superbly played performances of established masterworks in stylistically well-centred readings that bore repeated listening.
It was this achievement which the 1963 cycle took to a new level. Where the Philharmonia recordings retained elements of the old German style of Beethoven interpretation, the new-found virtuosity of the Berlin Philharmonic allowed Karajan to come closer to the fierce beauty and lean-toned, fiery manner of Toscanini’s Beethoven, which in the 1930s Karajan had venerated as a pre-eminent example of the “new objectivity” in classical conducting.
The 1963 Berlin set dazzled like no other, aided in no small measure by the clean, clear, daringly “lit” recordings made in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, by the young Günter Hermanns, whose debut as Karajan’s principal recording engineer this was. As for the critics and the record-buying public, they were enthused above all by the urgency and beauty of the music-making and by a fierce sense of joy which reached its apogee in a thrillingly played and eloquently sung account of the finale of the epic Ninth Symphony.
The quality of Karajan’s mind was evident in his rehearsals, such as the one we have here for the November 1962 recording of the Ninth Symphony: detailed, quick-moving, practical, wryly observant. A single swiftly uttered aside could combine functional analysis, a glance at the composer’s psychopathology and a piece of refreshingly down-to-earth advice. “I cannot teach you how to conduct,” he would tell aspiring maestros, “but I can show you how to rehearse in such a way that, when you come to the concert itself, you will barely need to conduct.”
Reporting on these Berlin sessions for Gramophone in November 1961, William Mann noted: “Karajan is, in the best possible sense, a practical musician. At any given moment, his conception of how the work should go may collide with what happens. You can see him thinking: ‘That doesn’t work here.’ And instead of compromising his ideal to fit the circumstances, he works out the best way of adapting the available conditions so that they serve the conception.”
Karajan wrote a magnificent short essay on the art of rehearsing (published in Franz Endler’s 1992 German biography of the conductor). It ends with a warning. The gramophone, he says, set inexorably high standards; those who ignored it got left behind. “To overcome one’s idleness and take pleasure in necessary exertion has always lent wings to the intuition of the spirit.”
Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
December 1961 (No. 1)
January 1962 (Nos. 2, 8)
February 1962 (No. 6)
March 1962 (Nos. 5, 7)
October & November 1962 (Nos. 3, 4, 9)
Executive Producer: Prof. Elsa Schiller
Recording Producers: Otto Gerdes (Nos. 1, 2, 8); Otto Gerdes & Otto Ernst Wohlert (Nos. 3–7, 9)
Recording Engineer (Tonmeister): Günter Hermanns
Remastered by Emil Berliner Studios
. . . this 1963 set remains the most highly rated, and with reason. Lustrous Berlin Phil playing, plus Karajan's visionary grandeur.
Classic FM (London) 22. July 2013