For Deutsche Grammophon, Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded the complete symphonies of Beethoven (several times), Brahms (ditto), Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and other composers. He never recorded a Schubert cycle for them, however. Why is that? Is it because Karl Böhm's Schubert recordings were considered unbeatable? (On the other hand, both Böhm and Karajan also conducted Beethoven and Brahms cycles of their own for DG.)
At any rate, Karajan did record a Schubert cycle for EMI Classics in the late 1970s, and now it has been reissued, dirt cheap, as part of the label's "Gemini" series, supplanting individual reissues. It is an excellent bargain, because these performances should please most listeners greatly, as they already have done for more than two decades. (The only hold-outs will be those who think malnourished playing and bland interpretations are more faithful to the spirit of early Schubert.) Karajan, as one would expect, is an advocate of big-boned Schubert, and of a fullness of Romantic expression that might seem a little much for the first few symphonies, but which ends up being brilliantly exciting, no matter how "wrong" it is. The interpretations, while sometimes driven, never lack affection. Furthermore, Karajan makes some amazing discoveries along the way. For example, in the Andante con moto of the Ninth Symphony, Karajan creates sonorities and tension that would not be out of place in the last movement of Bruckner's Ninth! In the Fifth Symphony, often regarded as a charming Mozartean throwback, the conductor looks toward Beethoven, instead of looking back at the Classical period. The Berlin Philharmonic plays gloriously throughout, and there's not a trace of compromise in the engineering, which is as vivid as anything that DG ever gave to these musicians.
The Rosamunde excerpts and the Freischütz overture are nice bonuses. One caveat is that EMI Classics has split the Rosamunde numbers – originally released on one side of an LP - not just across two discs, but across two separate releases! If it's Rosamunde which interests you most, this is an expensive pair of reissues. For everyone else, this might be the bargain of 2005.
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle