‘Like all his Beethoven readings, it is suffused with lyricism; orchestral tone and phrasing are tenderly nursed, and beautifully reproduced’. Words written in The Record Guide—the music industry’s bible in the 1950’s—and many would still rate Karajan’s first Beethoven cycle as the finest he placed on disc. It had been the impresario, Walter Legge, who rather controversially brought him to London in 1946 while the conductor’s relationship with the Nazi party was still unresolved. Yet from a musical point of view his credentials were impressive, and when teamed up with Legge’s recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra the results spoke for themselves. That the cycle had a rather short shelf-life was much due to the arrival soon after of Klemperer’s much vaunted series and Karajan’s stereo remake with the Berlin Philharmonic, a full cycle made in the early 1960s. That this 1952 Eroica remains one of the finest on disc stems from Karajan’s rejection of the overbearing sadness that had become the norm in the second movement. The scherzo is vivacious—the horn playing never since equalled—and the final has a fresh and urgent feel. His First, recorded the following year, is generally lightweight, elegant and perfectly shaded. Of course if you want the hard-hitting Karajan you will look to his much later cycles, and though at the time the Philharmonia were one of the world’s finest orchestras, there were moments when the playing could have been better.The original sound was very good and the transfers are immaculate.
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