When I bought my very first CD-player one of the very first CDs I aquired was Catalog#: 439 403-2 Beethoven: Symphonien Nr. 5 & 6 ‘Pastorale’ on Deutsche Grammophon conducted by Karajan himself (1962-recording). I already knew the lead theme from the 5th and I had picked up enough buzz about Karajan being one of the greatest conductors of our times, so this record just had everything going for it!
When I started listening to the record I was awed by the clarity of sound (this being one of my very first CDs it was a vast improvement in sound quality over radio and the few tapes I had), and the richness of the sound from the Berliner Philharmoniker, especially in the lower register, made the music “rock hard”. I must admit that this record is what made me begin headbanging to classical music, and it spawned a love to good music that has followed me ever since.
But as I got more acquainted with classical music I realized my dear recording of Beethoven’s 5th with Karajan really ain’t that great after all. When revisiting this record I find it rather dull and uninspired, almost mechanical in its performance. I think the orchestra plays very well, and I’m sure it’s very correct according to the notes, but I just don’t feel the music is engaging me anymore.
So what’s the problem? Didn’t Beethoven really write music that is suited for repeated listening? On the contrary, over the years Beethoven has become one of my favourite composers and I just can’t get enough of him. After starting to listen to different recordings of the same music, I conclude that I really do love this music, but not this recording of it.
How could this happen? This is the very same recording that had everything going for it in the first place. One of the most famous classical music pieces conducted by one of the most famous conductors played by one of the best orchestras in the world. I think my initial perception of Karajan as a famous and therefore great conductor is entirely made by media and the big record companies. Karajan and his opponent Bernstein has been hyped up immensely to the point where their “fame” doesn’t reflect their skills as conductors at all!
When listening to other Karajan-recordings, I often get the same “mechanical” and “uninspired” feeling as with this particular recording. Of course Karajan has his moments, but this just isn’t one of them. My new favourite recording of this symphony is Catalog#: 447 400-2 with Wiener Philharmoniker and Carlos Kleiber. Here everything is just right! The orchestra is slightly “lighter” sounding then the BPO, but it feels more balanced whereas BPO feels “heavier”. But what really makes this particular recording shine is its focus on timing that makes it sound so much more inspired and “right” then any other recording of Beethoven’s 5th I’ve heard to this date. This is truly a recording that can be listened to over and over without loosing its value.