No conductor since Leopold Stokowski had been as interested in the technology of recording as the late Herbert von Karajan. But where Stokowski's interest in recording was almost purely aesthetic, Karajan's interest was almost purely selfish: He wanted to preserve his legacy and ensure that his performances would always be on the cutting edge and remain a buyer's first choice.
Four years after his death in 1989, the great Austrian conductor is still at it. That accounts for Deutsche Grammophon's "Karajan Gold" -- 20 CD reissues (available as a set or individually) of the conductor's performances from the early digital era in 20-bit remastering that permits listeners to hear these records in better sound than the technology of the 1980s made possible.
But "Karajan Gold" mixes the real stuff with fool's gold. These reissues do permit us to hear Karajan performances in clearer, warmer sound. But they also reinforce many of the misgivings one had about Karajan's performances as the conductor grew older. Few musicians -- if any -- ever wanted to make listening to music such a pleasant, convenient experience.
There are some instances in which one is tempted to call "Karajan Gold" "Karajan Lite." This is especially true of some of the performances in his Beethoven cycle, particularly those of the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7. Karajan recorded the cycle four times -- once for EMI in the early and middle 1950s and three times for Deutsche Grammophon between 1963 and 1982. It is this final version that is recycled on "Karajan Gold."
There are many gains. Compare just the final movements of the 1982 Fifth Symphony in its original 1985 issue and in this new remastering. The sound is darker and sleeker and permits one to hear details that the early digital mastering process buried.
But hearing more precisely what the great conductor wanted us to hear troublingly points up what he didn't want heard. When you listen to that final movement, you must literally strain your ears to hear the important piccolo line -- it's almost nonexistent. If you compare all four Karajan recordings -- beginning with the 1950s EMI version -- the piccolo increasingly approaches the vanishing point.
Why didn't Karajan want us to hear it? Presumably because it's awkward, almost ugly in a characteristically Beethovenian way. Hearing that screech high above the rest of the orchestral texture reminds one that the composer was more interested in writing music with rough edges -- sometimes disturbingly so -- than in composing fuel for the smooth-running orchestral engine that the Berlin Philharmonic became during Karajan's tenure.
The same thing is true of the allegretto of the Seventh Symphony. In Karajan's four performances, the tempos increase steadily as does the orchestral refinement. What one hears is that famous dirge-like, litany-like melody played so smoothly that one scarcely notices any individual articulation. This reduces the piece to a familiar melody that -- however exquisitely played -- denudes it of its associations with sorrow.
It might as well be the Albinoni Adagio or the Pachelbel Canon.
This isn't to say that some of these reissues aren't wonderful. There is a "Pastoral Symphony" that is the conductor's finest traversal -- charming and relaxed -- of this piece. And the conductor's other successful recordings -- such as his wonderful collaborations with Anne-Sophie Mutter in the Brahms Violin Concerto and with Mutter and cellist Antonio Meneses in the same composer's Double Concerto (now combined on one CD) -- sound better than ever. Karajan was a great conductor -- no one ever did certain works of Mahler, Bruckner or Richard Strauss better -- but he was also a dangerous one. As "Karajan Gold" reminds us, if he couldn't serve both the music's interests and his own, he almost invariably chose the latter.