Saturday, September 9, 2017

Karajan in Berlin: Advances in Production Quality

The title of the ninth box in the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is simply Herbert von Karajan 1970–1981. These are, for the most part, recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic from the same period as the “Berlin edition” of his Herbert von Karajan and his Soloists recordings. Like the last of the boxes of the Philharmonia Orchestra, there is no overall theme to the contents. At best one may describe it as a “West Meets East” selection, with three CDs devoted to France and a (very) little bit of Italy followed by four CDs traversing Eastern Europe into Russia.

Many (but not all) of the selections in this box had previously been recorded with the Philharmonia. In this case, however, the Devil is not in the details but in the dates. The Philharmonia recordings were made during the Fifties. Audio technology had changed significantly by the beginning of the Seventies. Thus, the recordings in this later box were made with vastly improved equipment being operated by engineers with more advanced technical skills.

The primary evidence of improvement can be found in the wider dynamic range. In other words the soft moments could be, when necessary, softer; and the same held for the loud ones. Unfortunately, just about all of the selections in this box tend to favor the loud side, making the package a rather disconcerting account of Karajan at his least impressive.

Readers may recall that the Russian Music box with the Philharmonia was one of the best in the set because Karajan presented the symphonies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky without ever descending into vulgarity. Apparently, new technology made that descent harder to resist. Decibels rule, not only in the Tchaikovsky symphonies but throughout the entire box. My own tastes in jazz led me to recall two of the tracks from Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah album, “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” and (with apologies for Mingus’ vulgarity) “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” (although there are few, if any, signs of Karajan saying “thank you” over the course of his recordings)!

On the positive side, remastering means that listeners can appreciate that breadth of dynamic range far better than they could when these recordings were first released. This will doubtless impress those more occupied with audiophilia than with the music itself. Since I have made it clear in the past that I am not one to be so occupied, audiophiles should be free to disregard all I have said about these recordings and revel in the dynamic extremes!

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