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Overall great, though a little "heavy"
John Grabowski | USA | 08/09/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"First off, this is one great "Unfinished," starting with the startling, thrilling sforzando in the strings and horns after the oboe announces the first theme. Karajan manages to achieve a dark, weighty sound and clear textures at the same time. I was particularly impressed by the contrasting way he treats the first movement's two principal themes, giving them more contrast in texture, dynamics and tempo than many conductors and belying the myth that "everything Karajan conducted sounded the same." (Just listen to the gentle entrance of the cellos in the second theme and tell me that everything K did sounded thick and heavy!) The second movement's poignant duet between clarinet and oboe is also wonderful. While I don't think this will displace Furtwangler, also with the Berlin Phil, also on EMI, as my all-time favorite, it is very fine and close in many ways, and in better sound as well, naturally.
The "Great" comes off less great--a little, anyway. I find the first movement lacking the requisite sunny innocence, because sunny innocence was not one of Karajan's strengths. (Listen to his Beethoven Pastorale if you don't believe me.) Although Furtwangler also has a brutal approach to this work in what is my all-time favorite recording, the live WWII performance (available through Amazon on Music&Arts), it's more crisp and forward-moving than this somewhat leaden (to my ears) performance that gives the music more pressure than it can bear. I keep expecting Valkyries or something. Oddly, however, I like Karajan's weighty approach in the third movement, where lighter interpretations often sound fluffy and brain-dead to me. The finale also tears the structure down to my ears, and again doesn't work for me as well as Furtwangler's well-considered interpretation. But, as always, your mileage may vary, and I'd strongly recommend this disc even if you share my reservations about the C Major, because the "Unfinished" alone is worth the price of admission. And that price isn't much, as you can see. A no-brainer, even if you have other versions."