The Wizard of Salzburg

Herbert von Karajan: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon and Decca

Deutsche Grammophon, 330 CDs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray audio discs, $1,098.00
Erich Lessing/Magnum Photos
Herbert von Karajan (right) with the violinist Nathan Milstein during a rehearsal, Lucerne, 1957

The one-dollar tables outside secondhand bookstores often contain isolated volumes from what were once complete collections of a single author. There may be works by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but also by less well-remembered writers such as James Russell Lowell, Charles Dudley Warner, or John Galsworthy. Abandoned in piles otherwise devoted to forgotten best sellers or Book-of-the-Month Club selections, these books may yet, by their very presence, inspire a distinct nostalgia.

I thought of these old sets while listening to a gigantic collection of recordings by Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989), released at the end of last year and billed as the Austrian conductor’s complete recorded output for Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. In all, there are 330 compact discs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray audio discs, a handsome pictorial biography that would be worth having even without the music, and several booklets. There are 405 hours of music here: the first performance dates from 1938 (the overture to Die Zauberflöte with the Berlin Staatskapelle) and the last from April 1989 (Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a few months before Karajan’s death). According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which tracks such things, this is the “largest box set ever issued,” eclipsing a 2011 award presented to the late Arthur Rubinstein for the “largest boxed set of recordings by a single instrumentalist” (a total of 142 CDs).

The complete symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Tchaikovsky are here, as are the five mature symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn. Indeed, there are three different interpretations of the Brahms and Beethoven cycles, as well as video recordings of the latter.

And more: all of the operas Karajan recorded for the two companies, as well as twenty-four films he made for Unitel. There is Christmas music, a collection of famous adagios, a Viennese New Year’s Concert from 1987, a concert honoring Pope John Paul II, a premiere recording of a fascinating late work by Carl Orff (De temporum fine comoedia), and “complete-on-one-disc” 24 bit/96kHz Blu-Rays of his wildly popular early-1960s recordings of the Beethoven symphonies and of his meticulous and creatively cast performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle (both also represented on CD). And if this isn’t enough Karajan for you, there are 101 additional CDs awaiting you on EMI, in another recent reissue.

The sheer bulk of the set is overwhelming, and one can’t help wondering who will listen to it all. After all, we live in a world that offers the near-complete recorded output of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi and most of the albums released by Vladimir Horowitz over the course of sixty-one years (as well as a fifty-CD set of live performances that chronicle seismic ups and downs in the last part of his career), and virtually…

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