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Herbert von Karajan's Top 5 Recordings

Herbert von Karajan was born 100 years ago. He made more than 1,000 recordings, and is estimated to have had LP, CD, and video sales in excess of 200 million. He is perhaps best known for his 1962 Berlin Philharmonic recordings of Beethoven's symphonies, and for his expertise in conducting the music of Brahms, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. But he was also a hugely gifted musical all-rounder who could conduct a good performance of most things and great performances of many others. Here are five representative Karajan albums.

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Symphony No. 3, "Liturgique"

Karajan lived through two world wars and the Cold War, and died only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of his greatest orchestral performances were of works that anticipated war or embodied a state of what he called “complete catastrophe” -- works such as Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4, Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, or Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. But the Honegger Symphony No. 3, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII, drew from performances of overwhelming intensity.

Symphony No. 5, Finale

Karajan producer Michel Glotz described him as “a mountain man,” and his fascination with the music of Jean Sibelius bears witness to this. Sibelius himself greatly admired Karajan’s recordings of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra, but this 1965 Berlin Philharmonic recording takes the music to a new level. Pianist Glenn Gould described it as one of his favorite records: “passionate but anti-sensual, precisely the dichotomy that endeared the great Finn to me.”

Pagliacci, Final Scene

Karajan was first and foremost a man of the theatre, with a love of opera that transcended national boundaries. In Italy, they divide the history of the interpretation of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci" between two periods: 'pre-Karajan' and 'post-Karajan.' Listen to these beautiful and blazingly intense performances and you'll know why.

Verdi's "Falstaff" (excerpt)

Karajan made many fine Verdi recordings—a thrilling "Il Trovatore" with Maria Callas, a spectacular "Aida" with Renata Tebaldi—but "Falstaff" was the Verdi opera he loved more than any other. Hearing Toscanini conduct it with his La Scala Milan company in Vienna in 1930 was a life-changing experience for Karajan. In this unforgettable 1956 London recording, Karajan repays the debt with brilliant conducting and an incomparable cast, headed by Tito Gobbi in the title role.

Wagner's Die Walküre (excerpt)

The only time Hitler heard the young Karajan conduct, he declared the performance of Wagner’s "Die Meistersinger" to be "un-German.” Since Karajan’s Wagner mentors were Richard Strauss, Clemens Krauss, Toscanini, and Bruno Walter, this is not surprising. This 'Die Walküre,' recorded at the time of the launching of Karajan’s Salzburg Easter Festival in 1967, is a memorable example of Karajan’s mastery of the Wagner orchestra -- and his inspired direction of a hand-picked cast that includes Gundula Janowitz and Jon Vickers as Siegmund and Sieglinde.

Richard Osborne