Last week, my father emerged triumphant from my grandparent's underground garage, brandishing an immaculate 1969 LP of Beethoven's 5th by Karajan. Previously I hadn't been too taken by this symphony. Every recording I'd heard had been a little... turgid. Even the great Lorin Maazel. The opening bars are so well known that anything short of inspired just sounds cliched. This recording, however, was something of a revelation. It was a good notch faster than any other version, but not inappropriately so, and the orchestra was so good that there was not a second in the symphony where it felt they were struggling for balance and control.
This is a piece that needs to move. Beethoven's style is typically very vigorous, very muscular, and if played without enough momentum it can tend to wallow in its bulk. This is particularly true of the first movement - it possessed remarkable energy which made the music so much more captivating.
The other occasion Karajan's recording really dropped my jaw was the transition between the third and fourth movements. From the thundering dances of bass and cello in the third, the orchestra drops back to a very courtly dance of full pizicatto strings. This fades, and fades, and then becomes an extraodinary progression - upper strings over a slow timpani beat. The violins slowly initiate a bizarre series of scales, the precise harmonic structures of which defeat me, anyone with some good musical theory training may wish to back me up with a little official detail here.
In most recordings, this section is so quiet, so controlled, so austere to contrast with the coming explosion of full orchestra that it loses focus on its own brilliance. It's a little transition passage between bigger things. In the Karajan version, however, it is quite frankly the highlight of the symphony, and just about the coolest moment of orchestral music I've ever heard. The feel is an interesting contrast between the languid strings, playing a slightly weird progression of scales, and the barely heard but insistant timpani maintaining the drive. It accomplishes the feat of maintaining momentum and the strong rhythm of the third movement without actually sounding like it, but it becomes more obvious as the violins snap out of it and enter the crescendo into the fourth movement.
I'm not sure if this recording is available on CD, but if you can get it I would very much recommend it as a defining version of this symphony. It brings out the power and uniqueness of a work that has fallen into bad company and sadly become associated with a thousand bad TV ads.