Karajan's 1962 release on DG is among the best. It's decently recorded and reasonably priced too.
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The Karajan 62' is probably the best compromise for a first Beethoven set overall. A decent but not great recorded sound but excellent and consistent performances. Carlos Klieber's recordings of the 5th and 7th are musts for everyone period. The '38 Toscanini recordings are generally better musically than the early 50's versions. Several of the Furtwangler recordings are musically wonderful, especially any of the three live recordings of the ninth, my personal fave being the Lucerne Festival performance. I think that Walter's and Klemperer's Beethoven are special tastes and I would not recommend them unless you have a special affinity. If you want to, try the Klemperer version of the Fifth or Walter's Seventh. If you don't like those performances you won't like their others. The Harnoncourt set has the electrical excitement of a live performance and is well recorded but it really should be a second or third set. The "original instruments" crew of Norrington and Gardiner have good performances and are for the most part well recorded. Either of those would be a good buy but I would stay away from Goodman and the Hanover band. Also stay away from the Solti set. I am personally fond of the Szell set for classical elegance but again this is an second or third set.
Some may disagree, but Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony in the performance of the 9th is magnificent. There is a remastered release on BMG's High Performance label that will blow you away. It is inspiring! As far as all around sonics and performance go, this is the best I have heard. Originally recorder in the late 50s or early 60s. Give it a shot.
DG/Karajan (1962)at mid price a good choice, to complete Karajan survey get his 1977 9th, his best ever with very exciting final. DG/Klieber 5&7 is a must have, legendary performances that are remastered at mid price, no brainer. Gardner and Harnoncourt are good but at full price not the best bargain, Gardner is best peroid instrument performance set if you must have one. Arte Nova/Zinnman is the new contender, exciting performamces that are well recorded at super budget price, some consider this set the best at any price. RCA/Wand and EMI/MacKerras are very good, well recorded and at budget price. BTW I purchase the Zinnman series online for $24, unbelievable bargain, and probably the best all around set to begin with.....you can never have just one!
The two best on lp for sound and performance are the Karajan 62 on DG and the Solti 75 on London/Decca. Both have a few clunkers but all complete sets do. Individually and in stereo I suggest Walter's #3 on Classic, Monteux's(sp?)#4 on Classic, C. Klieber's #5 on DG, Walter's #6 on Columbia,and Cantelli's #7 on EMI. Solti's #8&9 in the London set are my favorites. Bear in mind this is for sound and performance and on Lp. As much as like Szell his sound on Lp is poor, maybe the CD'd are not as shrill.
Forget the usual suspects. I've heard them all. My favorite Beethoven Symphonies are the City of Birmingham Orchestra, conducted by Walter Weller. Released on Chandos label. CD set also includes a performance of the partially finished 10th symphony. I have heard better individual symphony performances of course, but overall this is an excellent set of performances from a musical performance standpoint. Never tire of listening to this set. Does not blow you away like some, but I find those "blow you away" performances do not stay with me. (I am exhausted after listening to them.)
To supplement your complete CD set purchases, besides DG/Kleiber 5&7, do not hesitate to get Sony/Walter 4&6 mid price with SBM remastering, 6th is a legendary performance and recording is excellent as are many of the SBM remasters. Also the remastered EMI/Klemperer stereo 3rd from 1961 should be in any collection, even though many may not embrace Klemperer's style, this is legendary performance, Sam
I love the Gardiner set. It is the most transparent because it is on period instruments and the performances are excellent, highly recommended. The Norrington is OK not as good to my ears. No one mentions Bernstein. Shortly before his death he performed the 7th at Tanglewood. That is a superb performance.
I bought that Bernstein recording for my parents. They attended that concert at Tanglewood. It is a very unique (and very good) interpretation. Other than the Weller set I mentioned before, I also listen to the Kleiber 5 & 7 mentioned by others. I have older CD pressing than the "DG Originals". I think they are better.
Just to give you a different perspective, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music did a set which I think is superb. The orchestra size, instruments, and deployment are authentic. These recordings are spirited -- lots of giddyup -- and beautifully recorded on Loiseau-Lyre. You can hear much more detail in the smaller ensemble than in the modern orchestra, and it's closer to the band Beethovan would have had in mind when orchestrating.
I concur with the recommendation of Karajan's 1962 recordings, except for the 6th - sounds like he was in a rush to get to his next performance. Many years ago when I first realized how much I liked the 6th, I went looking for "the" definitive performance, and ended up buying the Bohm, Masur, Sanderling, Dorati, Walter, and Reiner. I like the Bohm best - much better than the Walter, which others like. However, I do not like the Bohm 5th - lacks the tension of Karajan. I concur with the Carlos Kleiber 5th. Incidentally, there is a 9th that is of academic interest - played live, then recorded by Bernstein when the Berlin Wall fell. The orchestra is a collection of musicicans from all over the world. There was one change made to the text - "Freunde" was changed to "Freiheit" - Freedom. Is there any music "better" than the slow movement of the 9th, except maybe for the Hammerklavier Sonata ?
Some people may like DG/Karajan 1977 set better than 1962 set, avoid the digital set from the 1980s which has poor recording and weaker performances. The 77 set at mid price is not the bargain the budget price 62 set is, but the performances are generally faster more vibrant, and the recording quality is excellent, and the 1977 9th symphony is Karajan's crowning acheivement of all his Beethoven recordings, the final having a power and fury not usually associated with Karajan.