The new Complete Brahms Edition from Deutsche Grammophon is a 46-disc box set housed in a cardboard cube. The set opens with the four symphonies, recorded by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic. Unfortunately, these recordings have brittle string textures, compressed horns, and very little low end: common traits in the conductor's later recordings, especially those in the much-ballyhooed "Karajan Gold" series. Checking the label, these symphonies were recorded in 1987, two years before his death.
Classical music collectors know about the SPARS code, the three-letter system (developed by the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services) to indicate the recording source, mixing process, and mastering of a recording. Used throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the SPARS code is a useful tool in determining the quality of a classical or opera recording.
The codes are:
- AAD Analogue Recording, Analogue Mixing, Analogue Mastering.
- ADD Analogue Recording, Digital Mixing, Digital Mastering
- DDD Digital Recording, Digital Mixing, Digital Mastering
Recordings like this 1987 Karajan Brahms cycle were vaunted and marketed as being "all-digital" DDD, and sold at a higher price. But that doesn't make them better than their predecessors. They were made in the first decade of digital recording, when the recording systems would break the sound down into pixels, taking the natural "curves" of sound-waves and rendering them as digital approximations.
The same problem occurred with early releases of the (analogue) LP catalogue on CD. Much audible detail was sacrificed in the pursuit of digital clarity, and these early masterings suffer from the same harsh, bright sound in place of the warm, full orchestra that was originally recorded on analogue equipment.
Starting in the mid-1990s, record labels bought faster computers with more memory and 20-bit mastering technology was born. Revamping their AAD and ADD catalogues (and re-issuing the new pressings at a much lower price) has helped matters for the classical collector. However, the early digital recordings still suffer from their source material, made on those early machines. These Karajan recordings fall into that category. As part of the big box set, they are serviceable, but far inferior to the analogue set made by the same conductor, with the same orchestra in 1978.