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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The monster and his myth

By Norman Lebrecht / January 30, 2008

I t's hard to believe, but the old monster is back. Walk down any Paris boulevard and he looms off billboards in that eyes-shut pose of simulated spirituality that baffled and infuriated so many of his musicians. In your local record store - if you've still got one - he's pushing living maestros out of the racks with major-label box-sets and new releases of his unpublished takes.

The world's festivals and orchestras are commemorating the centenary of his birth, starting this month in Salzburg and Lucerne and proceeding via Berlin and Vienna, where his hegemony was unchallenged, to a celebratory London concert by the Philharmonia, which booted him out in the mid-1950s for being too much of a Nazi. 'Remember! Karajan 08' is the slogan that's going up all over Japan. Wherever you look this year, Herbert von Karajan is back on top of the classical agenda and a whole industry is working all hours to keep him there.

More than other art forms, classical music is a prisoner of anniversaries, pinning its concert plans to dead composers, Mozart in 2006, Grieg and Elgar last year, Messiaen coming up. But where a composer season can stimulate ideas and new works, raising a conductor from the dead has no creative value, arousing nothing worthier than hero worship.

Death is a great leveller except to those who die rich and can buy themselves a shot at immortality. No classical musician, not even Pavarotti, died richer than Herbert von Karajan. At his death in July 1989, Karajan's tax-sheltered fortune exceeded 200 million and the record royalties continue to roll in to this day to his third and last wife, Eliette, a sometime Dior model who has just published her memoirs.

Karajan was the most recorded conductor in history, with almost 900 albums to his name, including five sets of Beethoven symphonies in mono, stereo, video, digital and super-video. He yielded one-third of the revenues of the dominant label, Deutsche Grammophon and he used his clout to exclude Bernstein, Solti, Harnoncourt, Barenboim and other perceived rivals from Salzburg and Berlin, twin citadels of an art that he subjugated to rampant commercialism and cultural retrogression.

Karajan despised modernism, shunned most living composers and staged opera productions that looked two generations out of date. His values belonged to the Nazi era, combining a passion for new technology with a preference for populist, heroic art. He was, in almost every respect, a child of that time.

Raised in Salzburg during and after the First World War, Karajan struggled to make a career until Hitler seized power in Germany. With the eviction of Jewish and leftist musicians, Karajan became, at 27, the youngest music director in the Reich and, in a 1938 Goebbels headline, 'Das Wunder Karajan'. He was just what the Doctor ordered - fair hair, clean-cut features and piercing stare - and he was a poster boy for party culture until he crossed a line by marrying an heiress who was partly Jewish.

After the War, he was whisked to London by EMI's Walter Legge to make records with the newly-formed Philharmonia. Meeting British players who had fought on the opposite side, Karajan applied an electrifying charm and skill to forge a world class ensemble and polish up his trademark line of beauty, a style of music making that placed aesthetics above meaning. Some were stunned by the illusion of perfection, but many critics recoiled from the intellectual vacuity of his concerts.

By the time London players attacked his 'inexcusable' arrogance, Karajan was on his way to becoming conductor for life at the Berlin Philharmonic and director of both Vienna State Opera and Salzburg Festival. No maestro had ever attained such power and, while he gradually relinquished most posts, Karajan wielded to his death an insidious, reactionary, counter-democratic and entirely unaccountable influence on an art form which depends for its every performance on a flow of public funding.

It is that lifetime achievement which is now being 'celebrated' with a flood of soft-focus media programmes and a general blurring of memory. It amazes me to see Karajan's demagogic pose in Paris, where he conducted the Horst Wessel Lied during Hitler's occupation. It astonishes me no less to hear the self-made Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle claim Karajan as a mentor, as if they secretly covet his power.

There are two visible engines behind the anniversary year - the Herbert and Eliette von Karajan Foundation, which is paying for some events, and the once-mighty major labels which aim to shift unsold mountains of Karajan product into new markets, notably China and India. It may well prove to be their swansong.

Sampling Decca's box of Vienna Philharmonic recordings, I find myself exhilarated once more by his cosmic energy in Holst's Planets and irritated immediately after by his languid, self-admiring fjord cruise through the highs and lows of Grieg's Peer Gynt. Karajan had a tendency to homogenise music, bending it to his line of beauty, suppressing its diversity of character. Hearing an excess of Karajan is like spending a month at McDonalds, a bloating, desensitising experience. Those who listen to Karajan for the first time this year will, I suspect, be stupefied by the sameness of his brand.

Many will wonder why a multinational industry has conspired to resurrect a man who never made an original note of music, bequeathed a transmissible idea or represented any appreciable human value. Herbert von Karajan was a moral and creative nullity. His myth does not survive the test of time.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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