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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8 May 2008

The Karajan Centenary: Canadian Conductors Share Their Thoughts

Par/by Graham Lord / May 11, 2008

If Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan were alive today, he would have turned 100 on April 5th of this year. He has left an immeasurable legacy to the world of orchestral performance – after all, the Berlin Philharmonic was, in many ways, his orchestra for thirty-five years (the orchestra made him music director for life) and record collectors everywhere are eternally grateful for that partnership. At one point, his orchestral recordings accounted for 1/3 of Deutsche Grammophon’s record sales, and today, a great number of those recordings still hold valuable shelf space for collectors, and continue to sell well; he is the top-selling classical recording artist of all time, at an estimated 200 million copies sold. This number will continue to increase as a staggering amount of archival recordings, re-releases and new box sets is being released this year for the centenary. Not all observers, of course, see him as a kind of musical Messiah – detractors have suggested that his search for beauty in sound negated any substantial contrast in musical style, namely, that he was a Romantic expert and applied this aesthetic to classical, baroque, and even the restricted amount of contemporary music that he chose to interpret. The other main criticism is certainly much more controversial, and relates to his ties with the Nazi party while his career was taking off in Germany. Generally, the consensus is that Karajan was simply a careerist and chose not to play politics with his professional life, though it has understandably become a point of discussion and debate. We have asked some of Canada’s leading conductors to share their thoughts on this remarkable figure and explain how his legacy has influenced them.

Alexis Hauser

Artistic Director, McGill Symphony Orchestra (Montreal)

I saw and heard Karajan a lot in concerts and opera during the late 1950s in Vienna, where I grew up. At that time, he was at the peak of his artistic and physical powers. As a young teenager, studying music at the conservatory but not yet fully understanding orchestral score reading and musical interpretation, I was immensely impressed by his highly charismatic appearance and by the distinct sounds he achieved from the two Vienna orchestras he conducted regularly. He was certainly a magic figure on the podium, with his eyes closed, his feet never moving an inch (compare this to Bernstein), the upper body, arms, hands in near-choreographic harmony with the music he conducted. In those days, the Vienna orchestras were still very accustomed to playing split seconds after the conductor’s beat (a tradition dating back to Furtwängler) and Karajan made the most of it. I still remember the opening bars of a Brahms Double Concerto performance where he “painted” a few beats into the air before the orchestra came in as one, together – it gave the visual impression of an absolute ruler. He was remarkable for reaching immensely powerful sonorities without any harshness and I have never known any conductor who equaled his abilities in creating enormously long-winded musical sections with incredibly consistent and increasing tension, and wherever this was also musically justified, he reached sublime results (take, for instance, some of his Bruckner and Wagner interpretations).

In the summer of 1970, the year I graduated from Swarowsky’s conducting class in Vienna, I studied with Herbert von Karajan in the Mozarteum conducting course in Salzburg and observed him in numerous rehearsals. Here, again, he left a lasting impression on me: his knowledge of what needed to be rehearsed, how it needed to be rehearsed and for what period of time in order to obtain the results he was after was simply unique. The last time I saw him live was in 1987, rehearsing the Berlin Philharmonic in Salzburg, working them up like crazy for some 25 minutes on nothing but a few opening bars of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Then, he conducted it all the way through non-stop for fifty minutes, with all orchestra members on the edge of their chairs in a standard repertoire piece they must have played with Karajan alone hundreds of times. I also remember an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Berlin Philharmonic, Rene Kollo and Christa Ludwig in Salzburg; James Galway was the principal flutist back then (his solo in the last movement unforgettable!). Karajan did not conduct any of the recitatives at all; he simply let it all unfold through high concentration and the inner communication he established with the singer and the flutist…examples like this were lessons for life. He certainly knew how to make an orchestra constantly listen to its music making and make very large forces play like a chamber group.

In musical terms, I believe that in later years, Karajan became too obsessed with sheer “beauty” of sound, smoothness in the sequence of notes and a sort of all-embracing legato which, particularly in classical music, led to a neglect of articulation and to a uniformity of performance, regardless of the style or era. That is why I believe that many of his early post-war recordings with the Philharmonia Orchestra (London) are highly preferable to versions of the same music as recorded later in Berlin or Vienna. The ones where I find him truly superb are those of the second Viennese School, particularly the Schoenberg Variations, op. 31. While this one will most likely never be a bestseller, it deserves to be Karajan’s most lasting recording legacy.

From all that is known and has been documented about Karajan’s life and biography (including his double membership in the Nazi party), I don’t believe for a second that he was a convinced Nazi, but he was, of course, by his own admission, a total careerist (“I would have committed a murder for that job”). As a young man, he may well have been influenced by certain aspects that came along with this indescribably brutal regime, such as collective discipline or choreographed mass parades, which were the daily picture in Austrian and German cities. In looking at some of the Karajan videos, you can find influences of the Führer cult. However, for Karajan, it was surely not an admiration of Hitler or the Nazi regime, but an impression which he received and made use of for his own purposes (the Karajan cult, which indeed was blooming in trivial and silly ways in German-speaking Europe). At the same time, I can testify that Karajan was, at the height of his powers (while director of the Vienna State Opera), a highly controversial figure in Vienna, endlessly adored by a faction made up of genuine music lovers, as well as outright sycophants, but also opposed and heavily criticized by many others. For many years, he was the most discussed personality in Austria, more than any politician, pop musician or sports figure, even by masses of people who had never seen him in concert or opera, live or on television.

Is Karajan a role model? Yes, unfortunately…at least for those who put career matters above all else. In my opinion, what is most disappointing about his legacy is not his Nazi double-membership but his own admission even as an old man that there is nothing to regret and that he would do the same all over again. This is, of course, from his point of view, not inconsequential, since he fared so incredibly well for most of his life with this “philosophy”. It would be hypocritical to deny the importance of a career, but I believe there is far more to a fulfilled life and Karajan’s life is great proof of that.

Jean-François Rivest

Chef d’orchestre en résidence, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Professeur titulaire, Université de Montréal

Au contact de l’œuvre de Karajan, on ne peut que s’émerveiller du très haut calibre de toutes ses interprétations. Elles sont non seulement toujours réussies et très en place, mais surtout elles ont toujours quelque chose de profondément personnel, original. Il aura été et demeure toujours un modèle de créativité et de constance dans la démarche d’interprète, démarche d’une vie : se renouvelant sans cesse, touchant littéralement à tous les styles, faisant la promotion des plus grands solistes et des plus grands compositeurs.

S’il fallait remarquer plus spécialement une de ses extraordinaires qualités, je dirais que c’est le sens de la tension musicale. Plus que n’importe quel chef dans l’histoire de l’interprétation (du moins sur disque), Karajan savait créer une tension incroyable, continue, pourtant souple et parfois insoutenable (qu’on pense à son ouverture de Die Walküre ou bien à sa Septième de Sibelius).

Il savait également se faire le partenaire idéal des plus grands solistes, ceux qui ont marqué l’histoire de l’interprétation de certaines œuvres-phares. Plus que nul autre, il se faisait complice de la genèse de ces interprétations légendaires, après lesquelles plus jamais nous ne pourrions voir ces œuvres de la même façon (que l’on pense à Rostropovitch et au concerto de Dvorák, à Christian Ferras et au Concerto de Sibelius, à Richter et au 2e Concerto de Rachmaninoff, etc.).

Mon extrait préféré de ses enregistrements, c’est le trio final de Der Rosenkavalier avec Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Janet Perry et l’Orchestre philharmonique de Vienne, enregistré en 1984 pour Deutsche Grammophon.

Boris Brott

Artistic Director, McGill Chamber Orchestra (Montreal)

Artistic Director, National Academy Orchestra of Canada (Hamilton)

Music Director, New West Symphony (Los Angeles)

Herbert von Karajan’s centenary again brings into focus the controversy that surrounded his life and work. While some praise him for his clarity of musical vision and the unique persona he brought to the podium, others vilify him for his cult of personality and his association with the Nazi regime.

Norman Lebrecht recently wrote in London’s Evening Standard, “Many will wonder why a global 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 nullity. His myth does not survive the test of time.” I do not agree. Political passions aside, having met von Karajan and attended rehearsals and concerts conducted by him on several occasions, I was and am taken with his ability to put a personal stamp on the music he conducted, one that made an obvious connection with audiences both live and on recordings. He lived during a golden age of personality conductors: Bernstein, Klemperer, Solti, Toscanini, Szell, Beecham and Stokowski. These men had a capacity to place that same kind of stamp on the music they interpreted and on the orchestras they shaped, as much as any rock star.

Moreover, Karajan was a pioneer in new recording and film techniques. His recordings and films give us immediate access to his performances in high definition of sound and sight. Thus, audiences who have never heard or seen him alive can be exposed to his particular genius and the impression he made in interpretation during the great era of musical romanticism.

This kind of persona is sadly lacking among today’s conductors. Regrettably, we live in a world of classical musical homogeneity and leadership by committee, where it is very hard to tell orchestra from orchestra and conductor from conductor in performance or on record. Perhaps the celebration of his centenary will awaken a thirst for the kind of performance identity that will herald a golden era for classical music in the 21st century.

Yoav Talmi

Music Director, Orchestre symphonique de Québec

Principal Guest Conductor, Israel Chamber Orchestra

Indeed, Karajan’s 10-year membership in the Nazi Party between 1935 and 1945 portrayed him in an uncomplimentary light after the war. There were demonstrations in New York when he arrived there for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic, and prominent Jewish musicians such as Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman refused to play with him. Needless to say, he was never invited to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv.

Looking back at those dark years of Nazi rule, one must realize that this was a time when renowned German conductors such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were forced to leave Germany (despite the fact that both – like their mentor Gustav Mahler – had converted earlier to Christianity). It was a time when a “pure German” conductor like Erich Kleiber fled Germany in protest to the Nazi’s acts and Italian Arturo Toscanini declared that he would not set foot in fascist Nazi Germany. The young Karajan (like the older Richard Strauss) seemed silently to benefit from the important positions vacated by Walter and Klemperer. In addition, Karajan allegedly did not hesitate to open his concerts (including one in Paris during Hitler’s occupation) with the song Horst Wessel – the anthem of the Nazi Party from 1930 to 1945. These are facts that were hard to swallow after the war was over, for Jewish and non-Jewish people alike.

One should add, however, that most other prominent German conductors, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Carl Schuricht, Karl Böhm and Hans Knappertsbusch (to name but a few) continued their conducting activity during the Nazi years and yet one cannot conclude that they were necessarily either Nazi members or sympathizers. In my humble opinion, Karajan, like Richard Strauss, could be accused, at worst, of being unashamedly opportunistic by silently abandoning moral principles during the Nazi era in order to advance his career. Notwithstanding all the above, he was not a Nazi or fascist insofar as harming anyone personally.

As hard as it was, I kept trying to separate Karajan’s opportunism during the Nazi era and his outstanding qualities as a conductor. I did not know Karajan personally; the closest I came to meeting him was in 1982, when I was called 20 hours beforehand to replace Carlos Kleiber with the Berlin Philharmonic (Karajan came to conduct his orchestra two days after I left Berlin). I have always admired Karajan for his unparalleled gifts: his ability to inspire his players and audiences, his ability to build the largest arcs of phrasing and his capability to extract from the orchestra the most refined, caressingly beautiful, polished and smooth sounds.

In his lifetime, he was often compared to and evaluated against Leonard Bernstein. I was fortunate to know Bernstein closely in the years after I won the Koussevitzky Prize at the Tanglewood festival in 1969. He had a warm and giving personality, which also came through visually in his live concerts, but one had to see him conduct in order to fully enjoy his involvement in the music making. As time elapses, however, and as I listen critically to his recordings (without seeing him), I now find many self-indulgent, unrestrained and exaggerated elements that pertain far more to Bernstein than the composers he conducts. Karajan, on the other hand, managed to keep a “cool objectivity” in most of his recordings and although – like Bernstein – he was visually a most attractive conducting figure, he “survives” the critical audio examination as well as the visual test on video. Whereas Bernstein was deep in the music, Karajan kept above it, and that gave him the aptitude to avoid exaggerations and keep objectivity towards the musical text. This fact makes him very relevant today. I believe that his great qualities as a conductor will keep his legacy and recordings alive for many years to come, and his example will continue to serve as a role model for young conductors.

I have read some of the negative and often vicious articles about Karajan. I will be the last one to defend Karajan’s good character, but then, so many of the greatest soloists and conductors have pitiful, disgraceful and deplorable character. And yet – despite the contradiction – they are great artists! When I was young, I believed wholeheartedly that great artistry must go together with great humanity. Unfortunately, my years of experience have taught me otherwise. Karajan’s legacy is about his conducting, not his character, and as such, he should be measured by the pure artistic results of his concerts and recordings.

(c) La Scena Musicale