Remembering a major maestro 23 years on...
It's the 23rd anniversary of Herbert von Karajan's death today; he died in 1989 at the age of 81. Which seems a pretty good excuse to share what I've been listening to over the past couple of months – the DG box set 'Karajan. The 1960s'. And it does exactly what it says on the box – every recording Karajan made in just over a decade (some discs were made in 1959 while there's another from 1973) excluding the Cav and Pag he made with the forces of La Scala and his BPO Ring cycle. What's quite astounding is the range of Karajan's repertoire – I can't think of another conductor who conducted such a breadth of music. And Karajan's canny ability to balance the overtly popular (and therefore commercial) with the more 'hard-core' (Second Viennese School, Bruckner symphonies and so on) must have been a major contributing factor to his global reputation. There's a full track listing on DG's website.
'Karajan. The 1960s' is an 82-CD set. It retails at Amazon UK for £149.40 (working out at £1.82 per disc) or, on Amazon US $220.92 (or $2.69 per disc) – an astoundingly inexpensive way to acquire a huge amount of music, once you've parted with a sizeable chunk of money. The packaging is stylish and, à la Originals (and countless imitations ever since), each disc is adorned with its original art work, though the type of many of the sleeve backs is so tiny that reading them is all but impossible!
I've listened to each of the discs – some straight from CD, some ripped onto various portable devices – and the standard of performance is breath-taking. There are, of course, numerous classic recordings here: the Beethoven symphony cycle complete with a Ninth that shines with a luminosity that has rarely been equalled; there's the Haydn Creation with singers of the calibre of Janowitz, Wunderlich and Fischer-Dieskau; there's his first Shostakovich Tenth and Honegger symphonies (performances of biting intensity that make you wish that Karajan had conducted more 20th-century music); there's his Sibelius Symphonies Nos 4-7 (dark and brooding with an icy edge); there's some classic Richard Strauss (Ein Heldenleben – the interloper from 1959 – Don Quixote with Fournier, and the first Metamorphosen); there's his glorious account of Debussy's La mer and the second Ravel Daphnis suite; there's the four Brahms symphonies and his deeply moving account of the German Requiem (Janowitz and Waechter)… The list goes on and on…
There are all sorts of now rather tired Karajan clichés: 'He was only any good with the Philharmonia'; 'He was basically a deeply unpleasant man and not worth listening to at all'; 'Everything sounded the same'; 'All he was interested in was beauty of sound'; 'He was only any good in second-rate music'. Just grab a handful of these discs and it's hard to pass such easy verdicts. Yes, he did favour a rich, burnished orchestral sound (just listen to his Rimsky Scheherazade or the disc of opera intermezzi and, yes, you'll be amazed at the sound he cultivated) but take that Shostakovich Tenth and beauty is not the prime goal. Elegance is there aplenty – the disc of dances by Johann Strauss II is exquisitely nuanced, and I must admit to being totally won over by his gorgeous way with the Coppélia music by Delibes (a recording I'd not heard before). But there's bite a-plenty and his Beethoven sounds nowhere near so heavy on its feet as recent cycles from, say, Thielemann and Barenboim.
The 1960s was a remarkable decade for the Berlin Philharmonic, especially for its unparalleled woodwind section – these were the years when oboist Lothar Koch, horn-player Gerd Seifert, clarinettist Karl Leister and flautist Karl-Heinz Zöller were young men and new to the orchestra (and at the end of the 1960s James Galway would also join as a principal). And from this characterful epicentre, the Berlin Philharmonic sound radiated outwards.
There are of course a handful of discs that to today's ears sound very much of their time – Karajan's Bach Brandenburgs and Orchestral Suites, his Handel Concerti grossi and his big-band baroquerie (including that Brucknerian Albinoni Adagio), but it's invariably rhythmically lively. As are the Mozart symphonies, which are done with great style – after all, Karajan was Austrian!
I heard Karajan in concert four times (Bach, Mozart and Richard Strauss in Oxford) and three Royal Festival Hall concerts that included three of the Brahms symphonies, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (grotesque!), Beethoven's Fourth Symphony and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (the last two performances now available on CD from Testament. And from those four concerts, I can't imagine hearing Metamophosen or Ein Heldenleben done better – they remain indelibly etched into my musical memory.
So, on this anniversary of Karajan's death, I shall pluck disc 76 from the box, sit back and listen to Metamorphosen and reflect on a man who brought great music-making to a quite unequalled number of people. No surprise, then, that he romped home – by a huge lead – as No 1 in Gramophone's Hall of Fame earlier this year.
James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. After four years of co-presenting BBC Radio 3's weekday morning programme "Classical Collection" has moved to Sunday mornings, with Rob Cowan his fellow presenter; he also hosts some Saturday afternoon shows. His blogs will explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.