Herbert von Karajan (Sipa Press/Rex Features)Herbert von Karajan (Sipa Press/Rex Features)

Amid all the headlines, the halftruths, and gratuitious vitriol that surrounded the press’s coverage of Herbert von Karajan’s death in July, it was an outsider, someone unconnected with the chattering classes of the musical and not-so-musical press, who made a simple and obvious point. Writing in The Spectator, Peter Levi, one-time Jesuit priest and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, concluded: ‘He just has a passion, a deep fit of devotion, for every note of German music, and why ever not?’

Levi’s remark struck me with especial force not so much because of its self-evident truth – from childhood onwards, Karajan more or less gave up his life to music, drawing all his energies and peripheral activities into its central orbit – but because it reminded me of a phrase I often heard him use. Whether we were talking about a particular singer or instrumentalist, or simply watching individual players in the Berlin orchestra on the CD video monitors, he would often turn and say: ‘There is someone who is full of music, full of music!’ It was, I think, the greatest compliment he could pay to a fellow human being.

Levi’s talk of ‘passion’, of ‘a deep fit of devotion’, also put me in mind of a moment in Berlin last December. We were in the monitoring cubicle in the large shed outside the city where Karajan did some of his editing and additional filming. He had come a long way from the often depersonalized formalism of his experimental Unitel films of the late 1960s and early 1970s and was busy refilming some tuba solos in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote to ensure that the soloist looked as rubicund as his playing. The session over, Karajan sat hunched in front of the empty screens. Suddenly, he hit the table with his hand and half-turning said, ‘You know, I would give anything to conduct that work in the concert hall tonight’. He once said: ‘The greatest of the Strauss epilogues comes at the end of Don Quixote, where Quixote says, “I have battled, I have made mistakes, but I have lived my life as best I can, according to the world as I see it, and now...”.’ It was a remark that I often recalled because for all the apparent armour-plating of his public image, there was a good deal of Quixote in Karajan, a proud man but a dreamer and an idealist, whose astonishing successes were complemented throughout his career by downturns and upsets every bit as extraordinary as Quixote’s dizzy joustings with the windmills and the sheep.

This quixotic quality was nowhere more apparent than in his coping with allegations about his political past – the one thing that newsmen, ignorant of Karajan the musician, were always tempted to play up and which music critics hostile to Karajan could rarely resist using in some form or another. Having years ago made clear, as he imagined, the facts of his being required to hold Party membership when he finally secured the post in Aachen in 1934-5, Karajan refused to discuss the matter further with anyone – until, as chance would have it, the last weeks of his life. Though this looked like evasion, Karajan’s reasoning was exemplary. Embroiling oneself in controversies that are extraneous to one’s all-consuming vocation are only likely to drain one’s energies and perhaps permanently embitter one’s spirit. In any case, he used to say, if people are determined to believe something about you, they probably will, whatever evidence is adduced to the contrary.

Admirable as this policy was in theory, it didn’t work, as he admitted in a letter written in June 1988 to the Swedish scholar, archivist, and expert on music-making in pre-war and wartime Germany, Gisela Tamsen. The trouble had started in 1957 when a Berlin-based journalist, Paul Moor, made the now evidently quite erroneous claim that Karajan had joined the Nazi Party once, possibly twice, before his appointment to Aachen. The allegations resurfaced in the 1980s and were widely recycled in the press at the time of Karajan’s death via Roger Vaughan’s in some ways admirable but at the same time astonishingly inept biography of Karajan published in 1986. Though he had done nothing to institute proper archive researches of his own, Karajan was furious at Vaughan’s maladroitness on the Nazi issue. But his solution – to break his own Trappist silence on the matter and restate his case through a so-called ‘autobiography’ dictated to the Austrian critic Franz Endler – was another piece of Karajan quixotism that foundered on his modestly – but disastrously – underestimating what the public and the critics would expect of a book that carried on its dust-jacket the two words ‘Karajan’ and ‘Autobiography’. ‘I have not been lucky in my biographers’, he told me, very much the Knight of the Woeful Countenance, as we sat in a traffic-jam in Berlin. ‘Lenny has been luckier’. I tried to disabuse him, but Karajan, who had hated the TV film Karajan in Salzburg, had just seen a German television 70th birthday tribute to Bernstein which he had been very moved by as a worthy tribute to another person in his private pantheon of fellow human beings who are ‘full of music’.

Gisela Tamsen’s researches are not complete and it is not in my place to recycle at second-hand her provisional findings but apart from nailing the lie of Karajan’s alleged multiple membership of the Party (a lie based on ignorance of the procedures used to issue and date membership cards) they will probably reveal a man sufficiently distant from every aspect of Party activity to have sparked intermittent enquiries from 1939 onwards about the source and validity of his Party membership, something hugely exacerbated in the autumn of 1942 when Karajan, by now reduced to the role of a bit-part player in the German musical scene, followed his marriage to the quarter-Jewish Anita Gütermann with a request actually to leave the Party.

These points would not be worth making were it not for the need to correct much of what was written and broadcast about Karajan after his death and the distortions all this introduces into any assessment of his career and legacy. Ignorance and haste in radio and television newsrooms no doubt account for their dubbing Karajan as ‘Hitler’s State Conductor’. But to write, as Rodney Milnes did in The Spectator, that for Karajan the Second War was no more than an irritating blip in his smooth upward progress and that he ended the war ‘on top of the dungheap of musical life in the Third Reich’ is to rewrite history with a flair that even professional wartime propagandists might have blinked at. After 1942, Karajan’s career in Germany was a shambles – and often a dangerous shambles at that – as he conducted a handful of contracted concerts in bomb-blitzed Berlin whilst trying to find work in such safe or not-so-safe cities as Paris, Dresden or Bucharest. The Nazi’s real showcase, under the to some extent liberalized administration of Baldur von Schirach, was, not Berlin, but Vienna, where the top dogs were men infinitely more important than the talented Kapellmeister from Aachen: men like Furtwängler, Clemens Krauss, Knappertsbusch, Böhm and Richard Strauss, most of whom, let us not forget, were also savaged by the hacks of their own day in the late 1940s when the war was over.

Where people go wrong is in their strange assumption that because Karajan became so powerful in his later years he must have been powerful from the start. In reality, between his debut in 1929 and the death of Furtwängler in 1954 – 26 long years of apprenticeship and growing achievement — his career was disrupted, diverted, and blocked by events largely beyond his control, ranging from his dismission from Ulm in 1934 by a well-meaning administrator, through the political events of the 1930s and 1940s, to Furtwängler’s curious determination to close off to Karajan after the war not only Berlin and Vienna but even his native Salzburg where in the early 1930s Karajan had been, as he quaintly put it ‘maid of all works’, to Reinhardt and Paumgartner.

It was a quarter of a century that radically changed Karajan’s view of the world, but like many people he learnt hard lessons through deprivation. The mid-1940s became for him a period given over to reading, meditation, and study, mental and physical preparation for the years ahead. Meanwhile, he made music where best he could, with Legge and the Philharmonia, in Milan, and with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra that he briefly revived. And it was in some of those post-war concerts that he gave most immediate eloquent expression to his feelings about the times in often astonishing concert performances and recordings of works like Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Brahms’s German Requiem and the newly written Symphonie liturgique of Honegger. When Furtwängler died and Böhm was sacked from the re-opened Vienna Opera, Karajan, still locked into commitments in London and Milan, became briefly a kind of European Generalmusikdirektor, a title that stuck to him years after it ceased to have any relevance. In reality, the late 1950s and early 1960s were no more than a transition between the years of disruption and deprivation that had generated the vision of his ultimate goal of conditions for music-making free of the interference of politicians, bureaucrats and professional administrators. The press liked to depict Karajan as a musical megalomaniac. But it was not power Karajan sought; it was independence.

In this respect, he was, in large matters if not always in small ones, an amazingly patient man, with an astonishing long-term vision, and an obsession with loyalty in his immediate associates. His professional heroes were men who had been master builders of great orchestras, Talich and Mengelberg, Mravinsky and Szell. Latterly, he looked with dismay on the international orchestral circus of increasingly destabilized relations between orchestras and their so-called ‘permanent’ conductors. Not that everything was gloom and doom. Whenever I visited him in the last 18 months he would usually at some point lean back in his chair and with a wonderful guttural roll on the initial ‘R’, say: ‘Now tell me about Rattle. What is he doing? Has some fool tried yet to lure him away from his orchestra?’

Karajan was right in 1955 to ask for a life-contract with the Berlin Philharmonic, and he and the orchestra have left an astonishing heritage of recordings across an equally astonishingly wide repertoire; though it is something of an irony that having asked for a life-contract, Karajan was the first of the Berliners’ principal conductors not to die in office. Why the relations with the orchestra came to a final breaking point seven years after the Sabine Meyer affair is a matter for cultural historians to sift and assess. They were the finest, and the best paid and best equipped of our era, but no one, not even Karajan, could work with a dissenting group within the orchestra, and after a gruelling, physically draining winter of recording, touring and editing, he judged it best to quit. He admired independence, and talked warmly of players who had found personal satisfaction by going off and setting up their own schools and businesses; and he retained great affection for many of the serving players. But he saw the kind of corporate ambition that leads players into politics and a kind of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality as misguided. The idea that the orchestra on tour should stay in the same hotel as their conductor was a typical small irritant. ‘In Vienna, I said, “gladly”; but I suppose they soon discovered that the hotel I use there has only 25 rooms. I chose it because it is quiet and because now, with all the problems I have, it was one which gave me really considerate service. If they had stayed there the management would have had to fit bunk-beds!’

Such requirements only help further to escalate the cost of touring, which a Karajan-less orchestra may find it increasingly difficult to recoup. In June, I put to Karajan a point that had been made to me some years ago by Riccardo Muti; that Karajan’s immediate successor in Berlin would be hard-pressed not to fail artistically or financially, and possibly both. Karajan disagreed. ‘Look what happened when Toscanini left the New York Philharmonic’, he somewhat foxily replied. ‘Precisely my point’, I retorted. ‘And what happened?’ he persisted. ‘Barbirolli took over, was generally abused by all and sundry and eventually went back to England.’ ‘Yes, but it went on’, Karajan concluded. ‘And it is the same in Berlin, it will go on.’

In fact, as the marvellous new DG recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony confirms, Karajan had already re-established a well-nigh symbiotic relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra he had first conducted way back in 1934 and with whom he made his first truly memorable gramophone recordings in 1946 and 1947. Later, in the late 1950s or thereabouts, I often felt the orchestra’s over-ripe tone brought out the worst in his symphonic conducting. Despite the myth of his suffocatingly beautiful sound, his symphonic recordings with the Philharmonia and the Berliners were invariably sparer and more stylish. How urbane, for example, his EMI and DG Berlin recordings of Mozart’s little A major Symphony, K201, are; and how truly awful was a concert performance he gave in London with the VPO in 1965, with emasculated rhythms, toothpaste-tube phrasing, and a repeat-free text. Karajan said the orchestra went into a decline in the late 1960s but latterly they have challenged the Berliners in almost every aspect and it is doubtful, had he lived, whether Karajan would have missed his old orchestra.

In opera, German and a good deal of Italian, too, the VPO have always been on home ground and it was with them, in January of this year, that Karajan made his last complete opera recording, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Though blame for some of the technical ineptitude of 1970s EMI recordings of Il travatore, Aida and Don Carlos have been laid, rightly or wrongly, at Karajan’s door, he was always a superb Verdi conductor, and, one would have surmised, a natural interpreter of Un ballo in maschera with its mordant humour and formal perfection. Michel Glotz certainly thought so, and had put the idea to Karajan on and off over a period of a dozen or more years. Eventually, he gave up: and, naturally, within six months – to be precise, on New Year’s Eve 1987 – Karajan said, ‘Now I will do Ballo.’ It took five days to cast, as long as it took to phone the cast Karajan wanted, with Domingo, a self-selecting choice, Nucci, who Karajan later said was for him the great revelation of the sessions, ‘a man who can sing with pianissimo sound and fortissimo expression’, Florence Quivar, the beguiling and talented Sumi Jo, and, of course, Josephine Barstow, a (to some) controversial choice that Karajan was determined on from the moment he saw and heard her in Penderecki’s Die schwarze Maske.

If Karajan’s production strategy of recording performances ahead of his stage productions had a drawback it was that on occasion the recordings did not always achieve the harmony and incandescence of the later theatre performances. Yet, as Josephine Barstow and Sumi Jo, both newcomers to his working methods, told me, his ability to forge his singers into a team within a matter of days bordered on the uncanny. With Karajan, of course, singers had to attend for the duration of the sessions, permanently on call. This in itself developed a sense of ensemble, of shared effort; and because Karajan would switch from one scene to another within a session, there could never be any question of a singer mugging up the part on site, or on an aeroplane as he or she flew in to tape a bit of a prearranged schedule. With Karajan there were no schedules which, as Barstow noted, meant that you had to have your role absolutely under control. Sometimes he would switch scenes at barely more than a moment’s notice, something that would be quite impossible to tolerate were it not for his ability, with a single downbeat, to establish a mood, a colour, an atmosphere – as Barstow put it with wide-eyed astonishment – ‘immediately!’. This, I suppose, is one of the ultimate mysteries of the art of the great conductor. Of course with much of Ballo with its mordant humour and dark, death-obsessed moods, Karajan was on home ground and no opera orchestra produce a blacker sound than the Vienna Philharmonic when required. Even so, it was a phenomenon to savour.

During the sessions Karajan would say very little, even at playbacks. To an outsider his methods might have seemed arbitrary, even high-handed but any of the principals would tell you that they learned to trust him, to recognize that with him there was invariably a sound artistic reason for a decision, and a reason, what’s more, based on a mixture of intuition and decades of hard-won experience by a man of great wisdom and practicality. ‘He builds an opera recording,’ Michel Glotz told me, as someone might weave a tapestry, working at different places simultaneously but always with the whole effect clearly in mind.’ And it is Karajan’s overview of the works he conducted, whether a Bruckner symphony or a Verdi opera, that underpins the satisfaction one often feels with many of his performances long after the first reviews and the instant reactions to this or that detail. Karajan has made the odd duff record, and some instantly and obviously great ones, but many of his recordings have won wide critical acceptance as much as 10 or even 20 years after their initial issue and their often guarded or patronizing reviews.

Half-way through the Ballo sessions, Karajan ordered the hall to be switched round: orchestra in the stalls, soloists behind them up on the stage. It invalidated a couple of days’ recording, and sent quite a few people into a panic but whatever the immediate practical reason for the switch it wouldn’t have been done if Karajan had not sensed that after piano rehearsals and several days of work with the orchestra in front of the microphones, the team was ready to put down Ballo in a series of long sustained takes over an intensive four-day period.

And, always he had time for the singers. After a long Tuesday morning session, the musicians disappeared and the aides were dismissed whilst Karajan sat in the empty Musikvereinsaal in Vienna talking to Sumi Jo. He looked completely drained but spent 20 minutes in detailed conversation. Eavesdroppers hovering in the corridors like spies in Der Rosenkavalier assumed the young Korean was getting a dressing down by the maestro. But it was nothing of the sort. ‘He said something quite brief about intonation at a particular point in my register,’ Sumi Jo later revealed ‘but it was just a chat, a very long chat about my career, my hopes, my fears, my plans, the pitfalls I might face. You know, I have been around now a little while, but no one has ever bothered to discuss these things with me. Yet Karajan talked to me as though I was his own daughter. And when we do discuss the performance, and my interpretation, he is completely open to my ideas. Most conductors I have worked with say, ‘No, this is the way I want it’ which shows, I suppose, a kind of insecurity. With Karajan there was never any of this.’

Of course, it has been said that Karajan took up singers, wrecked their voices, and dropped them, an argument popular with English anti-Karajan folk. This, by and large, was never the singers’ view. True, it was difficult to say no to Karajan not only because of the loss of a prestige-making engagement but because, as Helen Donath has recalled, ‘When you tell him no, he feels almost personally rejected.’ But he also knew what he was asking for. Donath sang Eva on one of Karajan’s most cherishable recordings, the 1970 Dresden/EMI set of Die Meistersinger. ‘Every other conductor would have blown me off the record,’ she told the American writer Jeannie Williams, ‘but he tunes the orchestra down. The danger is that afterwards everyone says, ‘Oh, she can sing that’, and the rest of the world asks, ‘Will you please do this part with me?’.

In some respects Karajan was the ultimate professionals’ professional. Josephine Barstow told me, ‘Music-making on this level is what I came into the profession for. And there is no doubt, the concentration everyone gives, and the seriousness with which Karajan approaches music-making are things that are today quite rare.’ What Barstow noted, echoed something Jon Vickers said with characteristic intensity a number of years ago: ‘There is no question that Karajan stands head and shoulders above every conductor in the world today. He’s very hard to work with, to be sure, but only because he demands an incredible standard for music’s sake. This is especially terrifying for me because he believes I am much better than I believe I am. He pushes me to the ultimate every moment. There are very few things in my profession and life that get to me emotionally, and put me in a position to be hurt. I am not emotionally the Met, or Covent Garden, or Scala, or Salzburg. I am emotionally Karajan, and if he chose to do so he could cut me to ribbons; he knows it. But that kind of relationship is rare in the music world.’

The Vickers/Karajan legacy is small but important: the EMI Tristan and Othello, the DG Walküre. Of course, Karajan asked Vickers to do Tristan in 1958 and was rightly told to get lost. But Karajan trusted the young Canadian and didn’t take umbrage or lose sight of him. Hence Vickers’s loyalty. In that same interview, he added: ‘When a man stands as high as Karajan and sets such a standard, when his grasp and his ability and his mind are so great, he cannot help but produce enemies. It is one of the sad things about the heart of mankind. The jealousy and envy this man is a victim of absolutely horrifies me, for he is a great, great human being.’ All one can say is that it is a pity Vickers wasn’t on hand in a few editorial offices the afternoon Karajan had his fatal heart-attack.

Gramophone readers will not need me to rehearse the range or the worth of the recorded legacy from the earliest post-war recordings of Brahms and Richard Strauss to the valedictory Viennese Bruckner Eighth. Even the sceptics look fondly back to some of the old 1950s EMI recordings — the Così fan tutte, Fledermaus and Ariadne, Butterfly and Trovatore with Callas, and, a little later, Falstaff and Rosenkavalier, scores learned, respectively, at the feet of Toscanini and Clemens Krauss. The fashionable theory that things became less interesting thereafter hardly holds water when the 1960s brought fresh revelations from the new, young Berlin Philharmonic in Brahms and Debussy, Bruckner, Honegger, and Wagner, alongside a good deal of searing verismo on record, most memorably, perhaps, the 1965 La Scala, Milan recording of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci for DG. In the 1970s, and in particular in the middle years of the decade after debilitating illness, Karajan both intensified old readings and added new ones, widening the circle of his recorded repertoire to take in dozens of new works, among them the pieces included in the famous Berg, Schoenberg and Webern DG boxed set and, one of his crowning achievements, the live Mahler Ninth also on DG. In the music of Bruckner, Strauss and Sibelius he had occasional co-equals but no one to match so consistently his insight, conviction, command of form, and sense of much of the music’s remoteness, its extraordinary spiritual distance.

The films, Karajan’s great video legacy, remain to be seen and evaluated. As films they bear little relation to what he was doing 10 or 20 years ago. They are more specific, more humane in some ways, with wonderfully intelligent and specific detailing of the musical argument through close instrumental detailing. Naturally, being by Karajan they have been sneeringly discredited sight unseen by a number of journalists and critics. In a Sunday Times feature, Norman Lebrecht wrote of alleged fears among video moguls of Karajan’s ‘home-movies’ flooding a currently fragile and unstable market. In fact, Karajan was intending to take an extraordinarily conservative and cautious approach. He told me that he had plans to release initially only a fraction of the 40 or more films. Indeed, he was already pondering which to include in the small early batch.

They represent, of course, his own monument, whatever musical or educational value they may have. They also, as he noted, put on record as clearly and imaginatively as possible, the work of the Berlin and Vienna orchestras of which he was justly proud. In terms of corporate expertise and corporate commitment they will serve as a model and perhaps an inspiration to future generations. They show what is possible. As the critic Tim Page said to a young music student after Karajan’s last concert in New York earlier this year: ‘You may never again hear such playing, but now you know it can be done.’

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