Lord Weidenfeld: ‘Attempt to write about Karajan and you will have nothing but trouble.’ James Galway: ‘He went along with the record company image because he did look like everybody’s idea of a conductor.’ Rudolph Sabor: ‘We critics and reviewers do not really like Herr von Karajan. Does he not aim at the impossible? Is it not suspect, that flawless, beautiful, dedicated playing of the BPO? Let us give him seven marks out of ten for trying, but deduct three for trying too hard.’

When Herbert von Karajan died at his home in Anif, near Salzburg on 16 July 1989, he was in the company of two visitors: Norio Ogha, the president of Sony and Michael Schulhof, chief executive of the Sony Corporation in America. This duo was symbolic in so many ways: Ogha, a friend for years, had introduced the conductor to a host of new technologies, not least of which was digital recording, a technique that literally revitalised his record-making, as here was a method that in an ever-developing age was a major advance in sound and video reproduction. In Schulhof, lay another future. Gunther Breest, for many years Karajan’s executive producer with DG, had been lured to Sony to re-form the classical wing of the former CBS company, and negotiations had progressed to the point where there was talk about Karajan recording for the label (a Bach B minor Mass and Beethoven’s Fidelio were among the rumoured projects).

But the future denied the conductor was nothing to the future that lay ahead for his reputation in the months and years following his death. Judge, jury and executioner were the roles assumed by a host of people who had no opinion on Karajan during his life but all of a sudden assumed a wealth of knowledge on events that had taken place over half a century earlier. ‘The Nazi conductor Herbert von Karajan’ is a phrase that has tripped off tongues with ease, a handful of words that subvert a lifetime’s work. And what those few words have done is place him on a level in many people’s eyes with the Nazis who were Hitler’s henchman: Karajan was a conductor, not a concentration camp guard, you almost have to keep reminding yourself. This is not the place to delve into the facts surrounding Karajan’s early history – the Swedish historian Gisela Tamsen and Karajan’s biographer Richard Osborne have already published extensive research on the complex issue of Karajan’s Nazi party membership. Now, on the 10th anniversary of Karajan’s death, is the time to ask the question, ‘Where does Karajan stand in the pantheon of great musicians of the century?’

Dazed by the tens of thousands of words written about him, the few, though lengthy, interviews he gave and the reviews of his records, the most obvious thing to do, it seemed to me, would be to go back to his art and try to listen with fresh ears. I chose the recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony made with the Vienna Philharmonic in November 1988, about six months before his death. Here, it took no more than a few bars to conclude, was a conductor who not only understood the composer but also knew his orchestra. In the first minute everything that lay ahead was somehow inexorably there; you knew that a long journey lay before you but as with every well prepared journey the terrain was known, the hills and dales perfectly memorised, the climate understood. There was the sense, too, not of a journey undertaken so frequently as to become routine: this, too, would be a journey of discovery. As movement succeeded movement, the paragraphs extending to the colossal Adagio third movement, it became clear that here were musicians who had this music in their bones and together were giving voice to what lay within them (amazingly it is a studio recording though the level of cumulative tension is extraordinary). It would of course be absurd to say that this is the only way to do the piece, or indeed that Karajan was the only person to do it, but here is music-making that surely lies many planes above the norm.

Karajan’s career – and is this not the real cause for the remarkable venom directed at him? – was one of almost perfect logic and apparent ease. Gripped by phenomenal ambition (here was a man of barely 20 who had set his sights on the Vienna Philharmonic and would to all intents and purposes achieve that goal with economical ease), Karajan’s life placed building brick upon building brick, creating a monument that towered head and shoulders above those musicians around him, and which was built with virtually unshakeable foundations. His apprentice years in Ulm and Aachen were the model of what a traditional conductor’s career should be built upon: he learnt his craft the hard way, literally living the music, particularly the operatic repertoire, in its totality. When people called him a man of the theatre they did not realize quite how accurate that term was. By the age of 35 his repertoire was immense and his experience comparable. When Walter Legge appeared deus ex machina-like at the end of the war, he discovered a fully fledged conductor literally champing at the bit to start recording.

Karajan’s life is sufficiently well known not to need to dissect it in detail: the Philharmonia years (with a brief but white-hot starburst at Bayreuth) led to the period in 1956 when in a matter of months he secured the Berlin Philharmonic for life, took over the artistic direction of the Salzburg Festival and the running of the Vienna Staatsoper (with La Scala not far distant). And of course jealousy was aroused, and concern that one man should have that much influence on musical Europe. But the influence that would really make him virtually a household name would come through his recordings. Karajan was certainly the first in Europe to realize that his real audience lay not within the walls of the concert hail in which he conducted but beyond them, confined to countless living-rooms where radio, television and gramophone would become the new gods of the hearth (he must have looked at the impact Toscanini and the NBC had in the USA and realized how much further there was to go).

When the war ended Karajan was 37, the age when a really talented conductor is perhaps ready to take a large step in his career (it was about the age that Riccardo Chailly got to grips with the Concertgebouw Orchestra or Esa-Pekka Salonen took over in Los Angeles), and the arrival of EMI in the form of Legge allowed this coiled-up spring finally to burst into life. It is difficult to imagine the dynamism of the man from the visual image of a conductor who seemed to stick at about 50 for most of his life, but a glance through the joint Philharmonia/Karajan discography in John Hunt’s fascinating series reveals how fast and efficiently he and Legge worked (and, judging by the results, to what standards). The roll-call of great recordings is quite astounding and this golden period is usually the one even the most ardent Karajan-haters reluctantly mine: ‘Ah, but he was a very different animal then’, or ‘Yes, but he had someone who would stand up to him and whom he would listen to’ – both comments with a fair amount of truth in them. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has spoken eloquently of the creative vortex that formed around this small group in the 1950s. Its goal? An artistic perfection that, in truth, they seemed to get closer to than many. The Falstaff, the Rosenkavalier, the Fledermaus, the Ariadne auf Naxos are all interpretations that have stood the test of time and the onslaught of countless competing versions with remarkable artistic impregnability. And his collaborations with Maria Callas will never be equalled. There was something in the air then and you can hear it in the music-making.

But Berlin was calling and in the Philharmonic Karajan identified the instrument on which he would make music for the rest of his life. It was an orchestra of impeccable lineage and in taking over its helm he would only be the fifth chief conductor in a history dating back to 1882. And it offered him, in tandem with his record companies (primarily EMI and DG) a power base from which to build up a legacy of recordings the like of which had never been seen before and is unlikely to be seen again. He had arrived.

‘Karajan and Berlin.’ It is a combination that dominated the classical music scene from the late 1950s until the conductor’s death 30 years later and still carries a potent message today. How does one define this union? And how was it done? James Galway’s comment, quoted at the start of this article, sums up in a few words the Karajan phenomenon: quite simply he looked like a conductor, not to hard-core classical music fans, but to the man in the street. Whether you understood what he actually did standing on his box in front of the orchestra, he encapsulated the mystique, the allure, the glamour and the power of the role. His striking profile, the outstretched arms, the sense that he was gazing out of our world into some mystic world of his own all combined to form some of the most potent marketing imagery the classical record industry has seen. In the late 1990s it is all too easy to talk of the classical record industry coming of age in its marketing and catching up with other industries, but DG was way out in front in creating an image for its most desirable product. If in 1999 an actress can be the face of a major couturier, Karajan was the face of DG, and more universally classical music, long before such alliances were commonplace. Add to that the fact that the number of people who actually saw Karajan live was relatively small – his Berlin concerts were almost exclusively by subscription and the Salzburg Festival was always the preserve of the rich and famous – the number of people who could put a name to his face was extraordinary. A glance along the rows of LPs in our record library makes a fascinating lesson in sleeve design and the development of what came pretty close to the creation of a cult: the pictures became more ecstatic, more spiritual until they reached an apogee in DG’s box set of Richard Strauss’s tone-poems where not one but three Karajans reach up into the heavens in a rapt gesture (only the Almighty’s finger pointing back is missing) or in EMI’s now notorious sleeve (again for a Richard Strauss tone-poem, this time – significantly – for Ein Heldenleben) where the conductor, clad in a black leather jacket, is surrounded by pinpoints of dazzling light.

One of the privileges of such power was the ability to work with whoever he pleased, and Karajan’s inner circle, his ‘stage company’ as it were, says a lot about his own sound world. Even when working closely with Walter Legge he never favoured big voices, or indeed big instrumental personalities. His favoured violinists were Christian Ferras and then Anne-Sophie Mutter, both players with a relatively small but exquisitely poised manner; the cellists Pierre Fournier and Antonio Meneses both cultivated an aristocratic, restrained manner (both ideal soloists in Don Quixote). Géza Anda and Alexis Weissenberg were pianists of great poise, though Karajan never seemed to have been terribly interested in pianistic collaborations on record – maybe the instrument had too much potential for power and personality. Among singers, for example, he favoured a lyrical, almost instrumental quality, Schwarzkopf, Leontyne Price, Freni, Janowitz, Ricciarelli and Tomowa-Sintow were his favourite soprano colleagues and he was constantly charged with recording with voices that were deemed a size too small for the role (when he re-recorded Aida with Freni and Carreras the American critic Conrad L Osborne considered it ‘Aida cast like La bohème’). Karajan’s retort would be that with the Berlin Philharmonic ‘in the pit’ he could keep the sound down to allow these smallish voices true lyrical expression: certainly on record they often get away with it – just. It did lead to some exquisite singing but also to a few prematurely curtailed careers (or sopranos suddenly, and before time, discovering they were mezzos!).

Did power corrupt? Did he need someone who could say ‘No’? Certainly, he did make records that could have been a lot better. His habit of recording operas in the studio and then using them as a kind of soundtrack for stage rehearsals meant that the real performance, lived in and lived through by the cast, invariably emerged courtesy of an Austrian Radio broadcast a year later and not from his record company (his DG Don Giovanni, to take a late example, was a different interpretation once the VPO was in the pit and the cast had some stage experience). His Figaro for Decca is a dreary affair, despite, on paper, a splendid cast. His Mozart and Bach – which the BPO concertmaster Thomas Brandis says the orchestra found exhausting to play because they were denied the chance to articulate – were soon to be overtaken by events in the form of the period instrument movement. And many of the core repertoire works he returned to had often been done better before (his 1960s Brahms symphonies were arguably superior to the remakes of the following decade, though he always had problems with Nos 1 and 3); his late 1970s Beethoven symphonies were more consistent than those of the 1962 set, fine though that is and certainly both are preferable to the digital cycle of 1983-4. His 1964 Debussy and Ravel – still a thing of wonder – was not equalled by his digital version), yet there were one-offs that did reveal true genius at work: Mahler’s Sixth, the twinned Mahler Ninths, the Prokofiev Fifth, the Honegger symphonies, The Planets (the most synthetic sound you could imagine but still an interpretation of tremendous originality), the Four Last Songs with Janowitz, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (an interpretation that realigns the opera, placing it in a mid-European context – enough to write it off in some quarters – but clearly a reading fired by real passion for the work and carried through with a terrifying intensity).

Karajan’s passion for capturing his legacy on film has surely been sacrificed on the twin altars of the general indifference to the arts among broadcasters and the fact that, as he put it, he was born six or seven years too early (he was referring to technological advances, not the fact that he actually looked old and worn when he made the majority of his films – something that does make for distressing viewing). And yes, he poured a vast amount of money into this area, money that will never be recouped by the companies who are marketing it, but it is the audio legacy that will seal his critical fate. His late years, dogged by increasing pain (the back problems he had make knuckle-whitening reading) and his fights with his orchestra did deliver some extraordinary recordings, like the Bruckner Eighth already mentioned and the Mahler Ninth.

His death came on the threshold of a major slump in the classical record industry: it is difficult to say whether it was contributory to the sudden nose-dive (probably not as much as it seems) but coupled with the deaths of Bernstein and Horowitz it certainly removed the totem around which the whole tribe danced. Like Maria Callas, one of Karajan’s greatest collaborators, he still accounts for a substantial number of sales every year for EMI and DG. He was the face of classical music and, goodness knows, we need one of those today more than ever.

But was he ‘almost evil’ as Sir John Eliot Gardiner has suggested? Is that really a justifiable term to level at a ‘mere’ musician? His greatest crime was his success: it was a career that seemed too easy and harnessed too much power. And his philosophy – a constant search for beauty – was viewed with distaste (‘O beauty, O handsomeness, goodness! Would that I never encountered you! As Britten’s Claggart puts it in Billy Budd). Did he make too many records? Quite probably, but when you’re responding to a demand, who can blame you? No, Karajan’s reputation has been determined too easily by a vociferous minority. The great conductors of this century seem to fall into a number of camps: there are those creators who draw on their own compositional skills (however modest or outstanding): Bernstein, Furtwängler, Klemperer; there are conductors who seem to draw on a deep pool of intense humanity: Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Carlo Maria Giulini and Bernard Haitink would seem to fit this camp; then there are musicians of almost incandescent brilliance whose music-making seems to match that energy: Reiner, Szell, Solti, Doráti (all Hungarians), de Sabata and Toscanini. Where does Karajan fit into this? He was not a creator in the sense of being a composer. His music-making isn’t imbued with the warmth of a Walter: he lacked that gentleness. But then again, he didn’t use his performances as incendiary events. His musicianship was built on intense rehearsal and a long association with his players (not for nothing did he only work with two orchestras consistently for his last three decades). In the Romantic repertoire – Bruckner, Strauss and Wagner – he had few equals, and in French and Italian music he had an understanding that many natives might envy. Viewed as a phenomenon of the second half of this century he is possibly only matched by that very different animal, Leonard Bernstein. For the last 50 years of life he carried that banner round with him, ‘Das Wunder Karajan’ – it could be written on his headstone with impunity.

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