Karajan: Portrait of the conductor as celebrity

Gramophone Mon 14th July 2014

A classic Gramophone article, by HC Robbins Landon, March 1964

Herbert von Karajan in 1969 (Reinhard Friedrich / Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Herbert von Karajan in 1969 (Reinhard Friedrich / Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

 

SCENE I. A warm summer's day in Salzburg. The square in front of the Festspielhaus is the scene of subdued activity; from within come sounds of rehearsing. Chorus members are lounging about, waiting for their entry. Tourists – Germans in short trousers, Americans in slacks with cameras over their shoulders – peer expectantly around. A white-uniformed policeman is directing traffic. From right stage a drone begins to be heard, growing ever louder and turning into a throaty roar. A Mercedes sports car, top back, screams into sight. The policeman snaps to attention and blocks off the rest of the traffic. The car swirls to a stop, brakes protesting. A lean, dark-spectacled man vaults over the car's door and with quick strides disappears into the Festspielhaus, whose doors have magically and silently opened. A little man appears and takes the panting Mercedes off to a reserved parking place. Generalmusikdirektor Herbert von Karajan has arrived.

SCENE II. The airport at Salzburg. Lazy cumulus clouds float over the craggy mountains that surround the town of Mozart's birth. A few travellers are checking in for the regular Sabena Flight 202 to Frankfurt, Brussels, and London. From the direction of Germany a small sports plane appears, gracefully banking into the wind. We hear, 'Pilot to control tower, pilot to control tower, may I have landing clearance?' 'Control tower to pilot, control tower to pilot, please identify yourself.' 'Pilot to control tower, pilot to control tower, Karajan here.' 'Jawohl, Herr Generalmusikdirektor, verwenden Sie runway drei, ich wiederhole, runway drei…' The plane makes a perfect landing and taxies up to the hangar. The chief of Austrian customs, department air, section Salzburg, stands at attention as a casually elegant, begoggled figure emerges from the pilot's seat…

SCENE III. A winter's afternoon high in the Austrian Alps above Kitzbühel. It is that time of day when a queer, grey light begins to settle, peacefully and with a sense of inevitability, over the sullen snowy mountains. Far below, the town's lights begin to twinkle, and smoke from the chimneys rises slowly and straight. The last passengers get off the ski lift and prepare for the final descent of the day. A deeply tanned skier moves up on the lift; he lowers his goggles, stuffs in his pocket a miniature score of Beethoven's Ninth. (The sky is now rapidly darkening, and there is a hint of snow soon to come.) He buttons his jacket and, with a mighty push of his ski poles, vaults over the edge; his technique is not only flawless but ultra-modern, with lithe perfection in what the experts call 'wedeln': fast, side-to-side motion, very 'close in' (much closer than the older slalom) with everything coming from the hips. One of Austria's best amateur skiers swishes to a stop, hundreds of feet below, the snow fanning out in front of him. Herbert Karajan (no title in Kitzbühel) is looking forward to a roaring open fire, a drink, and presumably further study of the Ninth.

Without any question Herbert von Karajan is the star conductor on the European continent: there has, in fact, never been anything quite like him on any musical scene before. Furtwängler was famous, Mengelberg was famous, Sutherland is famous; but Karajan's fame is of a kind that transcends the musical and penetrates far into the kind of publicity world hitherto reserved only for leading film actors, royalty, and multimillionaires. It is, I feel, typical that no one I asked last summer in Salzburg could remember what kind of a car Furtwängler drove, or even if he had a car at all. But in the Cafe Bazaar at Salzburg almost any Austrian newspaperman can tell you not only what kinds of cars Karajan drives, but often the number of the licence plate (W 161 for the Citroen...).

Karajan, one is sure, would bitterly deny that he is in any way responsible for being a Kulturidol; and yet his whole way of life plays, whether he knows it or not (and I am sure he does), into the hands of the journalists and news makers. He has a gorgeous French wife, whose evening gowns — from the best French houses — dazzle any performance at Salzburg (or Milan, or Vienna) which she attends. He is also the first conductor to become widely known as an expert sportsman. As such, he attracts the adulation of people who ordinarily consider conductors balding intellectuals who (in Europe) frequent coffee houses and have soft bellies. For the average man on the street in Central Europe, what really fascinates about Karajan is that he is totally unlike an intellectual: they tell, with open admiration, how Karajan learned to water-ski. He was watching someone do it, and studied the movements intently. He thereupon tried it himself and was soon tearing over the water like a professional. All this sort of thing has inspired a curiosity about his everyday life comparable only to public interest in the personages of Hollywood — or pace Europe — of Cannes. Karajan himself is reported to have said, 'They seem to think my conducting is only an interruption (Unterbrechung) of my hobbies.'

And having acquired the status of a super movie star, Karajan has moved way beyond the kind of norm by which other conductors — even Toscanini at the height of his powers — were ever judged. A rational, cool, collected — and above all musical — appreciation of his powers seems now extremely difficult, at least as criticism is practiced in Central Europe. And yet Karajan as a brilliant athlete, Karajan as a first-rate pilot and driver of sports cars, Karajan as a wealthy habitué of Casablanca or the Côte d'Azur, Karajan as the handsome matinee idol all these roles are tangential. The talents they imply would add up to nothing without Karajan's music.

To trace Karajan's career from music director of the theatre at Ulm to his present series of jobs (director of the Vienna Opera, of the Berlin Philharmonic, leading conductor in Salzburg, etc) is not the purpose of this article; that kind of information can be found in any musical encyclopaedia. But it seems to me worthwhile to touch, even if briefly, on a few decisive moments in Karajan's career — moments which decided his future.

When Karajan finally settled in Berlin, it was 1941; Furtwängler retired from the opera (that is a story in itself) and Karajan became Staatskapellmeister, the highest musical post that Germany could offer. He not only directed the opera; he also conducted symphony concerts. From the first Tristan — that was in 1936 — Berlin had referred to him as 'Das Wunder Karajan,' ('the Karajan miracle'). He conducted whole operas from memory — there is a story that Hitler once saw Karajan make a mistake and told him firmly to use a score next time — and was the lionized hero of wartime Berlin. He was also an increasingly welcome guest conductor in the major cities of German-occupied Europe — from Copenhagen to Florence. The Berlin Staatskapellmeister was then 35.

At that time, Karajan not only conducted Wagner operas (with a fantastic number of orchestral rehearsals); he also went in for such things as conducting the Brandenburg Concertos off the second harpsichord. One harpsichord player of my acquaintance is certain that Karajan could have become a real Bach specialist. 'When Karajan did Bach,' the harpsichordist told me,'he shed all virtuoso glamour and made music, and what marvellous music-making it was! He was part of the orchestra, rather like an 18th-century Kapellmeister. But even when he was modestly playing continuo, you could see that the orchestra had been trained to a rare standard of perfection. I think that for a time Karajan flirted with the idea of becoming — and this apart from his work in the opera house — a sort of collegium musicum specialist'. The idea of Karajan as a kind of glorified Karl Münchinger will come as a surprise to many, but I have no doubt that he could have done it brilliantly if he had wished to. Two things intervened.

The first was that a group of high-ranking Nazi officials decided to play off Karajan against Furtwängler. It is reported that the 'Wunder Karajan' remark, which appeared in the Berliner Zeitung the day after the famous Tristan performance, started it all off. The rivalry between the two conductors, which soon involved politics and other extramusical factors, continued until the older man's death. Because of it, Karajan was forced (or chose – who knows) to compete in Furtwängler's particular repertoire. And this repertoire was a relatively limited one: the four Bs (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner), Mozart (especially the operas), Wagner, and a sprinkling of other composers (a bit of Schumann, a Haydn or two, a piece by Dvořák or Smetana). Being a collegium musicum man would not do for a serious rival of Furtwängler: what was needed was a vast orchestra with (in the classics) doubled woodwind —Wagner with 96 orchestral rehearsals. A part as second harpsichord in a Brandenburg Concerto was a luxury which Karajan could only occasionally afford.

The second decisive factor that shaped Karajan's eventual course was the end of the war and the collapse of the Third Reich. In view of his questionable record under the Nazis, Karajan was not allowed to conduct in public and his career was at least temporarily at a standstill. He returned to Austria and could be observed in the neighbourhood of the Salzburg Festival, occasionally taking over a rehearsal or two. At that point there appeared on his horizon the person of Walter Legge, director of artists and repertoire for EMI.

Walter Legge chooses to exist as a grey eminence. Apart from being a brilliant recording director, he also has a sixth sense for finding talent, to the greater glory of EMI. (Parenthetically, we also owe to Walter Legge the second career— the one that began in I947 — of Otto Klemperer.) No doubt Karajan would eventually have become a celebrated conductor once again in any case, but his rehabilitation would have come about much more slowly without Legge's helping hand. I should say that after the Berlin Tristan, the appearance of Legge was the most important event in Karajan's artistic life.

Legge discovered what Karajan sounded like in the very same manner as the author of these lines. As a foreign correspondent, I arrived in Salzburg in the summer of 1947 and was plunked down in the middle of what I would call the 'Karajan whisper' (leaning across the table, an Austrian baron lowered his voice and said to me, 'He was a naughty boy in the Third Reich — you understand what I mean — and isn't permitted to conduct, but he's just incredible,' etc). So I wandered into the local record shop, on the Siegmund Haffner-Gasse, and came out with a Siemens Spezial disc — a kind of early full-frequency job it was, experimenting with high fidelity — of Karajan conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle in the Fledermaus Overture. It was a most extraordinary record and contained much of the typical Karajan — rather harsh, brilliant precision in the fortes and soft, feline grace in the piano passages.

In North Germany, Walter Legge also got hold of some of these Siemens recordings and was duly impressed. Like Salomon coming to fetch Haydn, Legge went to fetch Karajan — but not to bring him to London, or at least not yet. Legge signed up the controversial Karajan for a series of recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a major diplomatic stroke on Legge's part to get the Allied authorities to permit Karajan — if not to conduct in public — at least to make gramophone records. (Under the Nazis, Karajan had held the incriminatory 'SD' card; SD means Sicherheitsdienst and was almost as bad as being a member of the Gestapo. In fact, it seems pretty clear that Karajan was given the card merely to permit him to travel more easily in Nazi-occupied Europe, and that he never had anything officially to do with the SD itself.) For many, listening to the Vienna Philharmonic playing the Beethoven Eighth Symphony under Karajan brought back sentimental memories of the old Bruno Walter recordings. That autumn, now de-nazified, Karajan conducted the orchestra in a shattering performance of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony: waves and waves of applause greeted his appearance on the podium.

The old rivalry between Karajan and Furtwängler broke out anew: the Vienna Philharmonic more or less sided with Furtwängler (his return to the Vienna concert stage was marked by a wild riot, by the way, which the police had to break up), and Furtwängler had the Salzburg Festival cornered, more or less. Karajan then took over the Vienna Symphony and made out of a very mediocre group a fine precision instrument. He also appeared at Bayreuth, from which came the famous complete Meistersinger recording. All the while, he was busily recording for Legge — the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Mozart (a delightfully alfresco Symphony No 33) and other popular works.

As Karajan's fame grew, Legge brought him to London, to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra (of which he himself was and is founder and director). The Legge influence also brought to Karajan's attention works which he would scarcely have noticed in wartime Germany: Sibelius, for instance. (Karajan bravely stuck to Sibelius, too, even though his Viennese audience was obviously bored to tears with the Seventh Symphony — the only Karajan concert I ever saw in Vienna which was barely half full.) Because of the Columbia recordings and through the Philharmonia Orchestra, Karajan's horizon broadened immeasurably. Legge is someone from whom any intelligent musician can learn a great deal, and it is reported on the best authority that Legge and Karajan went off to Kitzbühel in the winter to discuss, bar for bar, the forthcoming recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which at that time made recording (and Karajan) history.

Here we may digress for a moment to consider the principal qualities of Karajan's musicianship in those immediate post-war years. Used as I was to Toscanini's phenomenal memory, the fact that Karajan knew Tristan by heart seemed less impressive to me than to some of my colleagues. What we were all impressed by, however, was the sincere professionalism and downright hard work that went into Karajan's music making. For instance, he took over the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and in endless patient rehearsals he took away the shouting, beer-hall qualities that often characterise lusty German choral singing and substituted a sense of line and a controlled choral tone, as well as a precision and ability to negotiate easily works like Bach's B minor Mass. Personally, I dislike intensely Karajan's approach to that great Mass — the dancing quality which he imparts to the movements with trumpets seems to me to be at severe, even catastrophic, odds with Bach's intentions — but having known the soggy-sounding Singverein early in 1947, and having winced at its appalling intonation and gusty tone, I was full of admiration for what Karajan had achieved. All this took great patience and much time. In orchestra rehearsals it was the same: with great economy of words, Karajan rehearsed until he secured the desired result. In the opera, singers tell me that he produced the ideal accompaniment; and they adore him. 'You never feel so safe as you do with him [Karajan],' one soprano said to me last summer. 'He follows you from the pit like a magnet and always gives you time to breathe, to shape a phrase comfortably.'

In those early days Karajan often went into a sort of trance before he started to conduct; hands hanging, motionless, he would wait till the silence was painful before starting. He often conducted with his eyes closed (but he opened them swiftly at the choral entrance of 'All Flesh is as Grass' in the Brahms Requiem — and what a torrent of sound emerged). Part of this 'routine' was undoubtedly real, and it must be stated here quite clearly: when he is making music Karajan is not in any sense a mountebank but is a genuinely dedicated man. Nowadays he has got away from that prayerful attitude; the hypnotic concentration he is famous for is manifested just as strongly, but in different ways — for example, when he lays down his baton in the second act of Tristan and conducts with quiet, circular motions of his hands. Here, the intensity is just as great, and the theatricality of the closed-eyes stance has disappeared.

People were forever comparing Furtwängler and Karajan: and it is true that there was a lot to compare. Furtwängler's broad, romantic conception of Beethoven stood in sharp contrast to Karajan's ferocious, rather unyielding strength. In this respect, Karajan is much nearer to Toscanini, as he also is in regards to strict adherence to the score. Karajan's repertoire was soon much wider than Furtwängler's, and included Webern, Bartók, and numerous first performances (eg, the Austrian Theodore Berger). There were two things about Karajan's conducting that many of us less than admired: his sometimes eccentric tempos — almost as if he were choosing a slower or faster pace merely to be different — and the near sadistic quality that he brought to loud passages. The brutality of such fortes was made the more striking because of the cat-like and almost feminine grace of his pianos, but there was something almost unhealthy about these outbreaks, something vaguely neurotic, even paranoiac. For another thing, his music lacked charm. Mozart's Figaro, as he recorded it in 1949, had beauty, strength, and passion; it lacked that delicate smiling grace which is surely inherent in the music, and which Bruno Walter understood so well. Karajan also — as a musician — lacked wit; accustomed as we were to the Beecham chuckle, Karajan's Haydn was immensely exciting and brilliant, but the unhurtful humour, the sparkle (as in a good conversation, over a glass of mellow wine) were not there.

Even at that time Karajan had become such a symbol that it was impossible to have sane discussions with his numerous and vociferous admirers. The legend had begun to obscure the musician. Yet through all this, European orchestras bent their collective minds gladly to his will — excepting, perhaps, the Philharmonia. The Englishmen did what he asked them to do, but not always, one felt, gladly. 'When men are subdued by force,' writes the Chinese philosopher Mancius, 'they do not submit in their minds, but only because their strength is inadequate. When men are subdued by power in personality they are pleased to their very heart's core and really do submit.' I think this may explain the fundamental difference between Karajan's performances with a British orchestra and his work with European assemblages.

At this point began a number of changes in Karajan's situation. Furtwängler, his great, and indeed for many his only, rival died. The Berlin Philharmonic voted him their permanent music director. Salzburg asked him to direct operations. Böhm got into serious trouble as director of the Vienna State Opera, and Karajan was asked to assume the post of musical director. La Scala and Karajan formed a close tie. Karajan, in a word, had reached dizzy heights. There were no more worlds to conquer, and Karajan was approaching his fifties — that period in a man's life when he often undergoes a period of earnest introspection.

Those who follow Karajan's career exclusively through records miss one vitally important side of his musicianship: his work in the opera pit. Karajan's recorded operas such as the many-splendoured Aida, are not — Decca's engineering notwithstanding — a substitute for the real thing. And it was, I think, in the opera pit where we began to get our first glimpse of the 'new' Karajan: a conductor who could now afford to relax a little, to deepen and soften his interpretations. The great breakthrough was surely his new production of Tristan for the Vienna State Opera in 1961 (the performance took place just before Decca recorded the work — with Solti as conductor). Karajan also did the staging, incidentally; in recent years, he has become ever more fascinated by the problems of miss en scène — especially lighting, about which he has become an expert. His concept of Tristan surely owes something to Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner; but the end of the opera, in which darkness swarms over the stage to obliterate everything except the loving Isolde, is very much Karajan's own. Apart from the staging, Karajan's reading of this music was, for me and many others, one of the great experiences of our lives: it ranged from the delicate, gossamer-fine accompaniment to the lovers in Act Two to the terrifying timpani crash which presages the entrance of Mark and his followers — and the end was unspeakably beautiful.

On records, it is in the Columbia Bruckner Eighth Symphony, recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, that we have the first glimpse of this new and warmly human Karajan. His treatment of the score has changed markedly in the decade or so that separates his 1947 performance from the recording. The majesty, the thrilling last climax, the urgency of the finale's beginning — these things have not lost their initial excitement; but there is a greatly increased freedom, a loving sense of line (especially in the slow movement), and above all a warmth.

Not that the old Karajan has entirely disappeared in the new. There were many who found his Salzburg Trovatore (1962) brutal and too loud, despite its many felicitous details. And the new complete recording of the nine Beethoven symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon is a curious mixture of the two Karajans. There is every reason to believe that Karajan will continue to change, to mellow, and to search out the true core of the music he interprets. A recent DGG advertisement describes Karajan as 'The No 1 conductor of our time'; it is up to Karajan to change this to 'the greatest conductor of our time.'

Back to Herbert von Karajan / Back to Hall of Fame

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017