An interview with Karajan at 80

Richard Osborne talks to Herbert von Karajan (Gramophone, April 1988)

On grey March days, when late winter snows begin to turn to chilly drizzle, even Salzburg can lose its charm as it waits for Easter, spring weather, and the first new influx of tourists. But even if there are no daffodils peeping through the snow on the Mönchsberg, there are certain stirrings below in the Festspielhaus where performers are assembling with the expert, long-serving crew to prepare for Karajan’s Salzburg Easter Festival. Certainly, not since Bayreuth was turned into a place of musical pilgrimage by Wagner, has a town’s musical life been so transformed as Salzburg’s has by Karajan.

Karajan still makes occasional tours with the Berlin Philharmonic (they are due in London in October) in addition to his conducting and filming commitments in Berlin and Vienna; but Salzburg is where his work is chiefly centred. He remains, of course, closely concerned with the Summer Festival which he has known since its foundation in 1920. In 1922 Richard Strauss conducted Don Giovanni there, the first in a famous line of Mozart opera productions in Salzburg; and in 1991 the Festival will mount a bicentenary tribute of seven Mozart opera productions. Administering the project, Karajan says, is daunting enough — ‘simply getting the singers for so many important roles’ — but the cycle is being built slowly. Karajan has already put in place a new production of Don Giovanni and will soon add a completely new staging of Le nozze di Figaro; this summer it is the turn of La clemenza di Tito, directed by Peter Brenner with Riccardo Muti conducting.

Settling back into Salzburg before each Easter Festival, Karajan resumes control of a team as expert as any orchestra, or vessel, he has commanded. He is aware of the criticisms of the scale and cost of an operation that, remarkably, is the initiative of one man; but he is happy in the knowledge that it is his own money (the first year he made £9 profit) invested for the sole purpose of making music, often incomparably well, independent of governments, politicians and administrators. Independent, too, of stage directors who, left to their own devices, break what is for Karajan the cardinal rule of opera production: that the stage picture and dramatic vision come from the musical text and it alone.

‘Fortunately, I was not born to obey’, he told me with a disarming chuckle as we sat in his house in Anif looking across snow-covered meadows to the towering Untersberg which Karajan has known, lived with, and clambered over since he was a child.

It was early March, and brilliantly sunny, so it had been a pleasant surprise to drive out to Anif in glorious weather, having half-expected that our conversation would take place between rehearsals in the Festspielhaus. The house itself is a sizeable but modestly proportioned farmhouse in a large meadow a little way from the village. Cellars and outbuildings conceal a pool and a film-editing studio but the house itself is quite unpretentious with its vaulted stone hallway and airy large sitting room with its scrubbed wood floor. Despite the jet-set image that has dogged him for so long, Karajan lives about as simply as a New England settler in 19th-century Massachusetts.

Since the house was full of cameras, cables and film technicians — Humphrey Burton was there filming a short interview with Karajan for transmission in a Karajan programme on BBC2 – Eliette von Karajan had fled to town, though to little avail as she ended up lunching next to us in the Goldener Hirsch. Some years ago, DG had the bright idea of using some of her paintings on the sleeves of Karajan LPs and they have now used them again for the CD reissues. Painting for Eliette von Karajan is no idle whim; she paints because she feels the compulsion to do so. Living with a great performing musician for over 30 years has deepened her understanding and sharpened her passion for art to the point where Karajan himself finds the changes and developments in her painting to be a source of some fascination. She seems chary of major exhibitions, but works instead to bring art to Salzburg, adding another important dimension to the city’s artistic life.

Despite having a film crew in his house since breakfast time, Karajan seemed very relaxed. He apologised for the delays, made a joke about the bad film mixing, and arranged for coffee whilst we all waited. In the hour or more which followed, I sensed that after two or three very trying years, years in which Karajan has been in great pain (his spinal problems probably go back to a massive fall from a tree when he was an indomitable 12 year old), he was now even more the grateful survivor, once more the forward-looking planner he has always been. His enthusiasm for the 1991 Mozart Festival and for his own return to Un ballo in maschera at the 1989 Summer Festival, as well as thoughts of return to other important repertory (Stravinsky’sOedipus Rex, for example), all suggested the former enthusiasms. Perhaps the winter of 1986-7 had been a crucial period; his remarks, printed below, on the historic New Year’s Day concert in Vienna in 1987, certainly make it seem that way.

Karajan is also much happier now about his great film project: the preparation for a new generation of DVD collectors of high-quality films of his core symphonic and operatic repertory. There have been setbacks which are irrecoverable, such as the eventual refusal of the Chinese authorities to allow Karajan to make a film of Puccini’sTurandot on location in the Forbidden City; but filming of other repertoire is well advanced and Karajan is now entirely happy that it will be completed. ‘I was under pressure for the first two years when we started the thing,’ he says ‘since I didn’t know whether I would be living to the end’; but now the techniques have been mastered, the guidelines set, and his faith in his team is solid.

The resources are formidable. Each film is planned by Karajan using a student orchestra for two days and then shot with the Berlin or Vienna orchestra using three camera positions each equipped with five cameras. It would be easy to misrepresent the whole thing as an ego-trip for Karajan. But what he is, in effect, doing is transferring his repertory to film using the same principles and methods that he has deployed in the interpretation of music throughout his career. Musically more knowledgeable than most film directors, his editorial method is conservative and correct. First, what he sees as the musical ‘backbone’ is found and then it is reflected on film in a series of matched images of the conductor and instruments and instrumental groups each filmed in close-up. (Karajan, rightly in my view, detests music filmed in vague middle or long shot.) The idea is to lead the ear and eye through and across the music that is being played. Educationally, the films could be invaluable in the 21st century.

So far virtually no one has seen the rough tapes and I asked Karajan when the discs might be available commercially. He suggested that in six or seven months time they will be starting the task of putting the tapes on to disc, a complex process involving the most careful regulation of sound, colour and so on. But Karajan will not be rushed; if things don’t come out right he will set them aside and come back to them in some months’ time with a fresh mind, his invariable method in all things. He does not pretend that the films will be cheap. The quality of reproduction of sound and image on the large flat home video screens that are being developed will be very high; but he is encouraged by evidence from the United States that people who want good sound reproduction have been gravitating towards the more expensive end of the market. If the project does not succeed, he is happy that the films are there as a record; but as with CD itself, Karajan’s name, work and influence are enough to give any new quality system a better than average chance of success.

Our conversation was, however. more about music and musicians. Among the many CD reissues there is a fascinating CD of Karajan’s earliest recordings made between 1938 and 1943. They include some hair-raisingly scrappy Mozart performances by the Turin radio orchestra.

RO: You had already conducted major orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the Concertgebouw with great success. How did you tolerate bad orchestras which were obviously not producing what you wanted?

HK: I can tell you quite frankly, I heard in my inner ear what I wanted to hear and the rest… well, it went down! But, you know, then comes one moment when your inner ear is astonished what comes out. With a big orchestra after a certain time and if they are used to you and really play as they can, they will sometimes give you something more beautiful than what you thought you could hear; and then the realwork begins to work it up to a higher and higher level, and this surely cannot be done until you have 15 or 20 years working with the one orchestra. This is the reason why I said I will have the orchestra for my lifetime, otherwise I do not sign the contract. And this pays in the results you get after a very long time.

RO: We have had many proofs of that but I remember especially the performances you gave in 1982 of Mahler’s Ninth with the Berlin Philharmonic. You had made a very fine LP set and then you asked for the 1982 live Berlin performance to be issued separately on CD. Why was this?

HK: We had a feeling that if there was no noise in the hall we could have an even better result. And I know I was madly, madly involved with the symphony to the extent that when it was done – and it is one of the few works I say this of – I would not dare to touch it again.

RO: You had exhausted the piece.

HK: Yes, completely.

RO: I remember the performance here in Salzburg at the 1982 Easter Festival. We had booked a table for dinner after the concert – you begin your festival concerts early when we can still concentrate on the music! – and we had to cancel it, we couldn’t eat.

HK: I know, it was the same with me. This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime.

RO: Why did you turn to this music at this time in your life?

HK: This I can answer exactly. I spent three years in Vienna as a student. We heard this music — Mahler, Webern, Schoenberg — a great deal; it was our daily bread. Then the war came and after the war concert managers offered me the chance to do all the Mahler symphonies. I asked them, how much rehearsal do I get? ‘Two rehearsals for each concert.’ I said, ‘Gentlemen, please forget it.’ Mahler is very difficult for an orchestra. First, you must, as a painter would say, make your palette. The difficulty is great and the greatest danger is when the music becomes banal. I conduct a lot of light music and it can be very difficult for an orchestra to realize it properly. I once spent a whole rehearsal on the Barcarolle from Les contes d’Hoffmann which is to me one of the most tragic things in opera; it is not joyful; a man goes from life to death. And in Mahler there is much of this.

RO: The Ninth seemed to be a work to which you are musically close.

HK: It is especially difficult to come to the end of the symphony. it is one of the hardest tasks in all conducting.

RO: I remember an interview you gave to Austrian Television in 1977 in which the interviewer said. ‘Mr von Karajan, you don’t conduct enough 20th-century music.’ But you have conducted an enormous amount of 20th-century music right up to Ligeti, Penderecki: but you don’t make a fuss about it?

HK: Yes, but I can only do it if I am convinced. It is very easy sometimes, but with other works it is difficult if you get a score and you don’t know what he is thinking.

RO: One thing I have sensed with the great records you have made of 20th-century music — the Berg Three Orchestral Pieces, the Prokofiev Fifth, the Honegger Liturgique, the Shostakovich Tenth — they are works which somehow express the tragedy of our century. You were six years old when the First World War started. Is this something which is in your consciousness, this sense of the tragedy of our times and music’s healing capacity?

HK: Yes, yes, certainly. I had very good relations with Shostakovich. When I was the last time in Moscow I played the Tenth Symphony. He was so nervous and at the same time so impressed…he said I can’t speak but…he was a very great composer.

RO: I heard once that you wanted to conduct his Sixth Symphony but you said that Mravinsky had done it so well that you wouldn’t touch it.

HK: Yes, I did.

RO: You said that?

HK: Yes.

RO: He was a great conductor.

HK: I am a great admirer of him. He was the representative of this older generation in perfection.

RO: Did you ever conduct the Leningrad orchestra?

HK: No, but I would gladly if I had the time; but they always say if you come, bring your own orchestra.

RO: But you have conducted other great orchestras: Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra, for example?

HK: Yes, Szell and I were great friends. He was always insisting that I conduct the Prokofiev Fifth, and I wondered what he wanted. So I did it, and in the interval of the rehearsal he came and said he was suffering from nervous shock because the moment I started he realized that I was doing exactly the contrary of all the things he had taught the orchestra. It seemed like a complete breakdown; but after a few minutes they were playing as if they had always played this way. And you know there is a passage at the start of the finale with the cellos. And in the interval of my concert he did some work with the players to ensure that it was perfect — now there is real dedication and generosity!

RO: Klemperer once said Szell was a machine but a very good machine.

HK: No, you cannot really say that. He was a man with a full heart. When you had a chance to meet him in his house with all his guests, he was a most charming and intelligent man. No, I can’t understand that remark.

RO: This year you are staging Tosca for your Easter Festival.

HK: Yes, and I am very thrilled with the designs that Schneider-Siemssen has come up with. With our stage and our workshops, which are better than any theatre in the world, we are able to achieve really striking stage pictures; and they have nothing to do with these modern productions that do everything contrary to the music. Puccini writes in his scores a hint, or a piece of advice, or a simple order. We follow all that.

RO: You have made two memorable recordings of Tosca. It’s a thrilling piece, but the characters are not exactly pleasant: Tosca, Scarpia...

HK: No, not at all pleasant! But Tosca has always fascinated me. Goethe once said ‘I was able in my life to commit all crimes if I did not have the possibility to express them.’ Sometimes you must conduct it, otherwise one day you may kill someone! I am fascinated by every single bar.

RO: John Culshaw who produced your RCA recording of Tosca with Leontyne Price said you were not afraid of the melodrama in Puccini.

HK: Yes.

RO: He also told a touching story of your listening to part of the Victor de Sabata recording and saying this is genius but I cannot do it the way he does. He was a conductor you greatly admired?

HK: He was probably the only person who never said one word against another conductor. He lived at a very difficult time; they wanted him back at La Scala but there was always the possibility thatToscanini would return. I asked him once, ‘What do you feel when you conduct?’ and he said ‘I have in my mind a million notes, and every one which is not perfect makes me mad.’ He suffered in conducting. And that, I must say, I have passed.

RO: And we have just had reissued by EMI the Madama Butterflywhich you recorded with Callas. Do you have any memories of working with her? She must have been a very extraordinary artist.

HK: If she was rightly handled she was very easy. She was always prepared to the utmost and if she felt she had been given good advice, immediately, she took it. But she could sometimes be the diva. I remember I was once experimenting with a gauze, it had been in La Scala 100 years and was full of dust and she was very shortsighted and could not see into the hail. She came to the rehearsal and came down to the bridge over the orchestra where I was directing and she said to the manager ‘If this veil remains, I do not sing.’ So I let her just pass, and I said ‘Oh, darling, I am looking for a new “element” and after half an hour the manager came back to me and says she sits up there, weeping. So I said “Maria, I was experimenting and when I say “experiment” I mean I want to see how it presents itself. But I don’t know if I will take it.” Of course, we took it, but then she saw the reason. But I never would wish to upset anyone unless there was some very positive idea: which we must try.

RO: In her Juilliard classes she advised her pupils to work within the rubato available to the conductor. But she herself had a very remarkable rhythmic sense?

HK: Incredible. When she had the piece within her I said “Maria, you can turn away from me and sing, I know you will never be one tiny part of a bar out.” She heard so well and sang always with the orchestra. I regret deeply, deeply that I could not persuade her to make a film of Tosca. I told her that we already had the tape and she would have nothing to do but be there and play the role. Onassis invited me — I didn’t know him at the time but later we became great friends — and we talked. But then Maria began to get mad and she insisted on seeing everything before. And he said “Maria, I am not rich enough to pay for all this!” But still I asked her but she was afraid, she was afraid; she had left the thing and felt out of it…

RO: We are very excited that you are going to conduct and record Un ball in maschera soon. Have you conducted it before?

HK: Yes, 40 years ago! John Schlesinger is going to direct it; he is a very well known film director but has only directed a few operas but I was fascinated by the one I saw, so we got together. When I playedUn ballo in maschera it came back to me as things do when you are young: they stay in your mind all the time. So I knew exactly why I wanted to conduct it. It has one special interest for me because — just to take one aspect — it has an enormous number of long ensembles; a bit like Figaro. I said to Schlesinger we must find ways of dealing with this and the complex interplay of the characters.

RO: It has a lot of black comedy in it as well as high drama?

HK: Certainly!

RO: And which version will you use? 

HK: The Swedish one, of course. 

RO: And your cast is...

HK: Domingo, and the English girl who sang here in The Black Mask – the Penderecki – Josephine Barstow. I once asked her to sing the aria from Fidelio which I very much wanted to do. She came to sing – she has a wonderful figure, she moves well, and she sings with taste and expression; so when it came to Un ballo in maschera I said...

RO: She is the one! And your baritone?

HK: Nucci. So I am very contented to do it. Sometimes things pass by and you don’t catch them but here I saw there was a chance to do it with a beautiful cast.

RO: Last year you conducted the New Year’s Day in Vienna. It’s such a wonderful event always, a kind of message of hope at the start of the year. Was this a special occasion for you?

HK: It was a special occasion. It was a turning point in my career.

RO: A turning point?

HK: Because I was very much in pain. Sometimes for nights on end I had no sleep. It was a really hard time. When I got the invitation I said ‘Well, gladly.’ For three weeks I had nothing to do and I sat down and decided – I have recorded all the pieces before – to see if there was not something more behind the music. So for three weeks, six hours a day, I played the music. And suddenly I was changed in myself. When I came before the orchestra, I had nothing to explain. It was just there. And from this time I knew I had to give up so many things – my sailing and so on – but the music came back 100 times better.

RO: But music has sustained you throughout your life. And you say the pain went?

HK: Yes, but I still have difficulty with walking.

RO: But people say that when you are on the rostrum and you start making music...

HK: Yes, I know. And it makes me completely happy.


This article was first published in the April 1988 issue of Gramophone.

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