Receive a weekly collection of news, features and reviews
Which other conductors are pretty useless in anything else they attempt.
Karajan - good for opera?
Karajan was indeed hopeless in anything but opera. His late Bruckner recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic are superficial; his 1987 New Year's Concert shows he had no feel for Strauss waltzes; and talking about Strauss (Richard), what about that lame Metamorphosen he recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in the early 1980s?
Bernstein ditto. It doesn't take a period performance devotee to find his Haydn and Mozart and Schubert and Schumann joyless and imperceptive. His late 1980s Ives 2 with the New York Philharmonic is a travesty of the piece, and of course he was a liability in Copland. Shostakovich was nice enough to be very enthusiastic about the way he conducted his 5th Symphony - but then he was almost always nice to performers, wasn't he?
[I add this note after some of the comments below. I thought this post would have spoken for itself, a not very subtle response to what I thought a ridiculous assertion. All of the recordings above are, in my view, marvellous.]
Every interpreter has strengths and weaknesses. If defense of Karajan and Bersntein I would offer the following:
Berg/Schoenberg/Webern (BPO/Karajan) - simply fascinating recordings. Has Schoenberg's Variations ever been played so beautifully?
Hoenegger Sym.2 & 3 (BPO/Karajan) - interpretations that make it hard to understand why these works are not played more often.
Wagner extracts (Norman/VPO/Karajan) - extraordinary in all senses. Even better is the video. Norman turns up to rehearsal and just sits there listening to Karajan encourage the most vital, light as air prelude to Tristan.
Bruckner 8th (VPO/Karajan) - I have to disagree with your assessment - this is a unique performance. Amazing to then play the Guilini version. Two great versions, both products of a lifetime with the music.
Beethoven 9 (VPO/Karajan - Bayreuth?) I think from the late 40s or early 50s. You forget the mono recording because the fire burns so intensely - a rebuttal to the less interesting recordings he made in the 80s.
Brahms Piano Concertos (Zimerman/VPO/Bernstein) - fascinating and certain to divide opinions. The 2nd is a perfromance that I have never heard surpassed, and I have tried.
Mozart 40 & 41 (VPO/Bernstein) - Big boned perhaps, but the opening of 40 has that special 'the music existed before they started to play' quality and the last movement of 41 is amazing.
Liszt Faust Symphony (NYPO/Bernstein) - a most persuasive performance of a piece that needs help
Schumann Symphony No.4 (VPO/Bernstein) - one of my favourite perfromances of an underrated work
I would not recommend Karajan and Bernstein for everything, nor would I recommend them alone (music has too many dimensions to have one perfect interpretation).
I have enjoyed a number of Bernstein recordings. I think particularly of his DG coupling of Haydn 88 and 92, his New York Eroica, his Bavarian Beethoven 5th symphony and 4th piano concerto. Yes, he could be wayward, and strange, although I've never heard the notorious DG Enigma to experience for myself. His late '50s Vivaldi was perhaps unstylish.
Thank you, Naupilus. You cover some of the many things I found myself compelled to write in defense of these two most favourite to me conductors.
I happen to have met Bernstein and be present to some of his concerts in the 70's. He was a man and an artist of extraordinary talent, energy, vision, strong convictions, an incredible spirit and such a charisma to make a whole orchestra to "dance" with him. He had this unique ability to trace all the possible nuances of any piece of music he has to perform. I remember a performance in the late 70's, in the open theatre of Herodus Aticus in Athens, with the Vienna Philharmonic. He performed Beethoven's Fifth and the String Quartet op. 131 (in the Mitropoulos version, as it has been recorded on DG). For the first time in my life I saw how much humour, fun and joy existed in this score, which otherwise is considered as one of the strictest, most sombre and austere of the great Master. In the Fifth, he really "decamped" the whole full theatre with an astonishing performance of utmost precision and incredible attention to all the possible details were hidden thereinto. In both works, he actually "painted" whatever was played and heard. It was one of these blissful moments, where a concert orchestral performance becomes an "act and theatre" experience, memorable for ever for those who were fortunate enough to be present.
Bernstein was also very much loved (even adored) by the members of the most prestigious orchestras of the time, because he could make them "embrace" and truly enjoy (in their own words) whatever they played. He was very selective in what he has to perform and that's why he had very few complete cycles of any symphonist and he performed twice Mahler on account of his obession of his music. On the other hand, he avoided all the way performing Bruckner owing to his view that the man lacked any sense of Life and its pains and joys, humour, anger, vivacity and so on.
Personally, apart from the ones Naypilus mentioned, I found extremely amazing his accounts of Sibelius (the Scherzo of the First never heard whith such precision, attack and power), of the three Symphonies of Haydn (all in G major, the key where Haydn had given some of the happiest and musically most astonishing works), his Brahms (a less sombre and yet extremely vibrant Brahms: listen to the fiery finale of the Second), his Shostakovich and quite a few other recordings that I have to spare for the moment.
As for Karajan, I don't think the Opera was his "field". His operatic recordings have some uneven moments and points, particularly for his predilection of singers. His main achievement was his extremely esthetic view of the sound of the orchestra. Having lived in Berlin for some years lately, I remember old members of the Berlin Philharmonic to admit that the Orchestra never sounded better but only under the baton of Karajan. Despite his mannerism, he made every work the BPO performed to sound in the best possible way as far as the quality of the playing and the precision of the score is concerned. It is not surprising that, during his tenure, the BPO produced some incredible soloists, among them the amazing Karl Leister, one of the greatest clarinetists in the world, the very fine oboist Lothar Koch, the refined violinist Thomas Brandis and many more.
I think his Beethoven cycle of 1962 along with his Bruckner (where eventually we can enjoy the sheer sonorous beauty of these otherwise monolithic works) may stand as some of his major achievements. However, his "London" Symphonies of Haydn constitute a great old fashioned but equally imposing view of the works.
I have to tell you that during my stay in Berlin, I had the chance to see BPO conducted by Rattle (the utmost boredom), Abbado (deeply moving, but loosing steam along the way), Haitink (precise, exciting but with little sense of what is being played), Jansons (most interesting in providing the sense but missing the sensibility of the sheer beauty of the works performed), Janowsky (interesting but not for such an Orchestra) and some more that I have to spare.
Closing I have to say that, after so many years of listening experience, I came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter what and how well you played, but, eventually what counts is who you are!
Come on, being a little harsh here on Bernstein. He has left some outstanding recordings across the spectrum - opera (Falstaff!), symphonic (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich to name only a few) and concertos.
Young Karajan also did some outstanding things (50s-mid 70s) across the spectrum.
However, I do agree that some musicians are more convincing in specific repertoire only - that may partly be a result of the recording industry prescribing certain programmes.
More importantly, though, some musicians are simply generally more capable, expressive and musical than others. I'd entrust any repertoire to a pianist like Zimerman, while perhaps someone like Lang Lang might be tolerable in Chopin only.
Yes, yes, Bernstein might have been a jolly old chap always ready for a dance, but I have an uncle like that, we bring him out every christmas. In ten years time Bernstein will be remembered by the 'classical' world only for his Mahler. He was style over substance, a man of the pop world, where his own music belongs. As for herr Karajan, once you strip away the four layers of gloss from all his recordings you are left with very little. Celibidache called him the cocca cola conductor and Furtwangler thought he was a little s**t. His gloss was fine in Opera, you need a little bit there, but his Brahms symphonies, even his early recordings sound like Mills and Boon soundtracks. Except for the occassional war crimes tribunal he will be forgotten about in ten years also.
To correct you Dr. Brodsky : Bernstein was "style for substance" (and not "over"). He was very precise and meticulous with the score and he had utmost respect for whatever he chose to perform. If he didn't appreciate a composer or a work, he simply refrained...And to me, this is much more consistent, honest and serious.
He never belonged (neither his music) to any pop culture. Some of his works (and maybe the most successful and memorable) belong to the musical theatre and the american songbook. He was wise enough to recognise that, for US and the Americans, the greatest musical heritage was not even the deepest and most complex work of any "serious" or "classical" American composer but rather the American Songbook, the Music Theatre and Jazz. Who really cares for any Ives or Copland or Barber score in US? But how many sing, feel moved and reproduce in any possible way any song from Porter, Berlin, Arlen etc. Being also one who advocated that the term "classical" (old, serious, solemn) didn't mean anything substantive or real for a music that was still alive and well, he called it "precise", since everything we hear is exactly what is actually being played. In this way, despite he wrote for the Music Theatre and the American Songbook, he composed absolutely "precise" music and "West Side Story" is considered, also for that reason, as the greatest Musical of all times.
As I mentioned in my previous post along with some others, he will be remembered not only for Mahler but for quite a few other recordings, but mostly for who he was : a man of a unique talent, strong convictions, huge energy, an amazing involvement in music and a charisma to convince both players and audience that what was performed was a great piece of Music, that needed their commitment and attention. How many "great" conductors could or can claim that?
As for Karajan, if you remove the "four layers of gloss", you will find there are more about the esthetic view of the work. He was unique in making every piece of music to sound as "rich" as possible. It's a very "elitistic", eclectic, discriminating view, but Art is about beauty, after all. Sheer Beauty, actually. Through that he transformed the works he performed in meaningful, imposed performances. Maybe not for all, but who can work for every aspect of Truth?
Finally, the comments between artists is the least reliable source of information of who they were. Unfortunately, this attitude reveals their flaws, frailty, eccentricity and self-identity, which is better to be ignored, eventually...
If you would be willing I would be interested to know what qualities Bernstein brings to Mahler that are meaningful, and why these do not work with other composers?
For myself I see Bernstein and Karajan at opposite ends of the interpretive spectrum. Bernstein always (to my ears) wore his heart on his sleeve, either with emotion or chaos. When it works it is extraordinary music making, as he was able to elict such playing from a number of orchestras as a guest conductor. Examples I would offer are the slow movement in Schumann's 2nd symphony, which allows us to see how Schumann and Mahler had parallels; or the amazing slow movement of the Brahms 2nd piano concerto. There are also the failures - Tchaikovsky's 6th (the later DG recording from NY) is strangely unbalanced and the last movement has never done anything except send me to sleep, which I assume was never the intention.
There are two terms that in often see used regarding Karajan; 'aristocractic' and 'the Karajan sound'. I have always found myself leaning towards describing his artistic temprament as 'Appollonian' - a search for the perfection in art. One may think this is ridiculous (many do) but in the real sense of the word Karajan's best performance are about the sublime, which is why his Bruckner works so well for my ears. It is probably also why his Stravinsky is just so wrong - beauty has little place in the Stravinsky of The Rite of Spring. I actually am suprised you used Mills and Boon as a way to describe his interpretations - I never feel romance was a priority for Karajan.
Karajan in opera is an interesting area. I only heard him live once and never at the opera, but listening to recordings and reading the words of singers he worked with it seems one of his greatest strengths was to his willingness to make sure voices were never drowned out by the pit. On the debit side I often feel he never got the most characterisation from his casts - instead beauty of sound was more important. But of course everything is open to debate and others may not agree.
What is much more interesting to me is how often we fail to really recognise the qualities of others at the expense of our heroes. One of the revelations of the last few years for me has been the conducting of Michael Gielen, who I am convinced is a truely great conductor. The simple fact is that great music is always greater than any single musician or performance. Performances that abide are those that within their moment work perfectly as utterences and expolrations of the piece itself - they are views of the sublime. It is, in a sense, rather like photography. Different photographers can take the same photo of the Everest but a smalll select few will catch the sublime, and each with their own 'eye'. Many of the other photographers will capture a perfect exposure, but somehow they miss the sublime. This is the essential wonder of creation (or recreation) - the sublime is illusive.
It always makes me wonder when I read such condemnatory comments on the discography of certain musicians, and Karajan inevitably, as night turns to day and the Earth spins around the Sun, is one of them, how much they really know or have heard of their recordings or even saw them perform live.
My problem with Karajan was not that he was any good in the standard (Austro-German) repertoire but others were so much better, even at the time his discs were issued.
Take the famous 1962 Beethoven symphonies (his third recording of all the nine?). Clearly, it is a fine set with two really outstanding performances, the Eroica and the Choral and one clear miss, the Pastoral.
Unfortunately, Klemperer, Toscanini, Furtwangler and Walter, in their own ways, were far better Beethoven conductors. In fact, I've heard it said that HvK admired Toscanini in particular.
However, his strengths were opera, and Legge thought him the finest conductor of Verdi, and the Second Viennese school, particularly Schoenberg where his attention to balance has meant that these rcordings remain unmatched. I can think of other 20th C works that are especially fine, the Honegger symphonies, already mentioned, Debussy, some Ravel, Prokofiev and, no matter what some may think, Mahler.
As for Bernstein, such a shoddy and silly dismissal of one of the great communicators and educators of the latter half of the twentieth century.
I'l just mention, again, in passing that the famous Enigma is as good as any in the catologue and better than some until we come to Nimrod. A complete misunderstanding and one can only admire the orchestra for getting through it (how many takes, though?).
Bernstein's recording of the Enigma Variations is in some ways for me proof of why I still listen to his recordings. It undoubtedly is an interpretation, and while I find it spectacularly wrongheaded in execution the attempt is real.
It may be a terrible thing to say but I prefer the wayward to the reliable, and while I try as hard as I can there are conductors of great reputation whose work I struggle to fathom. I have heard Haitink both live and on recording for almost thirty years and still find much plain. Undoubtedly a musician of deep integrity I just don't get the intent; I have the same feelings about Mariss Jansons. With Simon Rattle I have a slightly different take - I have never heard a single recording that captured his live music making in terms of the frisson he can bring to an orchestra, so I don't bother anymore.
I am sure these failures in taste on my part are subjective, but given the choice I would rather listen to Sir Mark Elder than Riccardo Muti in almost anything (Elder's Elgar is magnificent, but the tragedy is few get to hear his Verdi).
All this said, we are spoilt for choice. We can all have most any conductor and orchestra in our home if we are willing to buy the CD. There was a time when we had the local orchestra and maybe a decent conductor and that was it. Unless you played an instrument or could read music Beethoven's 5th was no available daily and concerts were events. I cannot help thinking that the people who travelled to and listened to concerts at that time found demand greater than supply and hence valued every note, every performance. I just listened to Rigoletto for the first time in seven years and the experience was almost visceral. I doubt my ears have been so sharp for a long time.
Added to that of course I have completely overdosed on Liszt this year, which cannot be a good thing! It is dangerous to read his letters, as it is easy to be seduced by what a generous man he was. You feel the need to do likewise and listen to another set of transcriptions!
◦ 13 issues per year
◦ 45,000 reviews online
◦ Digital archive since 1923
The latest news, features, blogs and reviews delivered weekly to your inbox!
User our new store map to help you find your nearest Gramophone stockist
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.
Gramophone is brought to you by Mark Allen Group
Gramophone is part of MA Music, Leisure and TravelAbout Mark Allen Group | International licensing