Karajan: A profile and an interview

Taken from Gramophone, by Richard Osborne, April 1978

Salzburg: Whitsuntide 1977. Before a rehearsal in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus the Berlin Philharmonic is like a large and boisterous family – everyone banging, blowing, laughing, talking, tuning. Karajan enters, a black sweater swung over his shoulder, and a trail of functionaries slipping quietly into the wings. A word or two to one of the front desk musicians, a single gesture, and suddenly Ein Heldenleben begins to unfold – the whole work, with only one brief pause for a minor adjustment, played glowingly, through. Karajan cherishes the fact that his orchestra loves what it does; what’s more, he believes that this depth of commitment, this joy in music-making, must radiate deep into a society in which men and women are often less fortunate, working to routines which restrict, inhibit and dehumanize. Thus the Heldenleben party. But when a young violinist, a girl barely into her teens, comes on stage to rehearse the first movement of a Mozart Violin Concerto, Karajan gets down from his high stool, the orchestra re-groups, and for ten minutes the music-making is active, intense, full of a new kind of vibrance. The girl, Anne-Sophie Mutter, prolongs the trill out of the cadenza, which makes even Karajan smile; though no one, not even a high-spirited teenager, will ever throw a Karajan accompaniment. Limpet-like he stays with the soloist, whilst his incomparable woodwinds ride the awkward camber with zest and high good humour.


Berlin: December 1977. A Siberian wind blows down the Kurfürstendamm. It is Sunday morning and the city, dressed in stoical modern greys, is quiet. Walking down the long, snaking arterial road which leads away towards the Berlin Wall one is flanked by a park on one side, wasteland on the other. Nearby, a once-elegant house, shuttered and dilapidated, is a lonely reminder of an earlier Berlin. The Philharmonic, which from the outside also seems in need of repair, stands on a piece of waste ground barely four hundred yards from the Wall. Glass-covered boards announce the New Year concerts: Rostropovich, Menuhin, Giulini, Karajan. (How long will it be, one wonders, before people are remembering the golden days of the 1970s.) The Karajan concerts are all sold out. This morning it is to be Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and upstairs in the Philharmonic the audience, quiet and well-groomed, peruse showcases of old programmes. Nikisch, Walter and Furtwängler. Fischer playing Mozart, Cortot playing Schumann, Rachmaninov playing himself. Hubermann, and a new work by Paul Kletzki. Furtwängler conducting Bolero. The good old days? Perhaps. But my tears of tomorrow have nothing to do with my tears of yesterday, as DH Lawrence once observed, and in Berlin you are dramatically aware of the fact that the world has changed since Bruno Walter conducted Mahler’s Fifth with the sweet-toned Berlin Philharmonic of the 1920s. Today we are here to take stock of Mahler, and the world, as Karajan sees them in 1977. The performance itself is of searing intensity, making me reflect on the strangeness of the view that Karajan is, in essence (rather than merely on occasions), a greatly accomplished polisher of orchestral surfaces. The intensity is staggering; yet at the heart of the drama a handful of cellos, a single quiet trumpet or a gentle spiral of tone from the Berliners’ enchanted first oboe open spaces in the imagination which will not close till one’s dying day. Hearing all this in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, Mahler’s music seems to speak, not of imminent chaos, but of an achieved and strangely stabilized tragedy. The fastidious will scoff, but it seems to me that the Protean nature of Mahler’s genius – the ability of the music, chameleon-like, to take on the colour of the age – remains remarkable. As for the great chorale crossbeam at the climax of the second movement, here the performance becomes unbearably splendid, like the end of Act One of Die Walküre, as Karajan conducts it, or the summit of Bruckner’s Eighth. If at this moment the entire Philharmonic had been lifted heavenward (an effect of which no doubt Mahler would have enthusiastically approved) I for one would not have been surprised.

In England nowadays we know little of the real Karajan. The tail-ends of European tours are no real guide to what, in Berlin and Salzburg, he is striving for and so remarkably achieving. Then, in our pragmatic, practical way we tend to distrust culture-heroes and are as likely to admire Karajan for his ability to put on Die Meistersinger in Ulm (moving the instruments to the theatre in a wheelbarrow) than for the fact that, musically and dramatically, he conducts Das Rheingold with a fire and beauty, a feeling for the luminous interplay of words and music, which few have equalled. Perhaps I have been reading too many sour newspaper reviews of Karajan concerts in recent years; for against them stand the Doctorate which Oxford University will confer on Karajan in June and the enthusiastic reviews which his many recordings continue to receive in these columns and elsewhere.

The recordings are certainly remarkable. As a new discography of Karajan fascinatingly confirms, no conductor in the history of the gramophone has been so completely documented. From a pre-war Tchaikovsky Pathetique with the Berlin Philharmonic and wartime records with the Turin and Amsterdam orchestras, through the early days with Walter Legge and the VPO in the late 1940s (Beethoven Eight and Nine, Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem – one of Toscanini’s favourite sets) and on to the aptly named ‘new generation’ of Karajan recordings of the mid-70s the output is extraordinary. Not even Toscanini, whose impact as a conductor on the gramophone is the only one which bears immediate comparison (Toscanini’s great legacy an obvious inspiration to Karajan) ranged so widely. In a personal note the compiler of the discography, Anthony Williams, writes: ‘To an onlooker it has certainly been a controversial, intriguing, even frustrating career… But of one thing I am sure. Whatever you may think of individual records, this list contains many, many performances which will find their way into recorded history… performances by which others will come to be judged.’ To even begin to list the classic sets from a repertoire which laps such distant musical shores as the symphonies of Roussel and Honegger, yet comes back to the Pathetique for the fifth (and no doubt far from final) time; which counterpoints a promised remake of the Brahms symphonies with a first-time set of early Schubert; Mahler’s Sixth, Salome and the Symphony of Psalms with remakes of Le Sacre, Il trovatore and the Sibelius Fifth is hardly necessary or practicable. Readers of Gramophone will already be well acquainted with the many splendours, and occasional (remarkably few) failures, of Karajan’s recording career, whilst a glance at any reliable record guide will tell you how, by and large, Karajan’s recordings seem to grow in stature as the years go by.

The conversation which follows was recorded in Berlin on the afternoon of the concert of the Mahler Fifth. Karajan, who was generous both with his time and his ideas, has himself been caught of late by the lure of writing. Drafting his long-promised book on music and music-making, he has resorted, he told me, to leaving gaps on the page for what, day by day, become more and more extensive, Balzac-like, revisions. On this occasion, though, the barely necessary editing of the interview (which was in English) is mine.

RO: Herr von Karajan, would it be true to say that your first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic was a turning point in your career?

HK: My first concert with them was in 1937, and I knew from that moment that wherever my musical life might lead me in the meantime this was what I wanted; this was where I could best express myself. When the chief conductorship was offered to me after the death of Furtwängler, I said I will give up everything for this orchestra; but in return I must ask that it be a lifetime’s possession. Too often I have seen the management of a city or of an orchestra decide, by some strange whim, ‘Now we must have a change’. If I was to give my life to this orchestra then I could not allow that someone throw me out at a moment’s notice. The only real obstacle was the American tour which they said I must conduct. I had a new Walküre at La Scala at the same time. I said to the Intendant, who was already a great personal friend, this is important to me but if you cannot release me then I will forget it. He was very, very kind; he said of course I must go with the orchestra. Since then you could say I have had a wall to lean my back on.

RO: The orchestra went through a difficult period after the war and you yourself took over at a time of transition; yet by the early 1960s the orchestra seemed to have been reborn.

HK: When I took over I knew exactly where the deficiencies were; and, as you say, it was a time of transition with many of the players coming to the point of retirement. In the course of six years we were completely young again. In Washington recently I asked how many of the orchestra had been there with me in 1955: it was exactly six! From the first I asked that every member of the orchestra must have within himself great musicianship, great culture. So we had to search quite a time to find these players. At first I could not devote so much time to the orchestra; but now, after 23 years, I can say I don’t leave the orchestra for more than two weeks at a time, apart from the summer holidays. We work on concerts, films and, of course, records, for eight to ten days at a time. This way we can work seriously, patiently, and always with great joy.

RO: I remember you telling me how you have strengthened the tone and volume of the bass section in recent years; but progress must be slower now?

HK: Yes, it’s like going on a race-track. You can go from four minutes down to three quite quickly, but to improve from there, that is a struggle for life. We look for better players and greater knowledge all the time; but it is difficult to maintain standards. It was my realization of this that led me to found the school in Berlin. As always we had the idea, but no money! Then we gave a concert for the 100th anniversary of the Dresden Bank. The head of the bank was Jurgen Ponto – who was so tragically killed – a man with an enormous love of music. He came to me and said ‘I have talked with my directors and they will give you from now on 250,000 DM a year’. He believed that our problem was one which faces many great enterprises today and he believed that by helping us, who are seen and heard in so many places, he and his bank were making a contribution to our cultural life.

RO: How is the school organised?

HK: The idea is quite clear. Our soloists in the orchestra are the professors. The upper age limit for entrants is 25, the lower limit we don’t have. Race, religion, nationality, Prix de Rome – we take no notice of any of these. Only quality. Someone said to me recently, ‘You are not surely founding an elitist system?’ –  that’s a word they all seem to hate these days. I said, ‘No, my system is not elitist; it is super-elitist’. All I say is, if someone cannot play in rhythm and has not the music within him, then we cannot admit him.

RO: Does the Karajan School cover every discipline?

HK: No, there are disciplines for which they can go to the Hochschule für Musik. And sometimes they are called on to play in the orchestra with us – sitting in with the principals, who give advice and show them what to do. It’s like the pilot and the co-pilot. Of course, we cannot always employ them straight away. But other orchestras will take them; if they come from us they need no references. But we know that one day they will return! They never forget the atmosphere of the orchestra. They know the disciplines, and how special they are.

RO: This special atmosphere was something you aimed to create when you inherited the orchestra?

HK: Yes, and here I think there are two things. Firstly, the quality of orchestral playing as such. Then, and in some ways this is an even greater thing, we have found a unity; so that today the orchestra is almost a family. I am interested in educating the orchestra from the musical point of view, but there must also be a human contact. So if they are ill and have not good doctors, I can help them. If there is a divorce… So today I like to think they treat me as a kind of father. And this, I think, is very much to do with the kind of music-making they can give me in return. But, my goodness, it makes it difficult for me to go away from them and conduct other orchestras!

RO: And, miraculously, as a partnership you never seem to grow stale.

HK: Some things we have played 200 or 300 times together; and yet still we work and experiment and discover new things and remember old ones. All this is a constant joy. Also, I say to them, the audience must see that we enjoy playing well! Perhaps this is all to do with my interest in Zen Buddhism which I have followed for 35 years now: always do a thing as well as you can and never, never think of falling into routine.

RO: How does the Karajan Foundation, which does scientific research, fit in? Is it separate?

HK: Yes, it bears the name, but it is really an organisation by itself. One section is for research work for behaviour, where the special emphasis is on the stress situation of the musician. This is affiliated to the University of Salzburg. And in Berlin, in alternate years, we have the youth orchestras’ contest and the conductors’ contest. Here I must say the results have been considerable. Already one of our top prize-winners has the Stanislavsky Opera House which is second to the big Bolshoi. Half a year ago he was named as successor to Svetlanov; and he is also now touring in America.

RO: Don’t you think that’s a bit too quick?

HK: Well, this is very difficult to say. We shall only really know in 10 or 15 years’ time. People can come to expect too much of someone who suddenly has great success. They say they have never heard anything like it; it is a miracle. He conducts great concerts; next he will make the lame walk… and then when he does just a good concert they are disappointed. It is very difficult. But our first prize-winner, Kamu, he is now with the Radio Orchestra in Stockholm; Chmura is in Aachen and I think he is going on to a bigger house; another is director of La Monnaie in Brussels. I must say this makes me very happy. And Ozawa, who was with us before the competitions, well, he is now one of the top conductors of the world.

RO: Would you have liked such help when you were starting your career?

HK: I looked for it and never found it. You see, the people were so remote, like gods. I never dared approach them. I was 45 before I spoke with Toscanini – and he attacked me for, what was it? Oh, yes, because I was doing Pelleas at La Scala in French. He said, ‘I see the time coming when in La Scala Il trovatore will be sung in German!’ We laughed; but, it is true, there was no help. And because I was not helped, I have determined to do the opposite. I know there is a theory that great qualities will always reveal themselves in the end, but you could spare very much trouble. There are times when you can say to someone that they are going in the wrong direction. When I was a student we had to play the scores through on the piano, which never gives you a complete idea of the orchestral sound. We learned everything from scratch. And in those days you had to do 15 years’ training before anyone would look at you.

RO: Such a regime has its benefits, though?

HK: Oh, yes. Working with bad orchestras, for instance, is a wonderful lesson. If you can make a bad orchestra tolerable that is valuable; and as orchestras, even good ones, always make the mistakes in the same places you carry over a lot of experience. Then there are some very talented conductors who cannot do anything with a really top orchestra. They are wonderful with good or very good orchestras, but with a top orchestra they seem to have both hands bound! It is a kind of malediction. So I am a little worried when a young conductor goes straight to the Vienna Philharmonic!

RO: I know you have a passion for rhythmic accuracy and longer-term rhythmic control; and that you have often been worried by the inadequate teaching of rhythm. Weren’t you recently computer-tested?

HK: That was in Dortmund at the scientific institute there. They have a piano – not a very good one  – which is connected to a computer. It measures the distance between notes. At the changeover of third finger and thumb, for instance, some pianists seem to get quicker, others slower. But what they did to me was to give me a metronome and a theme which you play in quicker and quicker note values: triplets, eighths, sixteenths and so on. I know that orchestras, when they see a lot of black notes, usually start to run, and also often cannot come back to the original tempo. I made, I think, a 2% or 3% error over the whole test. So they said, ‘Herr von Karajan apparently has a computer in his brain!’. But it is not a computer. I trained it, with metronomes. And I still test myself. I can walk in 120 and sing in 105; and so if you ask me to sing in 105 now I will manage it. If I get it wrong I feel it with my whole body. And in the orchestra, if a solo comes in slower or faster I sense it right away. It makes me uneasy.

RO: This is surely why your Bruckner is so formidable. In the Adagio of the Eighth Symphony, for instance, we intuitively experience an overall stability, a kind of musical wholeness.

HK: Yes, but this comes, too, from a complete overall knowledge of the work. If you can feel and see the whole work laid out before you as you begin then this will be achieved. Also, the tempi in the original Bruckner scores are much simpler than they come to be in some editions. Bruckner often wants a slight modification of tempo and he writes ‘Langsamer’; but sometimes people drop to 30% of the tempo! No, it is a much subtler thing – like the Viennese waltz. No one has ever tried to edit a Viennese waltz: all those inflexions of tempo would look terrible on paper. Only lately, though, have I been able to get virtually one pulse through the entire work. It takes years to achieve this. In the first place, quick music sounds dull unless every note is articulated. The last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh: if you don’t hear all the notes then it is quite dull. [Karajan, who is a splendid mimic, sings the opening of the finale in a kind of drunken legato.]

RO: Do you think this explains why this finale was often taken so steadily in the past?

HK: I knew it was wrong to take the Seventh so slowly, though I did it myself at first. The trouble was, I could not reconcile this feeling that the music should go faster with the actual content of the music. But as the years went by it became more and more possible to match the two things, to pack the content in, as it were. Both fast music and slow music present problems; and then to link the two in a single interpretation, this requires long, long experience.

RO: And is it at times a painful experience?

HK: The moment you stand in front of an orchestra you hurt yourself on the inertia of the matter, just as the sculptor hurts himself on the marble. We know that Michelangelo regarded the marble as his own personal enemy. And this is the thing for a pianist as well as for a conductor. Gieseking once said to me, to learn a thing, that is easy – the hands and so on. But the moment you come to play you feel the pressure of your whole body on the keys, and that is when the process of interpretation really begins. And so with the orchestra. They learn from me; but I also learn a great deal from them. And only when I have experienced this pressure, through them, and absorbed it can I feel that here is the beginning of an interpretation.

RO: Bruno Walter once said that there is in every great work one real climax. Would you agree?

HK: Certainly.

RO: Yet the other day I noticed an eminent conductor, whose Bruckner is highly praised, reaching a fortissimo long before what is to me self-evidently the work’s pivotal climax.

HK: But, you see, this is a most interesting fact that you have noticed. So many conductors – and I must say Furtwängler was sometimes one of these – create enormous crescendos; and after them the music collapses. It is like a man who storms up to the top of a great mountain and then just drops down. And this was Bruno Walter’s great point. When you are up then you must know you are up! You enjoy the view, and you are stimulated by it. Also the end must feel as though it is an end. This is true of Bruckner where codas can become slower and slower. I say to the orchestra this is not the way; you must think of the last eight bars as a fermata, a fermata that lasts eight bars. We sustain the metronome. If we do not know the book has no proper end.

RO: You’ve mentioned walking in one tempo and singing in another. Walking pace often seems to give us the pulse of a movement…

HK: In Elgar there are some striking examples of this. But walking pace and heartbeat are often linked. This is very usual and enormously important. Different conductors have different pulse rates and their tempi are often mathematical proportions of this. Bach’s music is nearly always at the pulse of a heartbeat. Again, I know this from my long experience of yoga. I know what my heartbeat is: I feel it in every part of me. And if I fall into the pulse at the start of a piece of music it is a physical joy. In this way your whole body makes music. This was why I was so concerned when we were making the new set of the Beethoven symphonies. After the recordings we had mixing sessions. I took some tapes with me to St Moritz and listened and thought, my goodness, this is quite wrong. Then I realized. In St Moritz you are higher and your heartbeat is faster. It felt wrong to me, but only there.

RO: In a work like Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony the judging of pulse and the placing and grading of climaxes must be very difficult.

HK: It is one of the very few symphonies which ends in complete disaster. The others are Mahler’s Sixth and the Brahms’ Fourth. These are for me three of the very greatest works.

RO: What drew you to Sibelius at a time when many people ignored his music?

HK: I often ask myself what it is that draws me to his music. I think it is because I feel that here is a composer who cannot be compared to anything. He is in his way like the Erratic Blocks. They are there, they are colossal, they are of another age; and nobody knows how they came there. Better not ask why. Admire them. This, for me, is Sibelius. And you never come to an end with him. But I speak from the Fourth onwards. I am not so familiar with – or, should I say, not so fond of – the First and Second. They are too near the Tchaikovsky area. But the Fourth is always a milestone – it is so very, very difficult.

RO: And Mahler? You deliberately delayed conducting his music until you thought the moment was ripe. What had you in mind?

HK: Yes, you see I was brought up with Mahler’s music when I was studying in Vienna. Then in the late 1950s there was a great explosion. But in the interpretation of Mahler you have to be so very careful. If you go too far it can become nearly kitsch. The frontier is very narrow. I heard in Vienna all these Mahler festivals –  unknown symphonies on two rehearsals! We prepared the Fifth, recorded it as a trial, worked on it again, then recorded it properly 60 hours before we first gave it to the public!

RO: And you’ve now done it three times in three days here in Berlin. There was an extraordinary tension about this morning’s performance.

HK: Yes. But it is, frankly, a tiring work. By the time you reach the end you have forgotten in what age you began it! And yet it gives us all great satisfaction now. The orchestra love to play it. Yet I still like the Sixth more.

RO: Well, I’d agree. It’s so much more cogent. The only Sixth, Berg said.

HK: And so seldom played in the past. The finale alone is so gigantic.

RO: Do you see in the first two movements of the Fifth and in the whole of the Sixth a certain prophetic note or do you see them in purely musical terms?

HK: The collapse of a culture and the foresight of everything that was coming is here, certainly. But it has always been the privilege of the genius to know these things before other men.

RO: The great Mahler conductors of an earlier generation, Bruno Walter for instance, conducted his music very obviously within the Austro-Hungarian tradition, with a sense of nostalgia, decay and incipient tragedy. Hearing the Fifth this morning, in Berlin, it seemed to carry a starker, more purely tragic message. Are you conscious of this?

HK: I think there is great tragedy in Mahler, and a great tragic sense. After the first two movements, after such great torture, all you can do is let the music flow. But, then, I must say that the most difficult movement to play is the third. It needs great skill. Today they played it wonderfully.

RO: Does a recording exist in a different dimension of time from a live performance or is this merely an illusion created by one’s being there?

HK: A different dimension of time: no. It was a nonsense they tried to teach me when I first made records, you must always do it faster. For me it is always the same, though now we have the added good fortune of playing live concerts and recording in the Philharmonic. This too has made an enormous difference – no longer having to work in a studio.

RO: Can we turn to opera? Is Salzburg your ideal of what a large international house should be?

HK: Certainly. Of course, we are always improving. Next year we have a new computer, but that doesn’t help the performances, it simply cuts down the time we are rehearsing. We have all the equipment; but more important, we have the people. This is now a place where the man who cares passionately for his craft – lighting or stage work – comes to show what he can really do. We have a lighting director at the moment, he is comparatively young. He never makes a note! I said to him, ‘And what if I do an unexpected ritardando?’ He replied, ‘Herr Karajan, do you imagine that I’m not listening to what you are doing? If you make a ritard, I retard my machine; it’s very easy!’. A lot of nonsense was talked about the new Festspielhaus. But, first, you can see the whole stage – and even today houses are being built with seats which have a view of only half the stage! – and second, it is acoustically marvellous for the audience and for the conductor; for opera and for concerts, especially choral concerts. Some houses, like La Scala, are very good for opera but terrible for orchestral music.

RO: When you left Vienna in 1964 you said there are some things one can only do once in a lifetime. Would you ever head an opera house again?

HK: Never again! It is my firm belief that for the quality which you get in the big opera houses the expenses are much too high. Vienna is reaching 100 million marks [£25 million] in subsidy for one year. It is folly! At Salzburg we have the recordings and the films and then I am very frank with my subscribers and they are most understanding. Naturally they would like new productions every Easter and every August, but that is throwing money out of the window. So we repeat Don Carlos in 1978 for those who haven’t seen it. And for those who have we can make arrangements about the seats. Now I have time, as Don Carlos is finished both for records and for film, to complete the preparations for Parsifal. When we launch a new production we work for a full week beforehand with complete lights, costumes, everything. And these things you cannot do in a repertory theatre.

RO: Does the fact that your productions are also filmed and recorded affect your casting or the kind of voices you are looking for?

HK: Not really. I am interested in getting not only good voices, but also people who are great actors. For our new Il trovatore we have Elena Obraztsova: a unique talent, fabulous. The orchestra were so fascinated they more or less bowed down before her. It’s a savage voice, yet it is beautiful at the same time. Not one harsh, one shrill note from her, yet it comes out as though from the throat of an animal.

RO: Perfectly meeting Mozart’s ideal that ‘passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in such a way as to excite disgust’! And do you have plans for her?

HK: She can do anything. We plan to do Tosca with her, and I shall now at last do Norma with Ricciarelli and Obraztsova. It’s always been of interest to me and now I think we have the right combination for it. But I will not conduct it in the opera house. I have seen it and – well, the people are there to hear the singers.

RO: Oratorio, almost.

HK: Yes, you could do it as an oratorio. But such great music – no wonder Wagner was so overwhelmed by it.

RO: Why have you kept corning back to Il trovatore throughout your career?

HK: There are many reasons. It was one of the first operas I conducted when I started my career in Ulm. I had 24 players – four first violins! – and with these forces you can play Mozart and Verdi. Everything else is distorted. I have struggled to understand the plot, but it cannot be comprehended. No one understands it. I don’t, the singers don’t. My conception is that here are what Jung would have called archetypes. Fear, hate, love… that fascinates me. And then there isn’t a dull moment in the entire piece. Which is why I love it and will play it again and again. Now, I am looking for a Falstaff.

RO: Ah, you want to come back to that?

HK: Oh, I love it. But though we can cast more or less anything today, we have not a Falstaff.

RO: How marvellous Gobbi was in your famous EMI set.

HK: Yes, he had sung it many times, and he told me how, after many years, he had come to see the role from very different standpoints. My training in Falstaff came from Toscanini. There wasn’t a rehearsal in either Vienna or Salzburg at which I wasn’t present. I think I heard about 30. He taught me the phrasing, the words – always Italian singers: which was unheard of in Germany then. I don’t think I ever opened the score. It was so in my ears I just knew it.

RO: Il trovatore, Don Carlos, Otello, Falstaff and the Requiem – what other Verdi have you in view?

HK: We are working on the models now for a new production of Aida. My experience with the chorus in Lohengrin taught me a lot about the kind of sound we can achieve in the Festspielhaus and this has led us towards some new ideas. The shortcomings of this opera are often the processions when people come in with two left feet. All this must be kept to a minimum. The beauty of the music must speak: the last scene… And at the same time we come back to Das Rheingold!

RO: A new project?

HK: No, we have the soundtrack made in Salzburg. They said it was impossible to do well, but I asked one of the EMI engineers to try. The result was beautiful. The cast was in excellent form – Stewart, Riddersbusch and so on – and we laid great emphasis on the fact of every word being heard. So what we will have is not a film of the stage version, but the performance, allied to an entirely new scenic conception.

RO: Not as new as the present Bayreuth Ring?

HK: Well, no. I think there are limits beyond which we cannot go. People say to me, where do you place the emphasis in the Ring. I say, I place it in the music! In the long run it’s the only answer. But then that is only my view; others have their opinion and I would never oppose them.

RO: I think we are to have an eagerly awaited new set of Salome from you soon. You had plans to produce it back in 1964 I seem to recall.

HK: Yes, but we cancelled because I could not find a Salome. Strauss once bitterly complained to me. He said ‘Nowadays all the heavy voices are singing this role; it’s all gone out of control. I don’t want this!’. His ideal at this time was Cebotari, who had very much the voice of Hildegard Behrens, who is our new Salome. Behrens is a much stronger character, though. I went to hear her in Düsseldorf. She was singing on the stage when we arrived and by the time I had reached my seat I said to the man who was with me, this is the Salome I have been looking for.

RO: What about Ljuba Welitsch?

HK: Oh yes. But she was an exception, though physically she was not exactly… in any case I will never do it with a girl who dances. Either the performance will be no good, of if it is so overwhelming, then she has no energy left to sing the final scene. We were lucky. We found this girl Schwaarz, who is very like Behrens. The dance was just fascinating.

RO: You must have heard Strauss conduct these operas many times himself

HK: Yes, of course. He conducted quite a lot in Salzburg and in Vienna. His Mozart was wonderful.

RO: People say so; but on record it often seems rather dry.

HK: Yes, there was a Don Giovanni which is well, you know, he could be very negligent. When I conducted Elektra here in Berlin he came. I think it was his 75th birthday. At the end he came to me and said it was the best performance he had ever heard. I said, ‘I don’t really want to hear this; tell me what was wrong with it’. I think he was surprised, but he asked me to lunch the next day. He said, ‘You have made the music very clear, the fp here, the accents there; but these are not all important. Just wave your stick around a bit!’. He meant let the music flow naturally. And then he added, ‘You have worked on this opera for three months and I can see you have concentrated very hard. I am very far away from the work. So you are right and I am wrong after all! Then he laughed a little and said, ‘But don’t forget, in five years’ time you will have changed again’. The great wisdom of an old man!

RO: Who wrote great music in his old age.

HK: But you can do this – the Four Last Songs, the Metamorphosen and this beautiful Oboe Concerto. This is why in all great cultures you find a congress of the old. They have great experience and much to tell us.

RO: Conductors, too!

HK: But this is natural. Experience helps enormously. When you conduct a symphony for the first time you expect a breakdown in every bar. But if you know the thing, you know where to apply the concentration. It is the same with the great surgeon. He knows where nothing can go wrong; where the young man is worried ‘My goodness, if something happens which I have not calculated for…’ And so he is able to apply his real concentration at the decisive moment. This is how you reserve your energies. Many younger conductors are more exhausted after a concert than I am now. I don’t feel especially exhausted after Tristan; but the first time I conducted it I needed an ambulance to take me home!

RO: I admit, after so searing a Mahler Fifth this morning, I expected to find you prostrate! The relationship between great conductors and great surgeons is an interesting one.

HK: It is all to do with healing. It is the difference between being taken care of by an efficient machine and by a human being. This I know in my own life. When I was ill two years ago, the surgeon was leaving with his family to spend Christmas in Saudi Arabia. On the way to the airport he received a message that I was seriously ill; he turned round and came back at once. My father, whom I admired enormously, was a doctor. Once when he was very old he said to me, ‘After all, the technique you can learn; but what comes out of that is what you give as a human being. Never forget that you do not operate on a dead thing. You operate on a living body’. He spoke as a doctor, but his words left a deep impression on my musical life.

That evening Karajan went to the opera: to Falstaff, though whether he found a Falstaff only time will tell. Looking back over our conversation a single word springs more or less irresistibly to mind: dedication. Dedication to musical essences in performances which never seek to be less than intent, luminous and true; dedication to his great orchestra; dedication to the art of three generations of European singers and to a host of brilliant young talents (now household names) whom be helped nurture and sustain; and dedication to a new line of players and conductors within the great tradition he has preserved.

Yehudi Menuhin has written: ‘Karajan follows a long line of great conductors; but he is more than a conductor, he is a leader of men.’ It is well said. Certainly the mature Karajan could well echo Goethe’s great affirmation Im gulen, ganzen, schönen, resalut zu leben – ‘to live resolutely in that which is good, whole, and beautiful’. Inheritor of a great musical tradition but born, too, into a world already dangerously in disarray, Karajan has forged for himself a great career. Some have seen it to be a thing as perilous as the Ring itself: but the quality of the music-making has never been in doubt, whilst the range of Karajan’s commitments and the extent of his achievement, unique in the history of conducting, seem still to know no bounds.

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