On Herbert von Karajan


Like him or not, he remains one of the great conductors

2052 words · 10 min read

One of the great conductors whom I idolised in my teens was Herbert von Karajan, an Austrian conductor who was the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker for more than thirty years. The first video recording of an orchestra that I saw was Karajan’s conducting Beethoven sixth and seventh symphonies on laser disc, which fascinated me with an incredible visual imagery of the orchestra. One of my music teachers at the time also revered Herbert von Karajan, saying that he was amazed by how much power he could get from the orchestra with minimal gestures. At some point, I acquired the video recording of his rehearsal, which showed an authoritative figure who wouldn’t give up until he got the sound he wanted.

For people who romanticised about being conductor, such as I did, the image Karajan exuded in his body of work was an alluring one: powerful, perfect, uncompromising, cold, detached, and most importantly, perhaps, misunderstood; in other words, a tortured artist. Over the years, however, I have read and heard many things being said about Karajan, and not very many of them are positive. Those opinions dampened my liking for him, and as I have had the opportunities to watch many great conductors and orchestras over the years, my veneration for Karajan turned into indifference.

One of the things often said of his is his perfectionism. The perfect hair, the perfect lighting, the perfect movements with the orchestra, and a perfect sound that came to be known as the “Karajan’s sound,” that lush, deep, and golden sound (whatever that means) that he produced with very small gestures and with his eyes closed. Indeed, his obituary at the New York Times was titled “Herbert von Karajan Is Dead; Musical Perfectionist Was 81.” The price of his perfecionism, according to many, is that his music is superficially refined without depth, and perhaps even artificial.

The most obvious (because it’s visible) artificiality, of course, is in his music videos, many of which directed by him. Karajan often recorded the audio first, and then later filmed the video, in which the members of the orchestra mimed the music with an absurd level of care: a video equivalent of copy-and-paste. Their bows moved with the exact lengths, their instrument placed at the same angles, and their bodies moved, or not moved, by the same degree. No orchestra ever plays like in an actual concert like that.

The perfect angle

The perfect angle

His aesthetic outlook in sound seemed identical to the visual one. Sir Simon Rattle noted that Karajan was the “Emperor of Legato”: everything sounded smooth, warm, and rich, without any short staccato attacks or ugly sound. The New York Times obituary also noted:

While he was always deeply respected as a conductor, some critics found his music-making increasingly slick and overrefined in his last decades.

In his review of a documentary film about Karajan, Tom Service wrote on the Guardian:

Karajan’s approach, they say, represents an ideology in which the superficial gloss, finish and perfection of orchestral sonority is an end in itself…

To achieve the perfection he wanted, one might deduce that he had to be an authoritarian, or a dictator. There are, in addition to his working style, some unfortunate historical facts to go on. For one, he became a member of the Nazi Party, and whether it was a purely opportunistic move, as he would want everyone to believe, is up to everyone to decide. For another, his bitter dispute with the Berliner Philharmoniker in the 1980s pointed to his crave for absolute control.

On the podium, his rehearsals were demanding and uncompromising, sometimes focusing a short section for minutes on end until he got the sound he wanted, and the atmosphere at his rehearsals seemed as though it were a father teaching his kids. Although not at the level of rage one can fear from recordings of Arturo Toscanini’s rehearsing, the atmosphere in a Karajan’s rehearsal isn’t particularly welcoming either.

All these paint a pretty unflattering picture for Karajan, but much like Richard Wager, who is a complex character with contradictory views on many issues, the myths surrounding Herbert von Karajan, while perhaps not outright wrong, come with many caveats. Indeed, the more I read about conducting, observe rehearsals of great conductors on films, watch conducting classes, and hear conductors talk about conducting, the more complicated my view of Herbert von Karajan becomes, and eventually I am forced to re-assess my opinion on Karajan’s music after not really listening to his work for some time.

The first thing to address is his alleged perfectionism, which is so often said of him that it was almost impossible to separate from him. The paradox here the alleged perfectionist actually allowed plenty of imperfections into his performances, both in live concerts and studio recordings. Imperfections in live performances are hard to avoid completely, so we need not concern ourselves too much. For studio recordings, however, where it is possible to edit out all the mistakes, it is astonishing that Karajan didn’t seem to care about mistakes going into his recordings, and it is all the more astonishing because he was a prolific recording artist who was also well-versed in audio technology. One excample cited in the documentary “Karajan’s Magic and Myth” is the recording of Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica, where the trumpet plays a wrong note, and Karajan refused to record another take. Another example of imperfection I have found recently happens forty-one seconds into Der Anstieg of Alpensinfonie, in which the strings are incredibly not together. Likewise, near the beginning of his 1973 recording of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, there’s a cracked note somewhere among the trumpets. Even musicians of Berliner Philharmoniker had a few things to say about that apparent lack of concerns of mistakes. One commented that they often had to play or even record with very little or no rehearsals at all. Meanwhile, the former principle flautist of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Andreas Blau, commented in the same documentary film:

Andreas Blau: I asked Herr von Karajan, “Could we please repeat this place. I think I was not correct on this part, and I would do it again.” [Karajan replied,] “No, no. Everything is fine. I think I know. It’s perfect.”

Interviewer: Is it?

Andreas Blau: No!

Probing deep into the nature of the imperfections in his music will perhaps shed some light on the technical aspect of his conducting. Since he is famous for making tiny and very vague gestures, the imprecision in his performances may be the result of his conducting style. As with everything one can say about Karajan, however, we must first consider the caveat, which is that his conducting gestures aren’t always the smallest and vaguest among conductors. Consider the beginning of Beethoven’s third symphony:

And now watch the same place conducted by Claudio Abbado:

Indeed, when necessary, Karajan often gave very deep and aggressive down beat: he would raise his arms way up above his head, and would drop them to a point where his arms were just hanging there. No one today seems to conduct as forcefully as Karajan did with Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem, and he was no longer a young man here:

The cliché about his tiny and vague gestures, of course, isn’t entirely false. Musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker noted that Karajan didn’t conduct, and it often took new members of the orchestra some time before they could get the handle on even the most basic question, namely when to start to play a note. That was because, ouside of the situations where aggressive and clear gestures were called for, Karajan seldom beat time. Instead of giving clear ictuses, he moved his arms in round and smooth motions, and that, I believe, corresponds to his aesthetic in music, which is the pursuit of a beautiful and warm legato sound in long continuous phrases, which requires, for strings in particular, a somewhat unsynchronised playing. Consider a legato playing of two notes: when all the players change from the first note to the second one at different time but all within one tenth of a second of each other, the linkage between the first note and the second note is strengthened without the impression that the players aren’t playing together. In other words, absolute precision isn’t even necessary in orchestral playing.

When a conductor gives only vague gestures, the players may have to rely on listening or looking at the other side of the orchestras before they decide when and how to play. If that is the secret of Karajan’s music-making, then it is also the greatest paradox. For if the players in his orchestra had to make their own decisions on when and how to play in a concert, was Karajan still a dictator on the podium? Indeed, in the conversation between Rainer Seegers, the timpanist, and Daniel Stabrawa, the first concertmaster of Berliner Philharmoniker, they noted that Karajan allowed them considerable freedom, and he never resented his musicians when they made mistakes in a concert.

In the end, we can only judge a conductor by the result: how is the music? Is Karajan’s music too superficially perfect and refined to a point of lacking depth, emotion, or meaning? Or is his music full of mistakes? And do they even matter? Unfortunately, we no longer have the opportunity to watch his concerts live. There are, however, some videos of his live concerts that, from the look and the sound of them, have not been overly edited, thus they are perhaps the closest we can get today to a Karajan concert. All the examples I am going to show below are from the last decade of his life, when his music received the most criticism of being overly polished, yet they are much more than just superficially beautiful. Instead, they are full of passion, powerful, and very moving. The first example is Richard Strauss Alpensinfonie:

In the movement Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (at 35:45 mark), the music brings the audience to the brink that is the thunderstorm on the Alps. The Ausklang here is one of the most moving performances I’ve ever heard, especial at 45:06 mark onwards, where the notes played by the strings seem to have melted into each other. Here, sonic beauty isn’t an end in itself, but serves an important expressive purpose, as the narrative of the music turns from the near catastrophe on the mountain to the stillness after the storm.

By coincidence, another example a Richard Strauss’s tone poem: the instantly recognisable Also sprach Zarathustra. Like the Alpensinfonie, one cannot criticise his music for being merely superficially beautiful and nothing more.

Another example of his supreme music-making is Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and especially Liebestod in the finale of the opera. Here, he conducted the Wiener Philharmoniker in one of his last appearances, with the unsurpassed Jessye Norman singing Isolde. His gestures here were expressive and smooth gestures at times, while tiny and close to nothing at other times. Once again, sonic beauty isn’t an end in itself. The opera ends with Isolde dying, but only in death can Tristan and Isolde be reunited as one, so that the end of the opera, however tragic the plot may suggests, must be the happiest and the most beautiful moment.

The last example is Beethoven’s third symphony, that I have already cited above. While today’s taste for Beethoven’s symphonies leans towards a style closer to the historically informed approach, one cannot say his interpretation is bad, wrong, or too beautiful. If there is one thing that one can actually fault him, especially in the case of the classical repertoire such as Beethoven, it is that his aesthetic outlook have gone out of fashion. Karajan’s style is uniform and consistent across all music, be it Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, or Mahler. Today, his approach remains timeless for late romantic Austro-Germanic repertoire, such as Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Anton Bruckner, but playing Bach like that today is ridiculous, and playing Beethoven like that will raise some eyebrows. Yet one can still appreciate his Beethoven today, for they are excellent for what they are: the most successful style of orchestral playing of the 20th century, executed at the highest technical level, and no less moving than the more current approaches.

 Essays    7 Dec, 2018
 Herbert von Karajan    Conductor  
Copyright © Peter Y. Chuang 2019

Peter Y. Chuang is a Hong Kong-born novelist, short story writer, and a music critic who has lived in London at a time and now goes to Berlin semi-regularly for no good reason. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably playing with his cat, or listening to classical music, either at home or at one of the opera houses and concert halls in Germany. He uses Linux (current distro of choice: Arch Linux). Read more about his Linux stuff.

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