Karajan's Magic and Myth

English documentary maker John Bridcut on his BBC film about Herbert von Karajan

Karajan's Magic and Myth

I only once saw Herbert von Karajan in the flesh. It was in 1976, when he brought the Berlin Philharmonic to help celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Royal Festival Hall in London. They played Beethoven's Eighth Symphony (a plush rendition) and Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss. But what I remember most of all was that he got the orchestra to its feet at the start for a minute's silence in tribute to the conductor, Rudolf Kempe, who had died earlier that day. Why does that, rather than the music stick in the memory? Because I was so surprised that Karajan was prepared to acknowledge any other conductor in that way.

It may have been unfair, because Karajan was a keen student of recordings by other conductors, and admired Arturo Toscanini, Karl Böhm, Carlos Kleiber, Thomas Beecham and John Barbirolli. But it exemplified the reserve that so many people have about Karajan: a fascination with someone so assured and handsome, but a suspicion that all that glitters is not gold. That may explain why the BBC has never before made a full-length TV documentary about this man – indeed, even the tribute paid to him on the day of his death by the then controller of music, John Drummond, was remarkably double-edged. I knew, therefore, that in preparing my film Karajan's Magic and Myth, I would be walking on eggshells.

What is undeniable is that Karajan was a brilliant success commercially. His opera records for EMI, and his orchestral and choral work for Deutsche Grammophon (for a long time he was making twenty discs a year), bestrode the world of recording, and he is still DG's number three best-selling artist twenty-five years after his death. His CDs sell particularly well in China, where he is regarded as the benchmark of quality. But he used that success to musical advantage: his five (or was it six?) cycles of Beethoven symphonies helped pay for his loss-leaders, like the extraordinary box set in the 1970s of the Second Viennese School. I can remember, as a student, being amazed and intrigued that Herbert von Karajan had recorded the orchestral pieces of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, which I'd always imagined as being beyond his pale. In Karajan's hands, these works were poles apart from the clarity and precision of their foremost exponent at the time, Pierre Boulez: Karajan saw them as directly descended from the romanticism of Wagner, and thereby won them new friends, both in his own orchestra, and in the wider listening public.

The other thing that Karajan is still remembered for is his membership of the Nazi party. Along with many other German and Austrian musicians, he joined the party for the sake of his career, and some have never forgiven him for this – indeed, some Jewish soloists refused to work with him. So I was particularly touched to hear that, when one refusenik, Itzhak Perlman, agreed to give a solo recital at the Salzburg Festival, a Karajan-like figure was seen standing at the back of the stalls, listening intently. 'It can't actually be Karajan', someone said, 'because he's conducting Aida at this very moment'. But it was. Karajan, despite Perlman's personal rejection, was so keen to hear him that he'd slipped across during the interval in the opera. That is a mark of generosity and musical curiosity which confounds the image that Karajan himself had done so much to foster.

However much we are suspicious (or maybe jealous?) of Karajan's success, of his matinee idol looks, of his prolific output (and who could have guessed that he conducted A Child of Our Time and Belshazzar's Feast in Italy in the '50s?), his stature as a musician is, to my mind, secure. We may scoff at the way he kept his eyes shut in performance, or the manipulative character of his music films. But the pejorative epithets ascribed to him (arrogant, glossy, cold, shallow) can be picked off one by one, when faced with such towering achievements as his 1970s Bohème, his Bruckner symphonies, or indeed the piece which launched his postwar work with the Philharmonia in London, Strauss's Don Juan, which is breathtaking in its virtuosity and élan.

- John Bridcut


John Bridcut's Karajan's Magic and Myth will be shown on BBC Four on Friday 5 December at 7.30pm. Visit: bbc.co.uk/bbcfour




TV & Radio: Karajan's Magic and Myth (BBC, Bridcut)

• Karajan conducting: five fantastic Karajan moments

Review: Herbert Von Karajan: A Portrait (Immortal)


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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