Herbert Von Karajan: A Portrait – Documentary, Plus Bonus CD

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LABELS: Immortal
PERFORMER: Herbert Von Karajan
CATALOGUE NO: IMM 950001 (distr. Codaex)


Paris 1941. And here’s Winifred Wagner stepping down from a train to attend orchestral concerts conducted by young Herbert von Karajan. On the concert platform for the Overture to Die Meistersinger Karajan is every inch the Meister, with the lights throwing his towering shadow against the wall. Perhaps it was politics-as-theatre not ideology that attracted him to the Nazis.

Questioned about his party membership in 1946, ‘Karajan… totally neglected and obscured socio-political realities,’ says the historian Dr Oliver Rathkolb. So a man blinkered by personal ambition, perhaps: a conductor who learnt to brush his hair up in order to look taller on the platform and the maestro who had a camera strapped on his shoulders during filming in order to capture close-ups of his hands as they made the orchestra make music. The triumph of a musical will, you might say.

Those admirers who find the maestro’s politics murky and his life more celebrity than substance appeal to his music-making, and his gifts as an orchestral trainer are well documented in this Portrait even when they are not explained. But not even a generous tribute from Christa Ludwig (‘He could sustain a bar simply by a stretch of his hand’) will convince the doubters.

Too often in his later years Karajan seems to have polished every ounce of humanity out of the music. In the beginning it was different, as you can hear on the bonus CD that accompanies this DVD, a concert recorded with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam that includes Brahms’s First Symphony.


Small wonder that the whole orchestra is at battle stations in the first movement, with beauty taking second place to expressivity. This was recorded in September 1943, which brings us back to Karajan’s membership of the Nazi party. What did the man believe in other than himself? Christopher Cook