Herbert von Karajan

Chief conductor 1956–1989

Herbert von Karajan’s fascinating artistic concept included combining the subjective expressiveness of Wilhelm Furtwängler with the strict objectivity of Arturo Toscanini. In other respects, too, the stylistic profile of the conductor seemed to consist of the balance of opposites: magnificent sound and transparency, tonal beauty and precise articulation. As markedly as Karajan made reference to role models and existing trends, he was at the same time a singular phenomenon in the music world of the 20th century.

In some respects, Adorno’s remark that the conductor was the “genius of the economic miracle” is difficult to dismiss. It could be seen, for example, in his ostentatious display of personal wealth, the millions of recordings sold, and in his active contribution to the development of sound engineering. However, his constant media presence contrasts with his humble approach to the masterpieces of music, and the rock-solid Kapellmeister training he initially received at the opera houses in Ulm and Aachen. Although Karajan was particularly fond of Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, his versatility as an opera and concert conductor was extremely impressive. His recordings of core works of French Modernism and the Second Viennese School, for example, still set standards today. Karajan’s unprecedented achievements as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker included the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival and, above all, the opening of Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie, tailored precisely to his ideas. Meanwhile, in Karajan’s final years of life, conflicts began to accumulate, leading the conductor to cancel his contract with the orchestra just a few months before his death. Nevertheless, the more than 30-year-long artistic partnership of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan represents an unusually productive epoch in the history of musical interpretation that has a lasting effect right up to the present.


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