Herbert von Karajan first conducted Beethoven in public in Ulm in 1931. The work was the Eroica Symphony, an ambitious undertaking for a 23-year-old assistant Kapellmeister directing a small provincial opera orchestra. “One listened and was astonished,” reported the local newspaper.
As a young man Karajan worked assiduously to reconcile the old Wagner-derived German Romantic school of Beethoven interpretation with the quicker and texturally more transparent style of Beethoven interpretation which was being pioneered by conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Richard Strauss. It was a daunting task. Speaking of the Bacchanalian Seventh Symphony, Karajan recalled: “When I was a young conductor in Germany, it was usual to conduct the finale much slower than we hear nowadays. I knew this was wrong but I couldn’t escape this tradition because of the difficulty of realising the inner content of the music.”
Part of Karajan’s inheritance when he became artistic director of the Berliner Philharmoniker was the visceral intensity of the orchestra’s playing. This became an important element in the now legendary Beethoven performances which he and his players gave on record and in concert halls in Europe, Japan and the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. In London in 1961 a critic wrote: “The playing throughout the evening was truly superb, every instrumentalist bowing and blowing and thumping as though for dear life. The violins waved and swayed like cornstalks in the wind. Every note had vitality, yet every note was joined to all the others. There were no tonal lacunae, not a hiatus all night. We could hear things which usually we are obliged to seek out by eyes reading the score.”
It is that experience which avant-garde film-maker Hugo Niebeling (b. 1930) preserved for all time in these brilliantly conceived 1971 films of the Third and Seventh Symphonies. In both films, the orchestra is seated in three steeply raked inverted triangles. The shape is that of an Ancient Greek theatre, the files of seats rising steeply up the hillside from the circular orchestra below, and as baleful discords blaze out at the climax of the Eroica Symphony’s first movement development, the camera cuts to the bells of the trumpets lit from behind by a fierce blaze of light.