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During the 30-year-old Herbert von Karajan’s first encounter with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 1938, he asked for separate sectional rehearsals in the suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. The players were not amused, claiming that they knew the piece perfectly well. Karajan recalled: “With all the impudence of youth, I replied, ‘Well, we'll see, shall we?’. I then went straight to the hardest sections with the violas, and they couldn’t manage them at all.” The performance was a triumph. Berlin’s most respected independent critic Heinrich Strobel wrote that he could not recall hearing a more atmospheric, more brilliantly coloured or more dazzlingly exact reading than this.

It was Karajan’s aim during his 33 years with the Berliner Philharmoniker, which he took over from Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1955, to create individual sound “palettes” for individual composers, and nowhere more so than in the music of such early 20th-century masters as Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Strauss and Puccini. His conducting of Debussy’s haunting and musically revolutionary Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was widely admired by fellow musicians. The distinguished Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall marvelled at a performance which was “ice-cold” yet which also conveyed what he called “the heat of the hot, burning Grecian sun”. Watching Karajan conducting this or the larger ensemble required by Debussy in a movement such as “Jeux de vagues” from La Mer (another Karajan speciality, abetted by his own specialist knowledge of sailing and the sea) is particularly instructive. The film was made in 1978, the year in which he finally recorded in Berlin a work which was also very close to his heart, Debussy’s death-haunted opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

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