Recorded before an invited audience in Berlin in January 1975, this is one of the finest of all representations of Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker on film. Karajan was essentially a man of the theatre and all five pieces recorded here are of theatre music. Prior to 1967, when he invited the Berliner Philharmoniker to take up a permanent residency at the Salzburg Easter Festival, the orchestra had never been a “pit” band. Over the next 21 years they played in productions of 19 operas by Wagner, Verdi, Beethoven, Strauss and Puccini, all staged and conducted by Karajan.
Karajan never conducted Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in the theatre but its overture – more a four-movement tone-poem than a conventional curtain-raiser – always held a special fascination for him. The opening colloquy for five solo cellos suggested to Berlioz the calm of profound solitude among the mountains when the elements and human passions are at rest. Karajan chose this as the rehearsal piece for his graduation exam in Vienna in 1928, working intently on the cello-led opening pages and making the trumpets rehearse individually so as to ensure absolute accuracy of rhythm in the overture’s celebrated conclusion.
Karajan did conduct Wagner’s Tannhäuser in the theatre, though he left no complete recording of it. This filmed performance of the overture glows white in the furnace almost of its own volition – always for Karajan the sign of a truly great orchestra at work. Not that he lessens his own involvement. “In performance an unbelievable power and tension radiated from him,” recalled one player who had observed him at close quarters for many decades. “So tense were his muscles, he often suffered painful cramps in his left hand which he overcame with great difficulty. He never spared himself when standing on the rostrum.”