Chief conductor 1956–1989
Herbert von Karajan is still a synonym for Classical music. In his pursuit of an almost effortless legato sound of otherworldly beauty, he stands for unique perfection. His instrument with which he achieved this perfection was the Berliner Philharmoniker, whose chief conductor he was from 1956 – and from 1963 in the spectacularly beautiful Berlin Philharmonie.
However, there is more to Karajan’s interpretations than superficial gloss. Rather, he was guided by an intriguing artistic concept which aimed to unite the qualities of his great idols Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini. He admired the clarity and directness in Toscanini’s style, but also observed, “Finesse was not his cup of tea.” Likewise, he found him lacking when it came to a quality of Furtwängler’s: “He lacked that line – that in between thing, that elasticity Furtwängler had and which I also admired enormously.” Karajan on his part had the idea of combining the qualities of Toscanini and Furtwängler, “I said to myself, it must be possible to combine these two things: precision and elasticity. I don’t think that one excludes the other.”
Karajan worked tirelessly and uncompromisingly towards this goal. With unassailable authority he held sway over the concert platform – although he always knew when he had to give his musicians space to develop free artistic expression. The conductor liked to use an image from horse-riding: “If you want to jump over a fence, try not to lift the horse, it will lift you.” Accordingly, Karajan hardly ever rehearsed a score en détail, but – like Furtwängler – focused on the critical points of a score, especially the transitions. He brought his musicians into position – but they had to jump themselves. This concept of precise planning and spontaneity can be impressively understood in Karajan’s best recordings whose attraction lies in both their taut conception and the free blossoming of sound.
Karajan’s video productions emphasize yet another aspect of his music-making: the seamless interaction between the conductor and his orchestra. In these films, Karajan pursues a particular aesthetic concept in which the focus was never on the documentation of a live event. In fact, they are mostly studio productions in which every shot was carefully planned and often recorded with separate takes. The musicians were grouped so that they are barely visible as individuals, rather as homogeneous blocks of an “orchestral apparatus”: The Berliner Philharmoniker become a single, formidable instrument. Karajan himself does not actually stand in front of his musicians, but mostly – equally artificially – at their centre.
This all conveys an almost abstract, artificial aesthetic – and at the same time a “unification” of the conductor and orchestra. And this is one of the happiest aspects of their work together. Precisely at the time these films were made, there was between Herbert von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker an unparalleled give and take. The orchestra sublimely realized the vision of its chief who in turn was inspired by the sonic potential of his musicians. These recordings have the merit of documenting this particularly productive phase of Karajan’s Berlin years for posterity.
Sir Simon Rattle remembers Herbert von Karajan
Trailer: Herbert von Karajan conducts Brahms’s First Symphony