C1792. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil.: The Four Symphonies (Brahms). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1014, Live Performances, 2 & 3 June, 1975, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. [From one who was never warmed by the imperious Karajan mystique, I must say these performances are truly revelatory, structurally impressive and beyond beautiful! They must be heard!] Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Karajan, like Bernstein, Solti, and Ormandy, was fortunate to thrive during the postwar boom in recordings, and he made abundant use of the recording studio from the late Thirties through the Eighties. Over that long span there would seem to be nothing lacking, certainly not with Brahms. This new Brahms symphony cycle, recorded in excellent, natural-sounding stereo, was captured in concert when the Berliners came to Paris in June, 1975. There is a studio cycle from this time, and when added to Karajan’s two other DG cycles, along with any number of individual discs, the impression of much of a muchness seems inescapable.
I’d like to argue, however, that there is something exceptional here, beginning with the lack of live performances under Karajan. Unlike Furtwängler and Tennstedt, whose inspiration can only be appreciated fully in concert, Karajan the perfectionist had disciplined himself, and his musicians, to such a degree that you don’t expect dramatic differences between the studio and the concert hall. Yet this impression is misleading, and when Testament released live Karajan performances from London, even the most familiar repertoire, like ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA, gained in vibrancy and presence.
The rewards here are similar. Perfectionism cuts both ways. In return for impeccable execution, ensemble, and finesse, music loses spontaneity when it is too finely honed. Grumbling of this sort followed Michelangeli throughout his career and dogged Karajan in the last third of his. I’d counter by saying that audiences were absolutely astonished at the Berlin sound under Karajan. This factor is diminished in a recording but not erased. From the first movement of Symphony #1 your ear hears flawless music-making that goes beyond what furious taskmasters like Toscanini, Cantelli, and Szell managed to achieve.
The necessary thing, which some listeners resist, is that you must allow yourself to submit to the total control imposed by all four conductors. They set out to control not just the orchestra but the listener too. It was often said that Karajan cast a spell that was almost hypnotic (since he conducted with eyes closed, he seemed to be under the same spell). But if you can look past the cult of personality, which for some is very hard to do in Karajan’s case, the spell is being cast by the music. Remove the man and Brahms remains, wrapped in the closest thing to unblemished beauty that anyone has ever achieved on disc.
By 1975 Karajan had just entered the phase where he wanted music-making to be overly modulated, a style various critics have rejected and even derided. Certainly if you want Karajan’s Brahms symphonies at their most unvarnished, the DG recordings from the Sixties should be sought out. But here in Paris one senses his deep understanding of Brahms’ drama. For example, the slow introduction to the finale of the First Symphony is thrilling in its suspense and premonition, something clearly intended but often missed. Here it is expressed at the highest intensity. None of the studio Firsts go this far. And the orchestral power needed to carry out Karajan’s intentions remains unexcelled.
Having wound up the tension to the breaking point, Karajan makes the big tune feel like a release into the brightness of day, and when he applies an accelerando, leading to a rising feeling of exhilaration, you grasp that he was a master of long-range planning. This perfectly suits Brahms, who had the same gift (as did Furtwängler - he wouldn’t have felt so much rivalry if he hadn’t recognized that Karajan was breathing down his neck). Of the four symphonies, the First was a specialty for both conductors, and this Paris performance shows why. Exaltation can be reached by two very different paths.
The Paris audience, not famous for loving Brahms, goes wild. I won’t describe the rest of the cycle, saying only that everything exceptional in the First Symphony is present in the later three. I realize that experienced listeners are likely to have a fixed opinion about Karajan one way or the other. He started out as a Wunder and wound up being a case. If you are open to experiencing why he was ever a Wunder, this wonderful live Brahms cycle is an ideal place to begin.”
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“Unwittingly [Karajan] had filled the void left by the death of Hitler in that part of the German psyche which craves for a leader. He was unpredictable, ruthless and outspoken. Nobody - at any rate nobody in Austria - ever questioned Karajan's right to do exactly what he wanted. He moved everywhere with a circle of sycophants, who tried to justify their existence by speaking for him whenever possible, and I had to make it clear right away that I could not function at one remove from the conductor. As always, the direct approach worked. I don't think Karajan ever understood how much of his troubles were due to the people he allowed to surround him. Such petty issues often distorted one's view of Karajan the musician.”
- John Culshaw, manager of classical recording for Decca, 1967-75
“No one would deny von Karajan’s position in the topmost ranks of 20th-century conductors. Inspired to conduct at the age of 20 when he heard Arturo Toscanini in Vienna, and Wilhelm Furtwängler's great rival from the early 1940s until the older maestro's death in 1954, Mr. Karajan once said that he had attempted to combine ‘Toscanini's precision with Furtwängler's fantasy’. But Mr. Karajan was always more than a mere conductor: he was a man of enormous energy and careerist determination, and he managed at his peak, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, to tower over European musical life as no one had done before or is likely to do again. His nickname at the time was 'the general music director of Europe’, leading the Berlin Philharmonic, La Scala in Milan, London's Philharmonia Orchestra, the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival.
Mr. Karajan's life was hardly untouched by controversy. His membership in the Nazi party from 1933, his lack of overt repentance for his thriving career during the Nazi years and his imperious personality made him many enemies. While he was always deeply respected as a conductor, some critics found his music-making increasingly slick and overrefined in his last decades. And his final years were clouded by a series of bitter battles with the Berlin Philharmonic, the West Berlin ensemble whose 'conductor for life' he became in 1955. He abruptly resigned his Berlin post in April, 1989, citing ill health.
Yet for all the tales of arrogance and self-indulgence, Mr. Karajan remained a masterly conductor, with a grasp of the standard orchestral and operatic repertory from Mozart through Schönberg that was unsurpassed among his peers. Always a champion of Mozart, Beethoven - whose symphony cycle he recorded three times - Wagner and Bruckner, he gradually extended his grasp to include Mahler and even Schönberg. He was also a lifelong admirer of Italian opera and, contrary to his domineering image, a champion of young talent, from the American soprano Leontyne Price to the Soviet pianist Yevgeny Kissin.
When critics complained that his performances in his later years had grown overrefined, he replied that 'if the details are right, the performance will work’. And to the very end, he drew playing of the utmost tonal beauty from his orchestras. The Berlin Philharmonic is widely regarded as the world's pre-eminent orchestra, if any one ensemble can stake that claim. And his performances at Carnegie Hall with the Vienna Philharmonic drew almost astonished enthusiasm from veteran observers for their sonic sumptuousness, even if not all the critics praised the musical results.
'The Karajan industry bears about the same relation to postwar European music that Krupp bore to prewar European steel production’, wrote Martin Mayer in THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE in 1967. The classic, if perhaps apocryphal, Karajan anecdote had the conductor leaping into a taxi and, when asked his destination, replying: 'No matter. I am in demand everywhere’. Yet the conductor also had a spiritual side, and was a 40-year student of yoga and Zen Buddhism. He believed in reincarnation, and once dreamed of being reborn as an eagle, soaring above his beloved Alps.
Fascinated by technical innovations, he once contemplated being frozen for 15 years so that he could re-record the standard repertory in the latest video and audio technology.”
- John Rockwell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17 July, 1989
"Privately, Karajan was a dignified man, with elegant bearing. But when he came onstage to demonstrate movements, his own became very strange. He strutted about like a cock in a henhouse, his rear end stuck out and his head in the air. I grant, this rustic description does not fit into the Karajan myth, but it was exactly so."
- Birgit Nilsson, LA NILSSON, p.110