C1795. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil.: 'Tragic' Symphony #6 in a (Mahler). (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-1044, Live Performance, 6 June, 1977, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Karajan in concert is rarer than you might think, so this splendidly played live Mahler Sixth from Paris in 1977 is quite intriguing. Since it comes in excellent stereo, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Karajan’s studio recording for DG released in 1978. He was a latecomer to Mahler in general, which was typical of an older generation of conductors. They had absorbed the received opinion that Mahler’s music was unacceptable, the usual rationale being its emotional flagrancy, gaucherie, and the exthausting length of the majority of his symphonies. Being Austrian, Karajan didn’t tar Bruckner and Mahler with the same brush, while in America the two were often dismissed together in some musically elite circles. (There could also be a reverse prejudice, as with Bernstein and Levine, two great Mahler interpreters who would have little or nothing to do with Bruckner.)
The Berlin Philharmonic was so unused to Mahler that when Barbirolli guest conducted in the Sixties, they didn’t know the symphonies he programmed, #9 in 1963, #2 in 1965, and #6 in 1966. This wasn’t entirely Karajan’s doing since neither of his predecessors, Furtwängler and Celibidache, had left the orchestra with much experience. (Early on, Furtwängler made room for Mahler, however. Between 1916 and 1932 he led the first four symphonies as well as KINDERTOTENLIEDER and the LIEDER EINES FAHRENDEN GESELLEN, and of course he made a celebrated recording of the latter in 1952 with the young Fischer-Dieskau. There was no Mahler during the Nazi era, since his music was banned, but after the war Furtwängler returned to the song cycles - he fell into the accepted attitude that Mahler’s real strength was his songs.)
In both the studio and live Sixths Karajan avoids extremes without reducing the music to a literal reading of the score. The first movement is taken quickly, and in Paris one feels the added urgency of the concert hall. (There’s also a shock right away when the first trumpet loudly flubs the last note in his solo entry.) One also notices that the soundstage is more expansive in Paris, but DG’s engineers captured a little more transparency in Berlin. The sweep and brilliance one expects from the Berliners is everywhere in evidence, but in addition Karajan is more involved in the music here. Under his control, the successive climaxes in the first movement increase steadily in tension and excitement.
Along with most accomplished conductors, once Karajan had settled on an interpretation, it didn’t vary to any great degree. The Paris Sixth is a couple of minutes slower than the DG recording, but in a movement like the Scherzo, which is placed second, there is little musical difference. The conception is far from Tennstedt’s terrifying intensity with the London Philharmonic on the orchestra’s house label, but Karajan doesn’t smooth things out, either. Such is the Orchestra’s discipline that where you expect excitement in a live performance to cause the timpani and brass to go a little over the top, here they don’t.
For sheer melodic beauty Mahler rarely surpassed the sublime Andante of the Sixth Symphony, and Karajan gives it nuance, sheen, and polish without depriving the music of life. Control usually implies a limiting adjective like ‘tight’, but the playing here is refined without losing the movement’s bucolic air. In Paris Karajan leans a little more into the moving line; for DG we get perfect balance among the various voices. I prefer Paris for the touch of added vibrancy, although both versions are beautiful.
If the slow movement is notable for beauty, the half-hour finale stands as one of Mahler’s most daring conceptions, plunging us immediately into a mesmerizing, unpredictable sound world that leads to shattering waves of emotional turmoil. In a great performance like the two from Bernstein and the Tennstedt mentioned above, this movement can be annihilating (although I don’t think the famous thwacks with a giant hammer really achieve the tragic death blow Mahler must have imagined). This cataclysmic music must have been a reinforcement for Mahler deniers, who would have thought it borderline insane.
Karajan was too unlike Mitropoulos, Bernstein, and Tennstedt to follow their instincts for letting Mahler off the leash at his most extreme. Instead, as with Szell and Michael Tilson Thomas, Karajan’s finale is comparatively reined in for the first few minutes - but only comparatively. The score’s fascinating instrumental colors, the mood of mystery giving way to calamity, the huge-to-bursting orchestral sonority are all present in Paris, and some listeners might even prefer the way that Karajan occasionally relents on the pressure without losing momentum. The middle section swoops and races in a thrilling manner (lacking only Tennstedt’s berserker wildness, which is unforgettable).
The DG recording didn’t arrive so late in the Mahler revolution that it failed to make an striking impression. In FANFARE 2:3 Benjamin Pernick was (to me) inexplicably dismissive: ‘Karajan's ill-conceived interpretation is everything the Mahler Sixth is not: glossy, impersonal, unfeeling, and unemotional’. Most reviewers were all but overwhelmed, and this Paris Sixth relives their astonishment. In the four decades since, I’ve heard the smallest handful of readings that rival it for magnificence. The French audience erupts rapturously half a second after the finale note dies away.
I mustn’t exaggerate the differences between the two Karajan Mahler Sixths. In Yves St-Laurent’s excellent remastering, the two sound equally fine. Listening from moment to moment, I was more involved in the concert reading, as I think most listeners will be. In any event, it’s a luxury to have two great performances at this exalted level.”
- 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