C1808. HERBERT von KARAJAN Cond. Berlin Phil., w.Edith Mathis (S): Symphony #4 in G (Mahler). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1050, Live Performance, 26 Jan., 1980, Berlin. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“By the time Karajan made his DG studio recording of the Mahler Fourth in February, 1979, no one didn’t have an opinion about him. In the welter of fame, power, adulation, denigration, and revelations about his activities during the Third Reich, it became hard simply to sit down and listen. I shake my head over the numberless reviews that spoon feed someone’s fixed beliefs, but more than 30 years after his death, I am optimistic that a superb performance like this live Mahler Fourth from 1980 can cast its spell without knee-jerk reflexes.
Even Karajan’s harshest detractors, many clustered in America rather than the UK or Germany, were forced to concede that he had built the Berlin Philharmonic into the world’s greatest orchestra, and one is struck here by the lustrous depth of the fabled Berlin strings in the slow movement. But it’s important not to trip up here, because reviewers put together Karajan and any date after the mid-Seventies as a case of over-refinement, glib smoothness, and a gleaming surface polish empty of deeper meaning. Nothing of the sort applies here. The slow movement exhibits thoughtfulness, delicacy, an astonishing variety of subtle moods, and dramatic tension to relive the stream of legato melody. Karajan vies for emotional authenticity with Walter, Bernstein, Barbirolli, and Tennstedt in this music. For me, he surpasses them all.
The finale rises to the same level of musical imagination. The whole movement is wonderfully alive, and when the verse arrives about 11,000 maidens giving themselves over to dancing, no one I’ve ever heard invests the music with such hushed mystery. It’s a lovely example of Karajan applying delicacy of imagination. In Edith Mathis he has one of the few sopranos who sings with flawless technique, never losing breath control in the fast passages. Mathis has a pure lyric tone that’s quite engaging, but she doesn’t go as deeply into the text as I’d like, and there’s no attempt at portraying a child’s wide-eyed innocence. She is surrounded by the Philharmonie’s roomy ambience, which thankfully doesn’t blur her excellent diction.
To these two masterful movements I’d add the first movement even though it introduces a criticism that has some validity in my mind. Mahler’s sense of humor isn’t conveyed - he lamented in a letter that no one really caught on to it - and Karajan doesn’t exploit the quirks in Mahler’s orchestration, the music’s extreme gestures, or its moments of darkness. For that, no one I know is better than Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony (LSO Live) and Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic on the orchestra’s house label. Karajan’s genial approach needs no special pleading, however; he’s in the same tradition as Bruno Walter, and leaving Mengelberg aside, it must be said that an older generation was apt to treat the Mahler Fourth, with some inner relief, as his most normal music. It gave conductors a chance to convey unspoiled beauty without intrusions of agitated turmoil. In that line Karajan’s reading achieves the unalloyed beauty it sets out to achieve.
Where I have to temper my admiration a little is the second movement - concertmaster Michel Schwalbé makes too little of the grotesquerie of the Devil’s fiddle part. As with the klezmer band interlude in the First Symphony, this bit of folk parody has become more antic and caricatured since this performance took place. There was a more rounded treatment of both episodes in the past, and by no means is Karajan asleep at the wheel. The second movement is full of vibrancy and energy.
I have seen this live performance on only one other tiny label, Sardana, where it was presented in artificial SACD sound. Thanks to the excellent remastering by Yves St-Laurent, the sound here is close to studio quality. Given the heightened atmosphere of a live performance, I prefer this 1980 version over DG’s commercial release (which wasn’t one of Karajan’s commercial triumphs; it was relegated to the label’s mid-priced Galleria line). I won’t disguise that I am almost the only Fanfare reviewer in a long line who has such a deep admiration for Karajan; his Mahler in particular has come in for a fair amount of scorn.
To each his own is an iron-clad rule in the arts, so I can only repeat that the simple act of sitting down and listening to what is before us can dissolve the weight of prejudice. In this case, what I found before me was a Mahler Fourth of unusual beauty and interest.”
- 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