Tuesday 10 April 2012

Karajan. The greatest maestro?

I was planning a future blog bemoaning the fact that Herbert von Karajan’s pre-eminence as a conductor had seemed to fade in recent years. Although his many recordings have stayed in the catalogue, times have moved on and others seemed to have overshadowed him.

By some co-incidence, at the very moment I was thinking about this blog, events took over, with Gramophone magazine readers voting Karajan (1908 –1989) as their top choice for Gramophone’s ‘Hall of Fame’ www.gramophone.co.uk . EMI www.emiclassics.com   have a full page colour advertisement in that same journal featuring two box sets of Karajan’s recordings made between 1946 and 1984 including Karajan’s 1950’s Beethoven cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

I remember, when Karajan was in his prime, a colleague saying to me that Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra made everything sound the same. This was a ridiculous statement that was based only on the fact that Karajan had honed the playing of his orchestra to such an extent that he had achieved a refined, richly polished sound.

Sadly he resigned in 1989 at the age of 81, a few months before his death, citing back problems as his reason, but there were said to be growing problems between Karajan and the orchestra, a relationship that was described as ‘increasingly quarrelsome’.

To my mind Karajan is still unrivalled in the great Austro-German repertoire from Beethoven onwards. True his Bach could be pretty dire (I’ll never forget trying to listen to his Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Bach Brandenburg concertos taken at an appallingly slow pace) but just listen to his 1956 stereo recording of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. This performance, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, is unbeatable and is now available (licensed from EMI) on the Brilliant Classics label www.brilliantclassics.com at a ridiculously low price.

Karajan’s recordings on Deutsche Grammophon www.deutschegrammophon.com  of the Strauss tone poems will always stand head and shoulders above other recordings and there is, of course, his peerless Four Last Songs with the incomparable Gundula Janowitz.

His Wagner Ring Cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon www.deutschegrammophon.com , that rapidly followed Solti’s Decca Ring cycle, still more than holds its own today and contains some wonderful moments . Karajan’s Mozart may be large scale but they are still vibrant and beautifully played performances.

Karajan was equally persuasive in less obvious repertoire such as his 1981 recording of Holst’s The Planets or his 1981Shostakovich Tenth Symphony (possibly finer than his 1960’s recording). www.deutschegrammophon.com .

Nobody has done more to keep the memory of Herbert von Karajan alive than his widow Eliette von Karajan, who founded the Herbert von Karajan Institute in Salzburg, to help preserve her husband's musical legacy.  More information can be found on the Karajan Institute website www.karajan-institut.org/index.php?id=13&L=1 or the Karajan website http://karajan.org/jart/prj3/karajan/main.jart?reserve-mode=active&rel=en

I’m glad to see that my fears were unfounded and Karajan’s musical legacy is still very much appreciated.

My next blog will be on the promised topic ‘Is it sacrilege to chop up Wagner?’

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