Karajan at 100: an appreciation

I’ve been lucky to be around music all my life. My mother, a piano teacher, taught me about the greatness of the piano masters: Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Mozart. Liszt. I heard the works of these great composers over many years when I was growing up. Sadly, I never learned to play the piano because I was too involved (read: lazy) with the stuff boys do when they’re growing up. Though my tastes and hers have diverted greatly — I love the piano compositions of Bartok and Ligeti (pieces she would detest as modern incarnations of the “anti-Chopin”) and Monk — she was the catalyst that made me appreciate and love music as much as I do.

At the age of sixteen, and quite by accident, I heard opera for the first time on the much-missed WTMI. What I heard that afternoon would become an obsession with classical music that I carry with me to this very day. The conductor I heard that afternoon leading Puccini’s La Boheme (with Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni) with the Berlin Philharmonic celebrates his centenary today: Herbert von Karajan.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) was a controversial figure throughout his life. His membership in the Nazi party has been overblown and used as a club to invalidate his life’s work; no one ever seems to recall that Karajan married a Jewish woman in 1943 and fled Germany because of it. The controversy, as Richard Osborne wrote about in the biography, Karajan: A Life in Music, was more a result of the musical forces siding with Wilhelm Furtwängler, jealousy and envy, the main motivating factors.

In any event, there is no doubt that he was the most influential conductor of the 20th century, creating a recorded legacy with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics that is legendary.

I have heard (and own) just about every Karajan recording. While I must honestly admit that some of his later recordings (after 1980) were not as vital and immediate as his earlier Philharmonia and Berlin recordings, his place in music history is undiminished. He recorded the greatest Beethoven Symphony cycle (1963) and the best Brahms cycle (1964), Schumann, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, the greatest Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss ever recorded, Debussy’s La Mer, the Sibelius Fourth and Fifth, and Mahler recordings (the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde) that in many ways validated Karajan’s tenure with the BPO.

I was fortunate enough to hear Karajan conduct the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1982 on October 22nd (the Brahms First and Third) and on the 23rd (the Mahler Ninth). The latter remains to this day the greatest concert experience of my life. If anyone ever tells you that Karajan’s conducting was cold, calculating and lifeless, then they never heard him and his orchestra live. It was a magisterial performance of the Ninth, especially the final adagio that ended almost as wisps of smoke — ethereal is the only word I can think that can describe it — played pppp, and full of the longing for life, knowing it’s end is near, that Mahler wrote into this work. I’ll never forget it. His live recording of the symphony on Deutsche Grammophon comes very close to what I heard that night in 1982.

And, of course, there’s opera. So many great recordings. His singers adored him and he was a master at making opera a “theater” experience. My favorites? La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, incandescent readings that are unsurpassed, a Rosenkavalier from the fifties that is so beatifully played and sung you’d think the angels were singing it; an Otello from the early sixties that brims with the power and underlying anger in the work; Debussy’s Pelleas et Mellisande, a great Don Giovanni, and of course, Wagner. One of the greatest of the complete Ring cycles (I own five, Karajan, Solti, Keilberth, Levine and Boulez) ever made.

In the end, the recordings stand the test of time. They are a legacy of superb music making that will not be forgotten. Thank you maestro for the thirty plus years of great music you gave to me.

About The Mighty Thunderer

We write about music, audio, and technology. Like the namesake of this blog, Ludwig van Beethoven, we are hammer of polite society. We will point out the absurd and educate on the sublime...
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