Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? [revised]

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Wax Effigy of Karajan in the Miracles Wax Museum, Vienne

Herbert von Karajan, Wax Effigy in Miracle’s Wax Museum. Vienna

For many years Norman Lebrecht has managed to maintain an entirely undeserved amount of attention as the Thersites of the music world, the coarse, obtuse outsider, who doesn’t get the point of the war. Polemics can make almost anything interesting, even Mr. Lebrecht’s warped view of classical music. After letting him sour my existence a few times, I found I was beginning to get bored, and I stopped reading his tirades. In some ways the world of classical music may show a certain fragility that was not apparent a generation ago, but things are not as bad as some people believe. The growth of new institutions, festivals, music schools, etc., and the emergence of immensely gifted young artists like Benjamin Moser, Viviane Hagner, Yevgeny Sudkin, and Jeremy Denk, to name only a few, favors optimism. We should ask ourselves rather why we relish the doom and gloom of writers like Lebrecht and Teachout, as if it were more fun to be sick than healthy, or to cultivate enemies instead of friends. Yes, invective can make a laundry list exciting, but there must be some focused, intelligent judgement and integrity to support it.

When a respected friend sent me a recent article of Lebrecht’s from the Independent I felt I had to read it, and when I saw that his target was Herbert von Karajan, whose centenary is being celebrated this year with re-releases of selected DVDs and CDs, I read on with enthusiasm, thinking that this might finally be a topic on which Lebrecht and I might agree. And if Norman Lebrecht is the Thersites of the classical music world, Karajan must surely be its Agamemnon—far from the most valiant warrior and hardly an Odysseus in intelligence, he knew how to hang on to his edge right up until his final bath. Not that Karajan died a violent death, just a heart attack while working at full tilt at his Alpine retreat.

My first memory of Karajan goes back to his set of Beethoven symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, released in 1962 or 1963. As a very young person, I think it was my first complete set of that basic item. At that time many of DGG’s recordings were only available in the United States as special imports. In New York one had to go to shops like Discophile or to the German importers that used to line East 86th Street to find them. But this set was considered so important by the more informed and plentiful record buyers of that time, that here was something that could be sold profitably in any record store. This surely must have been one of the issues which transformed DGG from an occasional licenser of material to American companies (primarily American Decca) into an international label which exported its own pressings. This Beethoven set was the watershed for Karajan’s world-wide ascendancy, but also the beginning of his decline into the figure which Lebrecht depicts in his caricatural fashion.

Karajan transformed himself from the imaginative and energetic conductor of the fifties into the magisterial authority of the sixties through the eighties. Whether everyone believed it or not, he pretended to set a standard by making himself ubiquitous through his tours with the Berlin Philharmonic and his recordings. His “packaging” became slicker along with his interpretations. The lovely balanced, but clear sound of those 1962 Beethoven symphonies—surely a technological benchmark at the time, along with Mercury’s “Living Presence” recordings and RCA’s “Living Stereo,” which are still highly esteemed today—developed into a more homogenized sound, the “Karajan sound,” which was the most obvious characteristic of his work. There was a luxuriant softness of ensemble, but still precise, with a predominant lush string sound, through which winds added discrete, but rich touches of color. The tempi flowed, but not rigidly. Melodic line, texture, and color, some thought, where in perfect balance. Early on, not so much detail was sacrificed to this polished surface, but soon enough it dissolved into what seemed to be mere poshness. By the early seventies, I and many others had grown tired of it, and Karajan himself seemed to have grown bored with the core classics, the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the like, delivering slick, mindless run-throughs on his tours, and I stopped going to them. However, he also branched out into new territory, and there is no denying that he found material that excited his interest.

It may be that Karajan created a caricature of himself in focusing on the qualities which “branded” him, but he did have genuine musical gifts which make some of his work valuable today, as vulgar as his ambitions were. The principle of these is his understanding of compositional structure, which is amply apparent in his early Beethoven recordings and probably his late ones as well, but which, in their time, was truly impressive when he approached Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, and the Second Viennese School. Of his recordings these are the most interesting, even today, and his set of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern was in its time a most welcome alternative to what had been previously available. Since then Boulez, Dohnanyi, Eötvös and others have gone further with this repertory, but Karajan’s only modestly Procrustean musicality in this repertoire is still to be valued, just as there is a great deal to be learned from his recordings of the Ring Cycle, as smoothed-out as it is. On the other hand, am I that much attracted to it? Do I make much effort to revisit them? No, not at all. Today I’m more interested in the likes of Thierry Fischer, Pappano or Elder, and if I look back it will be to Furtwängler, Walter, Klemperer, or, in Karajan’s generation, Jochum or Fricsay. And there’s a whole middle generation in its maturity which needs none of Karajan’s hype to communicate with us: that of Colin Davis, Charles Mackerras, and Claudio Abbado. If you listen to one of Karajan’s old recordings after hearing them, you are immediately aware of his pretensions and affectations. It’s true that his work of the 1950’s was better. If you want to hear Karajan at his best, dig up his 1950 Meistersinger from Bayreuth, his Vienna Carmen from 1954 or his famous St. Matthew Passion of 1950. And there are some splendid recordings from his later years, like his great Shostakovich Symphony No. 10. At one time Karajan helped some of us to understand Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, but do we need him today? No, not really.

In his conclusion Lebrecht said, “For music lovers, there is not much to celebrate. Once the centenary is over, we will drop the curtain once and for all on a discreditable life that yielded no fresh thought and upheld no worthwhile human value. Karajan is dead. Music is much better off without him.” Instinctually, I felt like cheering for the old sourpuss, that is, Lebrecht. I’ve tried to point out some of Karajan’s virtues, which are by no means unique. His work should, I think, shrink down to size as an exploitative, commercialized secondary plot in the history of performance, while Furtwängler and Boulez will always remain essential—both composers. As Lebrecht observes, Karajan’s suppression of other conductors, especially in connection with the BPO, was well-known. On the other hands, we can hardly complain about the recorded legacy of the major conductors during Karajan’s peak years of influence, Giulini, Jochum, Böhm, and Fricsay, for example, and access to the podium of any major orchestra is fraught with political problems. Music directors and principle conductors have not been noted for their collegiality.

Perhaps because of Karajan’s detestable political sympathies during the Third Reich we may be inclined to connect his authoritarianism with Hitler’s. On the contrary we should look to the western, democratic world for that. Toscanini, who made himself at home there early, astounded audiences with his forceful, driving performances and his colleagues with the extraordinary fees he could command. Toscanini’s influence on the musical world from the 1920’s onwards was incomparable. Karajan derived his particular sound from Furtwängler’s, which was deeply ingrained in the Berlin Philharmonic in any case. While Karajan may have wanted to bury Furtwängler under ground, he wanted to make Toscanini’s stardom and earning power his own. He succeeded, although, if you compare the recorded legacy, that his talents were but a shadow of Toscanini’s, as they were of Furtwängler’s. Yes, Lebrecht is right to blame him for his influence on performance style and the politics of music. He points out that Karajan made the Salzburg Festival a resort for the rich and powerful, and I have no doubt that Karajan heightened this unfortunate and inartistic trend. On the other hand, I doubt that Salzburg was ever a terribly democratic institution, unlike its imitator, the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood.

We Americans should be grateful that we have weaned ourselves from Toscanini, as popular as his old recordings remain, and with reason. It’s not easy to sell recordings of any kind today, even Nicola Benedetti or Hilary Hahn. We can’t blame Deutsche Grammophon for trying to capitalize on recycled product. But I’d never use such a vile expression for Klemperer, Rudolph Serkin, Schnabel, Furtwängler, Myra Hess, Walter, or any of the other grand old hands.

Yes, dammit, Norman, you’re right about Karajan, and you’re right about those meaningless musical awards presented to musicians who are so well known they don’t need them. My premise is that classical music is healthier than you say, and if it is, it can surely bear some scrutiny, especially in its weakest area, commercial classical recordings. Deutsche Grammophon have done a fairly decent job of selecting and packaging the work of the major artists of their halcyon days. Their “Original Masters” retrospective boxes of Furtwängler, Fricsay, Kempff, Jochum, Schneiderhan, the Amadeus Quartet, even the young Karajan are exemplary, and even the Karajan centenary crop includes a solid 10-disc survey, Herbert von Karajan, Master Recordings, along with various fluff products, “deluxe limited editions,” combining disiecta membra of various sorts on CD and DVD, indiscriminate hodge-podges of Italian opera overtures, movements from ballets, concertos and symphonies, all thrown together. If this is the only way classical music can be made accessible—sorry, marketed—to new listeners, these are truly sad times.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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