It was 25 years ago this month (July 16) that Herbert von Karajan passed away. He was 81 and still conducting regularly even though he had been in almost constant pain from back problems for years. At the time of his death he was rehearsing a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Salzburg Festival.
In the above video the current conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic – Simon Rattle – talks about his illustrious predecessor. As usual, Rattle is articulate, balanced and perceptive in what he says about Karajan. After all these years, he can’t get over how Karajan conducted mostly with his eyes closed. Rattle still can’t fathom how Karajan communicated with his players. But the answer to that is that it was another kind of communication that Karajan reserved for the concert. In rehearsal Karajan had constant eye contact with his players and a great deal to say as well. After days of hard work in rehearsal, Karajan closed his eyes in the concert to create a new level of concentration and intensity. And with orchestras familiar with his methods it worked. In fact, for most of his career Karajan guest conducted only rarely. He worked mostly with either the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, and both orchestras found Karajan’s conducting style highly effective.
Rattle credits Karajan with being uniquely innovative in matters such as the technology of audio recording and film. But he questions the authenticity of the film work. The fact is that at the time, in the 1960s when Karajan began his film work, filming an orchestra was a cumbersome process and by 2014 standards downright primitive. Karajan took huge risks and spent a lot of his own money trying to find new ways of making it better. Were he still alive Karajan would look back on the methods he used in the 1960s as “gaslight,” one of his favorite phrases for things that were out of date and left behind by newer technology.
Nonetheless, while some of the early Karajan films are somewhat labored and/or self-absorbed; others are works of art of the first order. Still others are extraordinary musical experiences.
Paul E. Robinson