A mate of mine, Nottingham poet Neil Fulwood, got a few of us talking about Herbert Von Karajan, recently. With tongue firmly inserted in cheek, I referred to the late HVK as the ‘Nazi conductor.’ Not, as it quickly transpired, a particularly wise move as one devotee of the departed maestro quickly took up arms – figuratively, that is – in defence of his hero.
For the record, Von Karajan’s membership of the Nazi Party is generally accepted by most historians and musicologists to have been prompted by an amalgam of self-preservation, expediency and shameless opportunism, rather than any sort of ideological commitment. Certainly, his biographer Richard Osborne goes into fascinating detail about this period of the great maestro’s life and does not spare his subject. There is no one more authoritative than Osborne and he also tells of Von Karajan very courageously resigning his Party membership during the war, following his marriage to second wife Anita, who was of Jewish heritage (as an aside, Osborne’s book, at a gargantuan 900-odd pages, is simply fascinating and well worth the parting of a few of your readies).
So, with that potentially divisive issue behind us, our attention turned to HVK’s legacy. Positioned by Neil’s friend as that of, “… a great conductor whose musical legacy continues to inspire listeners the world over some 25 years after his death?”
Now I’m a man of peace and my ways are the ways of peace but somethings simply cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. My own take where HVK is concerned is a tad more qualified. Certainly, he had greatness within him and some of his contributions to recorded music are peerless. Both his Mahler 9ths are probably the best ever recorded by anyone, Strauss (another Nazi, by the way. JOKE!!!) never sounded better than via Herbert Von Karajan and his ’63 Beethoven set is, for my money, still the best recording of that over-recorded ubiquitous symphonic cycle ever committed to vinyl, tape or disc (I think Herbert recorded the complete cycle an astonishing five times, too).
He also deserves huge respect for his humility and good judgement where Mahler is concerned. Too many maestros assume they need to record the complete cycle when they just aren’t up to it. HVK, at least, eschewed such arrogance and the Mahler he did choose to tackle is amongst the very finest you will hear.
However, he suffered from Deutsche Grammophon’s (successful) efforts to market him as classical music’s first rock star. There are dozens of howlers forced out to make a buck and to hear him rushing an under-rehearsed, lead-footed and elephantine BPO through the Brandenburg Concerti is to know pain at its most real and acute.
I can live quite happily with Neil’s counter-take when he said, “I can happily write off the baroque stuff for the utter majesty of the Bruckner cycle, the ’63 Beethoven set (only Bernstein’s VPO cycle on DG really compares), the Strauss (his Vier Letzte Lieder with Janowitz is the finest I’ve heard), the Schumann (a composer HVK never got the due credit for his recordings of) … the list goes on. Sure, he was (and still is, in terms of reissues) DG’s licence to print money. But if some dodgy baroque recordings were the quick buck that got the magnificent symphony cycles recorded, then who’s counting?”
Whatever your take, there is no doubt that Von Karajan was responsible for some of the greatest interpretations of some of the greatest music ever written. So, with that said, here he is doing what he did best. And better than most. Enjoy.