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Her­bert von Kara­jan: Com­plete Record­ings on Deutsche Gram­mophon and Decca

Her­bert von Kara­jan:

Com­plete Record­ings on Deutsche Gram­mophon and Decca

Deutsche Gram­mophon,

330 CDs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray au­dio discs, $1,098.00

The one-dol­lar ta­bles out­side sec­ond­hand book­stores of­ten con­tain iso­lated vol­umes from what were once com­plete col­lec­tions of a sin­gle au­thor. There may be works by Mark Twain, Charles Dick­ens, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but also by less well-re­mem­bered writ­ers such as James Rus­sell Low­ell, Charles Dud­ley Warner, or John Galswor­thy. Aban­doned in piles oth­er­wise de­voted to for­got­ten best sell­ers or Book-of-the-Month Club se­lec­tions, these books may yet, by their very pres­ence, in­spire a dis­tinct nos­tal­gia. I thought of these old sets while lis­ten­ing to a gi­gan­tic col­lec­tion of record­ings by Her­bert von Kara­jan (1908–1989), re­leased at the end of last year and billed as the Aus­trian con­duc­tor’s com­plete recorded output for Deutsche Gram­mophon and Decca. In all, there are 330 com­pact discs, twenty-four DVDs, two Blu-Ray au­dio discs, a hand­some pic­to­rial bi­og­ra­phy that would be worth hav­ing even with­out the mu­sic, and sev­eral book­lets. There are 405 hours of mu­sic here: the first performance dates from 1938 (the over­ture to Die Zauber­flöte with the Ber­lin Staatskapelle) and the last from

April 1989 (Bruck­ner’s Sev­enth Sym­phony with the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic, a few months be­fore Kara­jan’s death). Ac­cord­ing to the Guin­ness Book of World Records, which tracks such things, this is the “largest box set ever is­sued,” eclips­ing a 2011 award pre­sented to the late Arthur Ru­bin­stein for the “largest boxed set of record­ings by a sin­gle in­stru­men­tal­ist” (a to­tal of 142 CDs).

The com­plete sym­phonies of Beethoven, Schu­mann, Brahms, Bruck­ner, and Tchaikovsky are here, as are the five ma­ture sym­phonies of Felix Men­delssohn. In­deed, there are three dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Brahms and Beethoven cy­cles, as well as video record­ings of the lat­ter.

And more: all of the op­eras Kara­jan recorded for the two com­pa­nies, as well as twenty-four films he made for Uni­tel. There is Christ­mas mu­sic, a col­lec­tion of fa­mous ada­gios, a Vi­en­nese New Year’s Con­cert from 1987, a con­cert hon­or­ing Pope John Paul II, a pre­miere record­ing of a fas­ci­nat­ing late work by Carl Orff (De tem­po­rum fine co­moe­dia), and “com­plete-onone-disc” 24 bit/96kHz Blu-Rays of his wildly pop­u­lar early-1960s record­ings of the Beethoven sym­phonies and of his metic­u­lous and cre­atively cast performance of Wag­ner’s Ring cy­cle (both also rep­re­sented on CD). And if this isn’t enough Kara­jan for you, there are 101 ad­di­tional CDs await­ing you on EMI, in an­other re­cent reis­sue.

The sheer bulk of the set is over­whelm­ing, and one can’t help won­der­ing who will lis­ten to it all. Af­ter all, we live in a world that of­fers the nearcom­plete recorded output of Maria Cal­las and Re­nata Te­baldi and most of the al­bums re­leased by Vladimir Horowitz over the course of sixty-one years (as well as a fifty-CD set of live per­for­mances that chron­i­cle seis­mic ups and downs in the last part of his ca­reer), and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing Ar­turo Toscanini, Pierre Mon­teux, Wil­helm Furtwän­gler, and Charles Munch ever con­ducted near a mi­cro­phone. More­over, if you are grow­ing weary of Anne-So­phie Mut­ter, Hi­lary Hahn, and Itzhak Perl­man, you can find the com­plete records of wor­thy but not ex­actly house­hold-name vi­o­lin­ists such as Jo­hanna Martzy, Gio­conda de Vito, and Ed­uard Melkus is­sued in Asia, where there has long been a huge hunger for rare record­ings.

There is a sim­ple rea­son for this pro­lif­er­a­tion: reis­sues are noth­ing but profit for record com­pa­nies. There are no stu­dio costs to pay, only a small fee to the mu­si­cian’s union, and some resid­u­als to the artist or the artist’s es­tate. It has long been con­sid­er­ably less ex­pen­sive to spiff up and repack­age an ex­ist­ing record­ing than to make a new one. The first stereo al­bums of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Sym­phony, for ex­am­ple, sound as though they were recorded yes­ter­day, al­though some of them are nearly sixty-five years old and ev­ery per­son associated with them is ei­ther dead or long re­tired. Bril­liant young per­form­ers now have to com­pete not only with their con­tem­po­raries but also with a host of leg­endary ghosts. Through tech­nol­ogy we have es­tab­lished a per­ma­nent pan­theon of great per­for­mances, one that can be very dif­fi­cult, per­haps im­pos­si­ble, for new­com­ers to crack.

Time was when fresh record­ings were all but ne­ces­si­tated with ev­ery new tech­ni­cal ad­vance, as the cracks and hisses of the four-minute 78s gave way to the qui­eter and more ex­tended LPs in the late 1940s, monau­ral turned to stereo in the 1950s, and the com­pact disc seemed to re­place the LP in the early 1980s. The critic Richard Freed, in a re­view he wrote for The New York Times of Kara­jan’s last record­ings of the Beethoven sym­phonies, ob­served that “one comes away from the 1985 set with the feel­ing that what mo­ti­vated it was not so much the idea of pre­serv­ing the great con­duc­tor’s fi­nal thoughts on this very ba­sic reper­tory as sim­ply keep­ing up with the dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy.” Now the “old” clas­si­cal record busi­ness—the one that be­gan in the fi­nal years of the nine­teenth cen­tury and in which Kara­jan held a dom­i­nant po­si­tion for sev­eral decades—seems gone for good. Still, the record­ings re­main, and the best of them are trea­sures. Kara­jan said he wanted to com­bine the drive and pre­ci­sion of Toscanini with the fan­tasy and in­tro­spec­tion of Furtwän­gler, yet he also re­minds me of Leopold Stokowski. Like Stokowski— es­pe­cially the Stokowski we know from early record­ings with the Philadel­phia Orches­tra—Kara­jan of­ten seemed a wizard of pure sound. One ad­mired the gait of his tem­pos, the singing lines he drew from the play­ers, the way his or­ches­tras re­sponded re­flex­ively to his ev­ery ges­ture—but it was the sound, again and again, that as­ton­ished. A per­fec­tion­ist, Kara­jan drove his forces as hard as he drove him­self, striv­ing al­ways for bal­ance, pro­por­tion, lu­cid­ity, and pol­ish. He did not call un­due at­ten­tion to him­self on stage, pre­fer­ring to re­hearse ex­haus­tively with his mu­si­cians be­fore the con­cert be­gan. “His phi­los­o­phy was that ev­ery­thing the orches­tra needs had to hap­pen be­fore­hand,” one of his mu­si­cians said. Richard Os­borne, who knew Kara­jan and be­came his best bi­og­ra­pher, wrote of a 1948 re­hearsal with the Phil­har­mo­nia Orches­tra in Lon­don, ex­plain­ing that the ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers liked work­ing with him be­cause he never wasted their time:

At the fi­nal re­hearsal for the Royal Al­bert Hall con­cert, he spent just eight min­utes on Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony. He sim­ply asked the orches­tra to play the sym­phony’s fi­nal cli­max with as much vol­ume as they could muster con­sis­tent with a balanced and fully rounded tone. All he wanted to know was what to ex­pect on the night, what the dy­namic pa­ram­e­ters would be.

The critic Jay Har­ri­son summed up Kara­jan’s con­duct­ing in the New York Her­ald Tri­bune:

His is a beat that strikes the eye as though re­flected in still wa­ter, and it is the mes­sage con­veyed by this beat that ac­counts for much of the lim­pid­ity of his work. In­deed, this grace of hand, all pre­cise and con­trolled, has a ten­dency to soothe, per­mits the orches­tra to re­tain its poise and equi­lib­rium, and jars them not for a mo­ment. A ner­vous orches­tra, ren­dered fran­tic by wild arm move­ments, can­not un­der any cir­cum­stance play legatos as shapely and as silken as those which re­cur­rently emerged last night . . . . Mr von Kara­jan, with a won­drous dig­nity and el­e­gance, held his band in rein through ev­ery mea­sure; but he did so with a sup­ple­ness and ease that al­lowed it to con­cen­trate on the mu­sic and not ev­ery in­stant upon him.

And so his podium man­ners were few—large ges­tures for loud mu­sic, small ges­tures for soft mu­sic, a steady, fluid beat, fleshed out with an in­fin­itely ex­pres­sive left hand. The tut­tis, no mat­ter how softly they were played, were full-bod­ied, pris­matic, or­gan-like in their eu­phony yet ab­so­lutely clear. Al­though Kara­jan stood only five feet eight inches tall, he seemed a ver­i­ta­ble ti­tan on stage, with a noble, granitic pro­file and a thick head of hair that, over the years, changed from iron gray to blanched white—an Apol­lo­nian con­trast to the Dionysian Leonard Bern­stein, his only con­tem­po­rary whose fame was in the same league.

Artis­tic gifts aside, Kara­jan was a tough, canny mu­si­cal politi­cian. Dur­ing the years be­tween 1956 and 1964, he held five im­por­tant Euro­pean posts: mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic (the­o­ret­i­cally for life, al­though it didn’t turn out that way); de facto prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the Lon­don Phil­har­mo­nia; a pro­ducer and di­rec­tor at La Scala; gen­eral di­rec­tor of the Vi­enna State Opera; and artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Salzburg Fes­ti­val. He also directed film and television pro­duc­tions of his own aus­tere, ab­stract op­er­atic stag­ings. “We must use the mass me­dia, es­pe­cially television, to ex­pand the pop­u­lar­ity of mu­sic,” he said in 1967.* *The pi­anist Glenn Gould, who didn’t play a note in pub­lic for the last eigh­teen years of his life, pre­fer­ring to work with television and ra­dio, ad­mired Kara­jan enor­mously, and the two of them once con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a long-dis­tance record­ing—Kara­jan in Ber­lin or Vi­enna with Gould at home in Canada.

The record­ings be­gin with per­for­mances of works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Dvoʼnák, and oth­ers with the Con­cert­ge­bouw Orches­tra of Am­s­ter­dam, the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic, the Ber­lin State Orches­tra, and the Sym­phony Orches­tra of RAI, Turin, all dat­ing from 1938 to 1944, when the host coun­tries were un­der Nazi dom­i­na­tion. (Kara­jan was quickly de-Naz­i­fied af­ter the war, but his early membership in the Aus­trian party, which pre­dated the An­schluss, came in for much crit­i­cism, to the point that his early Amer­i­can ap­pear­ances in­spired an­gry protests.) The dis­tinc­tive mix­ture of ob­jec­tive and sub­jec­tive el­e­ments in Kara­jan’s sen­si­bil­ity was there from the be­gin­ning. These early or­ches­tras vary in their qual­ity: the Turin ra­dio sym­phony Fide­lio is pretty ragged, the Con­cert­ge­bouw markedly bet­ter, and the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic, even in the early 1940s, sounds much like the ta­pered, al­most im­pos­si­bly el­e­gant en­sem­ble that it is to­day. Still, while there is much to ad­mire in these early discs, it is mostly prom­ise, and I don’t think that any­body would have reis­sued them had the con­duc­tor not gone on to greater things. Kara­jan’s first ma­ture per­for­mances, with the Phil­har­mo­nia in the 1950s, were done for EMI and are not in­cluded here. The best record­ings in the Deutsche Gram­mophon set date mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, dur­ing the time when Kara­jan was re­ferred to, only half in jest, as the “gen­eral mu­sic di­rec­tor of Europe.” And al­though he con­tin­ued to record through the 1980s, there was a pre­cip­i­tous de­cline in his later discs, as a com­bi­na­tion of age, poor health, and a long-un­chal­lenged ego took their in­evitable toll.

De­spite some lushly caloric per­for­mances of Haydn and Mozart, Kara­jan was mostly a nine­teenth-cen­tury man. He directed Bach, Vi­valdi, and other baroque works from the harp­si­chord, but many thought his style too lux­u­ri­ant, and he was not al­ways a con­vinc­ing in­ter­preter of that reper­tory. He de­vel­oped an affin­ity for Mahler and the Sec­ond Vi­en­nese School (Berg, Schoen­berg, and We­bern) late in his ca­reer and con­ducted their works with con­vic­tion. He was not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the mu­sic of his own time, al­though he played works by Boris Blacher, Wolf­gang Fort­ner, and Hans Werner Henze. (An early ex­po­nent of Carl Orff, he nev­er­the­less re­fused sev­eral of­fers to record Carmina Bu­rana, which he left to Eu­gen Jochum—and by ex­ten­sion to the rest of the world.) Among the more mod­ern Rus­sians, he played some Stravin­sky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, with distinc­tion.

Kara­jan was picky about his Mahler, and he recorded only the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth sym­phonies as well as many of the or­ches­tral songs, in­clud­ing Das Lied von der Erde. Those who want fierce and un­bri­dled Mahler will find it more eas­ily else­where; Kara­jan was never com­fort­able with emo­tional tur­moil. And al­though he was per­suaded to record the First Sym­phony of Si­belius late in life, he never con­ducted the Third and con­cen­trated his en­er­gies mostly on the Sec­ond, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Sev­enth sym­phonies, which he im­bued with a peer­less con­tra­dic­tion of fire and ice. He once named the Si­belius Fourth as a piece that left him spent for days: the oth­ers in­cluded Richard Strauss’s Elek­tra (which he never com­mer­cially recorded, al­though record­ings of live per­for­mances ex­ist), Mahler’s Sixth Sym­phony, and Al­ban Berg’s Three Or­ches­tral Pieces.

In the end, things fell apart be­tween Kara­jan and Ber­lin amid quar­rels over his au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol of the orches­tra, and a few months be­fore he died, he sev­ered all ties with it. So he brought the Vi­enna Phil­har­monic for his last three con­certs at Carnegie Hall in 1989. Rav­aged by ill­ness, he walked on­stage with twist­ing, spas­modic jerks, pulling him­self up to the podium with the help of the back­rest. But when the mu­sic started, the years fell away, and one was con­stantly amazed by the dex­ter­ity—the shift­ing, or­dered, kalei­do­scopic process—with which one sec­tion of the orches­tra passed on a theme to an­other. In the Schu­bert “Un­fin­ished” Sym­phony, the lower strings played with a smooth­ness and re­pose that was all but un­earthly; the mu­sic seemed to em­anate from the walls. I’d never heard any­thing like it. It is hard to tell how long the CD for­mat will last in a world in­creas­ingly given over to stream­ing and dig­i­tal down­loads. Most of the al­bums in this set have been reis­sued be­fore in other guises, and there are al­ready gen­er­ous Deutsche Gram­mophon sets de­voted solely to Kara­jan’s Ber­lin Phil­har­monic record­ings from the 1960s and 1970s, those peak decades in his life’s work. For many those will be enough, per­haps even more than enough. But my guess is that lis­ten­ers who will find these discs in front of what­ever passes for a mu­sic store in 2070 and can then as­sem­ble the equip­ment to play them prop­erly will be pleased. As a mas­sive mon­u­ment to a time when the as­pi­ra­tions of clas­si­cal mu­sic and tech­ni­cal com­merce mated fruit­fully, it can hardly be bet­tered.

Her­bert von Kara­jan (right) with the vi­o­lin­ist Nathan Mil­stein dur­ing a re­hearsal, Lucerne, 1957

Her­bert von Kara­jan re­hears­ing a scene from his pro­duc­tion of Beethoven’s at the Salzburg Fes­ti­val, 1957

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