The Two Sides Of Herbert von Karajan

Classic FM examine the fascinating private and public lives of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan

Once heard, never forgotten – that’s the Herbert von Karajan sound. You’ll only hear it on recordings now (the legendary German conductor  of the great Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra died in 1989), but it’s so  clear and immediate it’s as if the orchestra has somehow morphed from the CD to perform live in front of you.

And what fabulous playing… Using a massive string section as the orchestra’s emotional powerhouse, underpinned by searing brass and timpani, complemented by liquid-toned woodwind, all fine-tuned and blended to perfection, Karajan achieved results that were as beguiling as an exotic perfume. 

Inspired by years of practising meditation and yoga, Karajan cultivated a sensuous web of sound that moved seamlessly from one moment to another, as though suspending time itself. 

Karajan’s interpretations were like the man himself: confident, complex, lyrical, assertive, sensuous. All human emotion was there because Karajan knew no bounds, living his life to the full and revealing its many faces to us. Maestro, dictator (at least in some eyes), playboy, businessman and family man – there was no one quite like Karajan. 

For much of the time he conducted with his steely blue eyes shut. The lower half of his body hardly moved, while his hands and arms hovered over the orchestra to hypnotic effect. In music of a more thrusting nature, he exuded a leonine intensity that swept players along in its wake. As with all truly great conductors, the slightest gesture from the podium was enough to make an orchestra alter its sound in an instant. So close was the connection between even tiny changes in tempo and his own heart-rate (which fluctuated accordingly) that he found it impossible to conduct at high altitude, as his accelerated breathing patterns conflicted with the music’s natural flow. 

Through a combination of visionary musical instinct, political savvy and meticulously cultivated self-image, he inspired a cult following, rivalled only by Leonard Bernstein in his lifetime. At the helm of the world’s two finest orchestras – the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic – Karajan’s recordings sold in unprecedented quantities and his concerts played to sell-out audiences. 

Although in later life there were critical rumblings behind the scenes about his lavish lifestyle, links with the Nazi party and autocratic demeanour, his film-star status and charisma made him the toast of musical Europe. 

The central Austro-German tradition – Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner and Strauss – was Karajan’s main hunting ground. Yet he also achieved outstanding results in the Russian, Italian and French repertoires, whether in the concert hall or opera house – where he spent almost as much time working with the singers as with the orchestra. He even managed to turn revolutionary figures such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern into bestsellers. 

Karajan spearheaded filmed recordings of his repertoire, first with Unitel and then his own production company, Telemondial, during the 1980s. These were planned and directed by Karajan himself and shot mainly in Berlin’s Philharmonie, an arts complex that he also helped mastermind. All of this took vast sums of money, accrued from the unprecedented fees that Karajan commanded not just for himself but for his players and singers. 

Karajan’s life away from the conductor’s podium was both glamorous and demanding. Shattering the mould of Germanic music directors as dour and unphotogenic, he sported designer roll-neck sweaters and elegantly swept-back hair. In the little spare time available to him, Karajan indulged in a range of playboy pursuits to which he applied the same high standards that he insisted upon when working. 

After a concert he liked nothing better than to get behind the wheel of his Porsche. When at the helm of his yacht, Karajan would steer the craft as he might a soloist through a concerto, reacting to the sea’s every ebb and flow with empathic precision. His lifelong devotion to the principles of Zen helped take him to higher planes of existence, whether he was deep-sea diving, skiing, mountain-climbing or piloting his jet aircraft. He sought the same kind of perfection when holding a joystick as he did a baton. 

Karajan’s fascination with mechanical devices and technological advances extended to his music-making. In 1962, when many of his colleagues were still struggling to come to terms with advances in recording technology, Karajan astutely produced the first complete stereo Beethoven symphony cycle. 

He also fully embraced the digital era with its revolutionary new sound carrier – the compact disc. This inspired a series of landmark recordings of works he had previously never recorded, including Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Wagner’s Parsifal. These and countless other award-winning releases continue to hold listeners fascinated and enthralled and set the gold standard by which others are invariably judged. With Karajan’s death in 1989 (and Bernstein’s a year later) the golden age of conductor-kings was over. 

Hail King Karajan! 

1908 Born in Salzburg on April 5 

1933 Salzburg Festival debut 

1934 Vienna Philharmonic debut 

1937 Vienna State Opera debut 

1938 Berlin Philharmonic debut 

1947 Philharmonia Orchestra debut 

1948 La Scala Milan debut 

1955 Appointed principal conductor-for-life of the Berlin Philharmonic 

1956 Appointed artistic director of the Salzburg Festival 

1957 Appointed artistic director of the Vienna State Opera 

1967 Founds the Salzburg Easter Festival 

1969 Establishes the Herbert von Karajan Foundation 

1981 Officially endorses the compact disc at the Salzburg Easter Festival 

1989 Dies in Salzburg on July 16 

The Essential Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic 

Mahler Symphony No.9
Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan
For a reading that views the Ninth as the sunset of the Viennese symphonic tradition, Karajan ‘live’ remains unsurpassed.
DG 439 0242 

Puccini La Bohème
Mirella Freni (sop), Luciano Pavarotti (ten), Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan Awesomely cast, electrifyingly played – this will leave your emotions in tatters.
Decca 421 0492 

Tchaikovsky Symphonies Nos 4-6
Berlin Philharmonic/Karajan
White-hot readings from Karajan, featuring scorching playing of devastating command and impact.
DG 073 4384 (DVD)