About this Recording
8.111298 - BRAHMS, J.: Symphony No. 1 / BEETHOVEN, L.: Leonore Overture No. 3 / STRAUSS, R.: Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils (Karajan) (1943)

Great Conductors: Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989)


Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, in 1908 and he died there in 1989. During the intervening years he became one of the most famous, perhaps the most famous of conductors, often portrayed, and certainly perceived, as something of a superstar, with a lifestyle—fast cars, his own jet-plane, palatial houses—that one associates more with popsingers and Hollywood film-actors. The pivotal year in Karajan’s life was 1955 when he was appointed to the Berlin Philharmonic, in succession to Wilhelm Furtwängler, a high-profile relationship, sometimes a stormy one, that would continue more or less until Karajan’s death. Wherever they travelled across the globe, including the United States and Japan, completely sold-out concerts were unfailingly the response, irrespective of how familiar the repertoire might have been or how expensive the tickets, and immortalised through a daunting number of audiorecordings, primarily for Deutsche Grammophon and for EMI, rarely out of the catalogue, as well as many films of concerts, some of the filming premeditated to the nth degree, and staged operas. Not that it was all Berlin-based, for Karajan’s earlier recordings of the 1950s, some would argue his finest, were made in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and he had a decades-long relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic that was well documented in recordings for Decca.

The Karajan recordings that tend to be discussed the most, and divide opinion the most, are those from the 1960s onwards as he became ever more powerful in Berlin and was becoming increasingly interested in technology—to the extent that some of his recordings from the 1970s onwards are perhaps more influenced than they should have been by the control-room and emerging developments of recording, such as digital sound, rather than being determined from the conductor’s podium. For all the glamorous lifestyle, however, that was no doubt a part of Karajan’s musical life that was unwelcome to him and distracting to us, it is often and widely reported—not least from his fellow musicians—that he was an exceptional and influential conductor and a master of the orchestra. His orchestral signature was one of opulence, voluptuousness and suavity, also supremely refined while cultivating a wide dynamic range, sometimes too much so for domestic listening, and seeking perfection of balance and blend. For all his charisma and the publicity that surrounded him, Karajan was regarded as meticulous in his preparation and a very hard worker, his performances and recordings the result of much and demanding rehearsal by a conductor with a lucid technique. This is just as evident on his first recordings, such as those on this release.

Karajan, born into a musically literate family, one founded on a medical and scholarly background, was initially a young student of the piano and even performed in public at the age of five. His main musical studies were in Salzburg (1916–26) and then in Vienna (until 1929) where he gradually gravitated towards conducting, his début in that rôle being in Salzburg the year he completed his studies in Vienna. Débuts at the prestigious Salzburg Festival followed in 1933, with the Vienna Philharmonic the following year, and—most prophetically of all—the Berlin Philharmonic in 1938. Although controversy continues to rage over Karajan’s membership of the Nazi Party—as to exactly when he joined (probably in 1933) and why, and how his career was able to flourish despite the Party being officially banned by the Austrian government—it should be remembered that in terms of developing his career he climbed from the bottom of the ladder in terms of musical appointments (first in Ulm, then Aachen) by sheer ability, professionalism and tenacity.

Karajan’s very first recording was made in December 1938 in Berlin, not with the Philharmonic but with the Staatskapelle, the overture to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, but his second recording for Polydor was with the Philharmonic, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, a piece Karajan would record a further six times. Karajan’s repertoire was indeed already in place; there are no novelties among those earliest recordings—symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák (New World), Mozart and Tchaikovsky, selections from Johann Strauss II, pieces by Richard Strauss, and operatic choices from Rossini, Verdi and Wagner, all music that would be a constant in Karajan’s recorded output.

For the recordings made during World War II Karajan travelled. Although some emanated from Berlin, using both the Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle, others took him to Turin (for three Mozart symphonies) and, in 1943, to Amsterdam to work with the highly renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra, then conducted by Willem Mengelberg, a friend of both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, a great orchestra then as now. In Amsterdam Karajan recorded five works, the three on this release with Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, which he had conducted at his début concert in 1929, and the overture to Weber’s opera Der Freischütz. If Karajan’s repertoire was already in place, so too were his interpretations and stylistic traits.

Rarely, if ever, did Karajan distort the musical line for effect, as this taut (if yielding) and exciting account of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 demonstrates. The emphasis is on impeccable ensemble and an intense, singing engagement with the music’s linearity. Even at this stage in Karajan’s course (he was in his early thirties), and through relatively primitive reproduction, it is possible to hear many of the hallmarks that would later distinguish, if not find universal favour for his music-making, a penchant for gorgeous sound and the removal of all rough edges and a determination to achieve ‘clean’ playing through a mix of lightly-blended clarity that would be further refined, maybe to the point of smoothing-over, during the coming 45 years. Given Mengelberg’s tendency to sectionalise a piece of music’s structure through different tempos and what one might term as ‘phrasal tweaking’ (never less than fascinatingly, it must be said), Karajan’s direct and honed approach must have been a stimulating sea-change for the Dutch orchestra; if nothing else, Karajan’s approach is certainly ‘modern’ in its stylistic approach—a pointer ahead rather than staying in the past. It cannot be said of Karajan that he copied, for although he was an admirer of Mengelberg he was here able to impose his own characteristics rather than emulate what this seasoned orchestra could have done on automatic pilot.

This Amsterdam account of Brahms’s First Symphony more than holds its own, both on its own terms and when considered against the hindsight of Karajan’s four later recordings of it, made in London, Vienna and twice in Berlin. The Beethoven has a whiff of greasepaint about it, potent expression and, in the liberating coda, an off-the-leash impetuosity; while the sensual excerpt from Salome (Karajan had conducted Richard Strauss’s opera complete in his début year of 1929 yet would only record it once, as far forward as 1977, in Vienna, for EMI, with Hildegard Behrens in the title rôle, here exudes a lilt, finesse and confidence that makes for seductive and tension-filled listening.

Colin Anderson




BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Matrix nos.: 2477 1/2 GE, 2478 1/2 GE, 2479 1/2 GE, 2480 1/2 GE, 2486 1/2 GE, 2487 1/2 GE, 2488 1/2 GE, 2481 GE, 2482 1/2 GE, 2483 1/2 GE, 2484 1/2 GE and 2485 3/4 GE
First issued on Polydor 68175 through 68180

BEETHOVEN: Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a
Matrix nos.: 2494 1/2 GE, 2495 1/2 GE, 2496 1/2 GE and 2497 1/2 GE
First issued on Polydor 68181 and 68182

R. STRAUSS: Salome - Dance of the Seven Veils
Matrix nos.: 2492 1/2 GE, 2493 GE
First issued on Polydor 68126

Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam • Herbert von Karajan

All tracks recorded between 6 and 17 September 1943 in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

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