ePub Herbert von Karajan ePub

by Erich Lessing

This massive pictorial quarto volume was first published in 2008 for Karajan's centenary. At the time I was rather dissapointed but have come to appreciate it since.

So far as I know it has never been translated into English. No big loss really. Apart from the somewhat perfunctory captions, there is only introductory essay by one Rainer Bischof titled "Die Aesthetik des Dirigieren". If the piece contains some special insight into Karajan's mind and art, my meagre knowledge of German prevented me from seeing it.

Never mind. The photos is the thing. There are quite a few of them, almost exclusively in black-and-white, occasionally enlarged beyond the reasonable limits and therefore fuzzy. As an additional drawback, some of them are simply too pedestrian to bear reprint, especially in such impressive format.

And yet. There is a great deal here that Karajan buffs (the one and only kind of readers who should peruse the volume) would appreciate. Erich Lessing is not Siegfried Lauterwasser, the man responsible for nearly all formal portraits of Karajan and indeed most photos of him, but he was present at some great performances and recordings in the course of thirty years or so.

Among the most fascinating sessions is the one during Karajan's first complete recording of Bruckner's mighty Eight Symphony made in Gruenewaldkirche (Berlin) in 1957 for EMI. One can also appreciate the trademark looks of the mythical Walter Legge, horn-rimmed glasses and a fag in his mouth, resembling more a Mafioso than a recording producer.

From the next year, 1957, there are some rare photos of a live performance of Beethoven's Third with Glenn Gould, not so long released on CD. Gould's ridiculous posturing certainly looks better in the motionless medium like photography. The special chemistry that was reportedly the case between Karajan and Gould is evident at the few photos where both are present.

There are quite a few shots from Salzburg, where Karajan was regular participant at the Summer festival, that are of more than passing interest. For instance, rehearsals of "Fidelio" and "Falstaff", conversation with George Szell, and even several moments with Romy Schneider, apparently preparing their recording of Prokofieff's "Peter and the Wolf".

Further highlights include Brahms' Violin Concerto with Nathan Milstein (Lucerne, 1957) and the now legendary New Year's Concert with the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna, 1987, the only part of the book in colour). The latter has been released countless times on CD and DVD. In addition to some of the finest renditions of music by the Strauss family, it is adorned with the gorgeous Kathleen Battle dressed in a provocative red dress (she's in fabulous voice, too, as her unsurpassed rendition of "Fruehlingstimmen" testifies).

On the whole, the photos does emphasize Karajan's professional side. The only exceptions are some moments with planes, cars and motor boats tellingly described with a single word: "unterwegs". Especially charming are the moments when the conductor, a techological freak and a certified pilot, pries curiously into the cabin of the metal bird he's going to fly. He also looks like a handsome version of Woody Woodpecker posing with his Mercedes 300SL.

Despite this professional limitation, many of the photos have a pleasantly informal air, even an intimate charm. These include many that actually show Karajan smiling - something he wasn't famous for - and quite a few apparently animate discussions with soloists and choruses. The Milstein session even includes some moments from an after-concert dinner in which the violinist's wife looks completely bored sitting between Karajan and her husband.

The "Fidelio" rehearsal is also very valuable. It offers important insight into Karajan's lifelong passion for staging opera, a very different matter than conducting it. Back in the late 1950s, when he was director of the Wiener Staatsoper but before he founded the Salzburg Easter Festival (1967) where he was in total control, Karajan already had very definite views on casting, directing, lightning and pretty much everything else that goes into an opera production.

All in all, a very good book of considerable importance for Karajan admirers. It does repay revisiting. Despite the one-sided professional perspective, the scanty (and sometimes even missing) captions, some blurred photos and some thoroughly unremarkable ones, it does contain many rare photographs of Karajan at work that are rather illuminating about his dedication to music.

PS If you want to "taste" a little of Erich Lessing's work, see the following link:


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