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In search of perfection: Karajan on disc and film

By Professor Raymond Holden AM, Emeritus Professor of Music, Royal Academy of Music, London


A leading authority on performance practice and performance history,  Professor Ryamond Holden AM is the author of The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan for Yale University Press, among other books. Part II examines Karajan’s recording career.

It’s often said that classical music is a minority interest. Yet, when that claim is put to the test, it seems hard to support. Take London, for example. On an average night in the British capital, audiences throng to each of its great concert halls and opera houses to be amazed, entertained and edified by what they hear. Its five symphony orchestras and its two lyric theatres play to packed houses and engage with an international public that is always excited to enjoy an evening of first-class music-making. 

When recording sales are also examined closely, they, too, seem to defy the notion that Western art music is little more than a niche pastime. Sir Georg Solti (1912–1997), the Hungarian-born, British conductor, proved this by winning a staggering 31 Grammy Awards, and receiving an even-more-staggering 74 nominations between 1962 and his death in 1997. And although his arch nemesis, Herbert von Karajan (1908–1989), might have only won three such awards, he did make up for it by recording in excess of 1,000 commercial discs and films, and by selling an estimated 200 million of them. [1] 

Without question, Karajan would have been delighted by these statistics, but, for him, recorded music was more than just a means of accruing vast sums of money; it was the tool with which he could best shape and disseminate his finely honed artistic ideals. It might be useful, then, to examine the ways in which Karajan documented his approach, and why he became one of Western art music’s greatest envoys.

In 1956, Karajan became the Berlin Philharmonic's Principal Conductor for life. Photo credit: Unitel /Berliner Philharmoniker

The maestro emerges

Even as a young lad growing up in the soon-to-be-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, Karajan was fascinated by three things: music, sport and technology. Each of these disciplines was of seminal importance to him, and each would benefit from his lifelong advocacy of them.

But after successfully completing his Matura at Salzburg in 1926, Karajan had to make a critical decision: which of the three should he pursue professionally?

Having shown remarkable skill as a pianist during his youth, he soon became determined to make music his life’s work. But his parents were concerned that a career in the arts was too risky and thought that a more stable profession would be a better choice.

Karajan’s interest in engineering and technology encouraged his parents to suggest that he should attend the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, while continuing to study music privately. Karajan reluctantly agreed to this compromise, but quickly defaulted on it: he abandoned his studies at the Hochschule shortly after registering with it and enrolled at the Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst instead. And with these decisions the seeds were sown. Technology and music-making had become symbiotic in the mind of the aspiring maestro, and it was later clear to him that by melding the two, he would be better able to create and to refine what eventually became known as the ‘Karajan sound.’

Technology and music-making had become symbiotic in the mind of the aspiring maestro: Holden. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

The early recordings

By today’s standards, Karajan was a late starter when it came to recording, and it was as a thirty-year-old that he entered the studio for the first time. Recording for the German firm, Polydor, he documented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–1791) Overture to Die Zauberflöte with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1938. The disc was an instant success, prompting The Gramophone’s critic to chirp: 

“The orchestra has done it again … and very successfully too! … The present recording is infectiously exciting … The pace is quick, as it must be, but not too quick for clear articulation … if not in the Toscanini or Beecham class, this is a sound and buoyant reading and well recorded.”[2]

Whether Karajan ever saw this review is moot, but, if he had, he would have been delighted by it. Musicality and technology praised within a single sentence. It was as if he had written the critique himself. Encouraged by the success of the disc, Polydor then engaged Karajan to record overtures and preludes by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Richard Wagner (1813–1883) and Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842) with the Staatskapelle Berlin before recording Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) Sixth Symphony with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1939. 

Karajan continued to be active in the studio throughout the early years of World War Two, and was even involved in a pioneering stereo recording of the last movement of Anton Bruckner’s (1824–1896) Eighth Symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1944. Experiments using stereophonic sound were not new: Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977) made test recordings of music by Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1932 and Sir Thomas Beecham (1879–1961) documented excerpts from Mozart’s ‘JupiterSymphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1933. But Karajan’s recording of Bruckner’s music was amongst the first to be set down using stereophonic magnetic tape. 

With bombs raining down daily on the Third Reich’s capital, it seems almost unbelievable today that the Germans still had the energy or the financial wherewithal to carry out such experiments. [3] But they did, and the results are really quite remarkable. Recorded in Studio One of Berlin’s Haus des Rundfunks, Karajan’s reading is both full-blooded and spacious. The performance’s acoustic clarity defies its age, and his broad speeds allow the music to speak with great intensity. The movement’s often-complex architecture benefits from this approach, and it is a sound document that leaves the listener in no doubt that Karajan was a committed Brucknerian from an early age. 

With the war at an end, and with little to occupy him professionally, Karajan faced a bleak future. That all changed after meeting Walter Legge (1906–1979) in Vienna in 1946. The EMI producer was immediately impressed by the young maestro, and after hearing him rehearse the Wiener Philharmoniker, he quickly offered him a contract. Working in partnership, Legge and Karajan then produced a string of recordings that soon caught the listening public’s imagination and that established the conductor as an important figure on the post-war musical stage. And from a letter sent to The Gramophone magazine in June 1947 by one of its British readers, it’s clear that Karajan’s star was well and truly in the ascendant by the end of that decade: 

“I should like to congratulate Columbia [4] on bringing back into the domestic lists the [Wiener Philharmoniker] under their brilliant young conductor Herbert Von [sic] Karajan. Though his name is scarcely known here, he has an enviable reputation on the continent, and his recordings, most of which can still be bought in the British zone in Germany, show him to be a conductor of the front rank. Particularly impressive were his performances of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with the [Staatskapelle Berlin] … Perhaps Columbia and Herr Von [sic] Karajan will now give us a really fine recording of [the composer’s] Choral Symphony … from Beethoven’s own city … It is pleasant to note in conclusion that Columbia have shown themselves to be considerably more broadminded than the present administration in Austria which for a long time forbade Karajan to conduct for political reasons.” [5]

During the early 1970s, Karajan had a dispute with Deutsche Grammophon over whether to record the music of Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schönberg. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

The correspondent didn’t have long to wait, as Karajan recorded the Ninth Symphony with the Wiener Philharmoniker in December 1947. But it was with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the house band that Legge had established for EMI in 1945, that Karajan documented his first, and arguably most interesting, set of Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770–1827) symphonies. Made between 1953 and 1955, these discs capture the pioneering spirit of the recording industry in the immediate post-war period and are indicative of Karajan’s vibrant approach during those years. And while it is true that Karajan’s later recordings of these works with the Berliner Philharmoniker are better recorded acoustically, and are more indicative of his mature sound-world, the early set will always have a special place in the affections of some discophiles. 

But perhaps the interpretative jewel in Karajan’s early discographic crown was his recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685–1750) Mass in B minor with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde from 1952. Karajan had been appointed the Vienna choir’s Konzertdirektor for life five years earlier and continued to be associated with the group until his death in 1989. Recorded partly in London and partly in Vienna, his ground-breaking reading of the Mass was widely praised for its more-scholarly approach and its lively and vibrant tempi. It was a work that Karajan thought deeply about and felt required careful handling. Keen to get away from the “beer-hall style of singing” [6] that so afflicted the piece in the past, he argued that it should “not be too heavy [but should also] have a certain weight.” [7] And it is clear from the discs’ early reception history that he achieved this finely tuned balancing act: 

“Karajan’s imaginative conception of the work … filled me with admiration. The exceptional quality of the playing and recording … is one of the outstanding features in this issue … The duets are balanced to perfection and are one and all sung with ravishing tone and fine phrasing … I rose up from going straight through this recording refreshed and exhilarated to a degree I have never experienced before in listening to the work. This Columbia issue is, I am sure, a landmark in the history of the gramophone record.” [8]

The Berlin Philharmonic's concert hall was designed by Hans Scharoun (1893-1972), but inaugurated in 1963. Photo credit: Herbert Schindler

Karajan and DGG

Karajan became the Berliner Philharmoniker’s principal conductor for life in 1956. And with this new orchestral appointment came a new direction as a recording artist. Having taken over the helm of Germany’s most famous orchestra, Karajan now embarked on a long and lucrative professional journey with the country’s most prestigious recording company: Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, or DGG as it is often known. Disc after disc of symphonies, concertos and operas soon poured from this musical conveyor-belt and quickly sold in vast numbers. Karajan’s fame reached superstar status and it was not long before he became a household name. In the minds of the listening public, the conductor’s partnership with DGG rapidly became a benchmark of discographic and interpretative excellence. 

But with success comes dissent, and, for some, Karajan’s dominance as a recording artist was something to be feared and reviled. Many conductors felt that they had been side-lined by both the public and the recording industry, and that their interpretative voices were not being heard. And they were right: it’s hard to take on Goliath if you’re denied a slingshot. One of the most aggrieved was the Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache (1912–1996). Having been overlooked by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1956, he never really forgave his great rival for being appointed its principal conductor. And although Celibidache regularly professed that he had little interest in recording, he famously spat: “I know that [Karajan] enthuses the masses, but so does Coca Cola.” [9]

Yet, Karajan didn’t have it all his own way when it came to DGG, and when he wanted to record a four-record set devoted to the works of Alban Berg (1885–1935), Anton Webern (1883–1945) and Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) in the early 1970s, the company turned a deaf ear. Concerned about the commercial viability of a set completely given over to the music of the Second Viennese School, the company was not prepared to risk its hard-earned cash by investing it in what was sure to be a fiscal flop. Karajan was having none of it, and decided to pay for the recording himself. And it seems that he was right to do so. Vindicated by the public’s response to the project, he later crowed: 

“If you pile up all the sets—the record and cassette boxes—we eventually sold, they would reach to the top of the Eiffel Tower. This, I must say, gave me great pleasure.” [10]

And when it came to the technology needed to realise his interpretative aims in Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, he was characteristically inventive: 

“I knew from the outset that the demands Schoenberg makes in these Variations are abnormal ones which are difficult to realize properly, even in acoustically suitable concert halls. For the recording, we reseated the orchestra for each variation to create the acoustic that one sees and imagines when one looks at the score. Some people said this was ‘manipulation’ of the music by technology; but it is the very reverse … Realizing the Schoenberg Variations was technically the most fascinating thing in the set.”[11]

Karajan should act as a beacon of hope for all those aspiring to artistic excellence: Holden. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

Decca recordings

While Karajan went on to make his first digital recording in 1980, and then went on to launch the CD as a viable recording medium at Salzburg in 1981, he was careful not to put all his discographic eggs in the same commercial basket. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, he not only continued to record for DGG and EMI, but also made some extremely well-received discs for Decca. Karajan’s barnstorming reading of Antonín Dvořák’s (1841–1904) Eighth Symphony for the company left critics searching for superlatives, while his discs of Verdi’s Aida and Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) Madama Butterfly and La bohème confirmed his very-obvious credentials as an interpreter of Italian opera. 

And by the time that Karajan came to make those recordings for Decca, the company was already celebrated for its cutting-edge use of stereophonic technology. This technology allowed the listener to enjoy a more realistic operatic experience by placing and using the microphones and performers in a creative manner. The singers and musicians were then recorded as if they were on stage. This new approach was like a dream come true for Karajan, and when he was offered the possibility of tinkering with it personally, he leapt at the chance, as the celebrated Decca producer and musicologist, Christopher Raeburn (1928–2009), recalled: 

“I quickly realised that I would not only have to know the score intimately, but to know the man, if I were to deal with him successfully. And as we had so many fascinating technological ‘toys’ in the booth for him to play with, I also knew that he was less difficult with English producers than he was with our German-speaking colleagues. But as he would never keep to a session’s pre-arranged schedule, and as the full cast was nearly always present, the possibilities available to him were legion. He might rehearse one passage, but then immediately decide to record another. Unlike most other conductors, Karajan would do whatever he wanted to do within the time allocated. When we were recording Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, I decided to expand my team and to work out a code. If it looked like he was taking a particular direction, I might pick up the studio phone and say, ‘Contingency C’. This meant that the team had to jump quickly to whatever technical or musical possibility Karajan might opt for. In the end, we were largely able to anticipate what he might do.” [12]

Karajan never failed to provoke the ire of those who struggled to come to terms with him either professionally or personally, or those who envied his fame, influence and financial success: Holden. Photo credit: Deutsche Grammophon

Karajan on film

Karajan’s relationship with film was nearly as long as his association with music on disc. First seen on celluloid conducting an extract from the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1941, Karajan cut a dashing figure. With hair flowing and gestures sweeping, he was every bit the flamboyant young maestro. But with time and experience, both hair and gestures were tamed. No longer simply concerned with the surface of the score, Karajan’s increasingly restrained physical technique allowed him to come to terms with the music’s content: the philosophical, cultural, social, personal and religious meaning that lies behind the notes on the page. And it is by a forensic investigation of his filmography that this transition can be best charted. His films are also a treasure trove of information for aspiring conductors and performance historians, and are a vital means of determining Karajan’s shifting approaches to orchestral disposition, textual fidelity, choice of edition, tempo and bowing. It is no exaggeration to say that these documents are a veritable masterclass in the art and craft of conducting, as the distinguished British filmmaker Tony Palmer (b. 1941) has observed: 

“In [my] film [The Salzburg Festival], there’s a section that shows [Karajan] conducting the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s absolutely electrifying. We had cameras everywhere, but we simply had to watch his face. Every element and aspiration of the music was registered in it. He was able to convey these qualities to the orchestra, which is why the performance is so exciting. Another section of the film that I’ll never ever forget is him rehearsing the third movement of the Ninth Symphony with the orchestra. He effectively gave a half-hour masterclass to the violins on which string to use and on how to place the bow. It totally changed the sound, and, remarkably, the players accepted what he had to say willingly. Sadly, we could only use five or six minutes from this ‘masterclass’ in the final film. We all know Karajan’s reputation, but there was considerably more to him than that.”[13]

Of the films that Karajan made during his career it was probably those that he shot with the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907–1977) that were the most influential. Together, they documented a number of works, including Robert Schumann’s (1810–1856) Fourth Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. But perhaps the least successful and most contentious of these was their film of the Mozart concerto with Yehudi Menuhin (1916–1999). The renowned French filmmaker, violinist and author, Bruno Monsaingeon (b. 1943), was particular outraged by the result: 

“I find the film of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin quite disgraceful, even though I’m totally taken by Yehudi’s playing. The framing of the violin is completely insensitive, and the cadenza in the first movement is focused primarily on Karajan! The set that was chosen is an example of disgustingly sugary Viennese kitsch taste.” [14]

But, in general, Monsaingeon admired what Karajan and Clouzot produced, and was eager to point out: “The Schumann and Beethoven films were imaginative, and it’s a case of ‘hats off’ when it comes to those.” [15] And while it’s easy for Karajan’s many detractors to take smug potshots at him as a director of his own films for his mannered approached to singers, his penchant for long lines of shiny brass instruments and his admittedly peculiar habit of sticking wigs on the more-follicly-challenged members of his orchestra, those in sympathy with his cinematic approach would agree with Monsaingeon when he said: 

“What Karajan did on his own without Clouzot in Beethoven’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies is wonderful. He understands fully how to stage music for the camera. Every shot is done separately with an orchestra that’s set up to meet the expressive needs of the camera. It’s a marvellous thing. Karajan was a visionary who did some really imaginative work. And very few musicians have given thought to transmitting music in this way.” [16]

[1] Richard Osborne, Herbert von Karajan’s Top 5 Recordings, National Public Radio, 4 April 2008.

[2] The Gramophone, June 1939, p. 14.

[3] It is estimated that some 300 works were documented on stereophonic magnetic tape by the Germans by the early 1940s. Only the Karajan recording and Walter Gieseking’s (1895–1956) reading of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto are extant. The rest appear to have been looted by the Russians at the end of the war. 

[4] Columbia was one of EMI’s subsidiary companies. 

[5] R. A. Gurney’s letter to the ‘Correspondence’ section of the June 1947 issue of The Gramophone, p. 14.

[6] Richard Osborne, Conversations with Karajan (London, 1989), p. 53.

[7] Ibid. 

[8] The Gramophone, February 1954, p. 348. 

[9] Stefan Piendl and Thomas Otto (eds.), Stenographische Umarmung: Sergiu Celibidache beim Wort genommen (Regensburg, 2002), p. 40. 

[10] Osborne, Conversations, p. 120. 

[11] Ibid, pp. 120–1.

[12] Raymond Holden (ed.), Speaking Musically: Great Artists in Conversation at the Royal Academy of Music (London, 2023), pp. 680–1.

[13] Ibid, p. 715.

[14] Ibid, p. 735.

[15] Ibid, p. 736. 

[16] Ibid. 

Holden is a conductor, broadcaster and public intellectual. A native of Australia, the Professor was appointed Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Photo credit: Courtesy
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