Memories - Karajan in London 1988

In 1987 I had fulfilled what seemed to be a dream at the time, I went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  The programme was the Fourth and Second Symphonies by Brahms - in that order.  Karajan regarded the Fourth symphony as one of the two or three works which end in utter tragedy and the Second with its sunnier disposition was a better end to the concert.  The Berliners played without concert dress as their luggage was stuck somewhere.  It was spellbinding, enthralling, exciting and monumental.

But Karajan was old, 79, and frail.  The readings showed none of that.  I took my Mum - she was bowled over by the occasion.  We saw huge Karajan's Rolls Royce arrive.  It was a glamorous affair and redolent I dare say now, of a lost age of both classical music making and the classical music business - Karajan bestrode both despite being distrusted, maligned and continually brought back to his wartime past by the UK press: seemingly incapable of sticking to the music making.

In 1988 I saw him again.  Things were somewhat different then.  The frail old man was a cause for concern.  Whereas in years previously the entourage was no doubt to keep people away from the super star conductor, this time this was protective vigilance.  His wife was a constant presence flitting on and off stage.  I'd brought a small pair of binoculars and could watch the preparations for the concert.  There was much buzzing about because the instruments were delayed by fog in their journey up from Dover.  I think an hour past before we settled down.  Much has been made of the gasp from the audience when Karajan seemed to stumble as he walked out to the podium.  He was very frail but only in those moments.  Once perched on his seat (built into the podium) he launched into a reading of Schönberg's Verklarte Nacht which was a marvel of concentration, sweep and intimacy.  The work mixes full string orchestra and individual string soloists to paint a tone poem inspired by Dehmel's poem which begins:

"Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;

the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze..."

The full Berlin String section measured some 100 players and yet at times the tone was a mere whisper and so delicate it seemed like gossamer.  Equally in the strident yearning of the work full strings - including the renowned Berlin Basses had an almost terrifying power.  I don't think even Karajan would have described himself as in full command - despite all that was said when he and the orchestra parted ways later that year - Karajan was a pilot: essential but he required co-operation.

The reading he had given in his DG recording has won high praise.  But what struck me hearing the Berliners live is that no studio recording adequately captured their sound, and this was even less the case with the sound that Karajan had cultivated since taking over the orchestra in the 1950s.  This remains the case - DG & EMI did their best but it was essentially unrecorded.

Back at base, someone tried to record on a cassette the delayed concert - Radio 3 were broadcasting it (they had not broadcast the Brahms concert the year before indeed I don't think it was even recorded, at least not officially).  But a C90 tape with sides of 45 minutes was inadequate for Brahms First Symphony that followed the Schönberg - my recording was partial.  And I'm sorry to say so was much of my musical memory - so often its the sights of concerts I recall not the sounds.  Imagine my delight and trepidation when I discovered that Testament had released this concert - along with others by Karajan in London - on CD.  Last week - nearly 25 years later - I sat down to enjoy the full concert again.

There are three overwhelming feelings I have - and we know that music is the art of feeling - on listening to this Brahms First (one of six different recordings I have of Karajan conducting it 1940 - 1988):-

First, orchestra's playing is even more magnificent than I remember and the BBC recording reveals so much more than one's attention could muster on the night and ALSO so much more than any of his studio recordings.  There are breathtaking moments such as the lead into the first movement recapitulation, the ever so slow chorale at the beginning of the last movement and the end of the last movement which is bold, brutal and redemptive.  But there is so much more - the playing is of a different order and the sound that Karajan gets is unlike anyone else's.

Second, it is a near perfect reading for me despite the hostility of some of the critics at the time.  It is more powerful than either symphony he had delivered a year earlier and although he was frail this is a reading of ferocious passion, befitting Brahms the lion.  The nuances reveal all those years of familiarity but also conductor and players pushing even further than before. I have a perfect Brahms 1 in my head - this comes closest to it.  Maybe more has stuck sub-conciously than I admit.  

Thirdly the audience exploded at the end of this triumphant work knowing, we sensed, that it was the last time they would have that particular rush.  No one I have heard subsequently could hold an audience like that with music making of that quality.  It is dramatic and holds people on the edge of their seat.  I suppose the closest I have come is the conducting of Gustavo Dudamel - but his readings still need to mature for 50 years. Within a few months of the concert Karajan had parted ways, acrimoniously, with the orchestra that had made him conductor for life.  

In the early months of 1989 he gave his last concerts - with the Vienna Philharmonic - with whom he had recorded fantastic readings of Bruckner's Seventh and Eighth symphonies.  He died preparing opera in Salzburg in July 1989. As Tim Page said of the New York concerts that Spring "you may never hear music making like that again, but at least you know it can be done".

My feeling is that this reading demands to be heard, despite some untidiness in a BBC recording which must have been a trial for them without any rehearsals to sound check and balance.  It is playing of a different order, at least caught without the artifice of the studio.

A final personal note: I was shocked the morning I heard Karajan had died, I believed whilst he could produce readings like that he might go on for a few more years.  The woman who sat beside me, my beloved 'Nita, has left us too.  And no one has made music that excited me as much as this concert - though several have come close - Grigory Sokolov being the closest.  But this was truly a unique occasion and I thought I should record it's importance to me.  

Age had dimmed the memory but technology has revived and even enhanced it.  


Anonymous said…
I have visit 5 opera and 51 Concerts by Karajan between 1980 and his last Concert in Vienna ( 23 April 1989 ) , sins that time a totall of 1650 Opera and Concerts , but I nover forget Karajan , never hear something like that anywhere els ( the clossest maybe with Svetlanov , the Russian conductor , he was vey extassy too ) , Since that time I collect Karajan complete on CD and DVD ( 800 studio recordings and 700 CDS with live recordings from 1949 until 1989 ) , the Concert in London 1987 with Brahms 4 + 2 was broadcast and I have it in good quality. Robert / Netherlands.
Stephen North said…
Robert - WOW!!!! that's a fantastic set of memories.

I'm sorry that we didn't get to hear him in Salzburg in 1989 re-united with the Philharmonia in Apollon Musagete and Sibelius 5.

Thank you for your comments - good to know the Brahms was captured - from what I have heard there are numerous treasures in the radio archives including the Berg Violin Concerto, the later, improved reading of Mahler 5 and the Festival performances of Bach choral works which were by all accounts big improvements on his recordings.

If you have it, is the Berlin Rhapsody in Blue as bad as they say? :-)

Best Wishes, Stephen

Michael said…
Stephen - I don't think Karajan actually appeared with the Philharmonia in Salzburg in 1989, or did he? The archive on says that he conducted them for the last time in 1960. I do remember that right around the time he quit, the next concert in Berlin was to have been Sibelius 5, but I think that was actually after the Easter festival where he still appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker - for the last time ever, perhaps fittingly with Verdi's Requiem.
I had looked forward to hearing Karajan conduct Sibelius 5, but it was not to be.

Completely agree with your comments about Karajan's recordings, especially the ones on DG. I do think though that the problem isn't just that a recording simply can not fully capture the sound of an orchestra, especially a sound which was as big and rich as what Karajan got from the BP. I think the problem is more that he and his producer Michel Glotz fiddled around with the recordings and manipulated the sound too much because they had that brand sound that they had developed for recordings. Too bright, too in-your-face sometimes, too remote in other places, too much lacking depth, often highlighting the melodic outlines but obscuring detail in that oddly sweetened, hazy sound that they somehow felt worked better on recordings. Karajan explained that listening to a recording is a completely different experience from listening to a live performance - very true, of course - so that the sound had to be tailored to the home listening experience.

I do think though that recordings can capture the sound of an orchestra quite faithfully, if "in miniature". Just like the miniature model of, say, a sailing ship, is obviously not the same as the real thing, it can preserve all proportions faithfully and display the details properly and so it will give you a better idea of what the sip looks like than a distorted model with highlighted details etc. That's how I feel about most commercial Karajan recordings, especially the ones on DG. I think the EMI recordings made in Berlin in the 70s and early 80s sound better and truer to what it sounded like.

For those reasons, I also seek out live recordings like the ones published on Testament. There are also a number of recordings available in Japan which are taken from "undoctored" NHK recordings. There is also a live Beethoven 7 and Le Sacre on the label Palexa which is worth finding. Even worse, I think, than his recordings were his films which were mostly produced "in studio" but made to look like live performances with strange, back-lit inserts of individual sections of the orchestra lined up completely differently than they are in the orchestra (almost all of his video productions from the 80s were made that way), but there are a few videos which come from actual live recordings, e.g. a great Eroica from the orchestra's centennial concert in 1982, an Alpensinfonie and a Bruckner 9 from 1985 - I was in the latter two concerts, and a number more in Berlin from 1983-88. Also a Bruckner 8 and 9 with the Wiener Philharmoniker from the late 70s, all of which I can highly recommend.
Stephen North said…
Michael, Thanks for your comments - just to clear up the Philharmonia point - no he didn't conduct them because he died before the concerts (presumably in the summer festival) and I think the Philharmonia was chosen because of teh resignation from the Berlin Phil the preceeding Winter (from memory). I would have loved to here what he did with Sinopoli's Philharmonia as I recall being very taken with their playing at the time.

On the sound - yes, I completely agree with your point on the engineering reflecting the listen at home experience some recordings of the 1980s were models of how to do that well - esp Parsifal. But I think we can all hear fingers twiddling controls in some of the recordings (presumably why some have never been re-issued as remastered). But another factor I'm very pursuaded by is the idea that Karajan's hearing was going and the high register heavy recordings were more to his liking when it came to approving the one's to be released. The two recordings where I find this especially sad are Bruckner 1 and 2 - two cracking performances but marred by the sound quality.

There are more airchecks coming available either through enterprising record labels - I have all the NYPO and the LAPO concert from 1959, and the 1969 Moscow concerts. The sound isn't great sometimes but it's fascinating to hear what he does. There's also a pleasing trend of airchecks finding their way onto YouTube. But yes - where its a live concert some of the DVDs are well worth having. I wince at the pain on the man's face during the Alpensinfonie though - a reminder of the man's battles in later life.

I'd still like to get my hands on that Gershwin though :-)
Anonymous said…
Stephen North said…
Anonymous - I think both of those concerts are available on CD if you wish to re-live the memory. Indeed I think I have heard the Bruckner 8 - was that BPO or VPO?

Karajan was and still is, in my opinion, peerless in both works.
JK said…
Here are two photos I took at the end of that concert, from my seat behind the organ console. You may be able to see the standing ovation, Karajan's outstretched hands to acknowledge the ovations, and audience members who surged from their seats to gather by the podium.

Karajan BPO London 1988

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