Karajan and Webern

It took just under a year for Herbert von Karajan to finish a series of recordings of orchestral pieces music by Anton Webern. The sessions had started in March 1973 and finished the following February.  The four pieces together last around 45 minutes: some of their movements lasted under 60 seconds.  It's a real ear opener.

In February 1975 DG issued a 4 LP set including these Webern recordings, plus works by the other members of the Second Viennese School: Alban Berg and their teacher, Arnold Schönberg.  Karajan had been working on the set in the studio since December 1972 and since the early 1960s in concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic. Find them now on Spotify here

The set was partly funded by Karajan and he took out an ad. in Gramophone magazine to explain his long journey to this music, the difficulties of playing and recording it and the surreal qualities of the music.  There's a claim - which came from Karajan himself - that the set sold enough copies, if stacked up, to reach the height of the Eiffel Tower.

The critical reception for the box set was broadly warm - no other conductor of such profile was recording these works or promoting them so vigorously.  Pierre Boulez contemporaneous recordings and some older records were all that was available.  The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic bowled over many - there were question marks over the Berg and some over the Schönberg - but the Webern shone through as ground breaking - simply because these works had never been so well conducted, played or recorded.

In all the controversy that surrounds Karajan the Nazi, Karajan the megalomaniac, Karajan the short man with a complex - not much is made of his efforts just to get the best orchestras in the world to play the music he felt needed a voice as well as he could.  Webern was well served by his old pupil.

My interest here is in the Webern disc in the set - which was not released separately until 1979 in the UK.  DG did fantastic covers in those days and this is no exception:-

Karajan conducted the works on the disc in concert as part of his preparation, but not always with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • Passacaglia Op 1,(1908)
  • Five Movements for String Quartet Op 5, (1909 orch. 1929)
  • Six Pieces for Orchestra Op 6 (1909-10, revised 1928)
  • Symphony Op 21 (1928)
Karajan first conducted Webern in a concert in February 1958 - Passacaglia with the Vienna Symphony and then left it until January 1975 for the one and only outing with the Berliners.

The Five Movements for String Orchestra with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in concert in November 1958 and later that month in New York with the New York Philharmonic.  these were the last pieces by Webern to stay in Karajan's concert repertoire their final outing being in March 1979.

The Six Pieces for Orchestra were given in 1960 with the Berlin Philharmonic and their last concert outing was in 1973 in March (the same month they were recorded)

The Symphony was played with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961 in two concerts and only once with the Berlin orchestra in January 1975 - after the recording but around the time the LPs were released in Europe!

So these were not mainstays of Karajan's core repertoire and didn't stick around much after he had released the set.  The tribute to his teacher paid - the recordings probably couldn't be bettered (certainly not in concert) so he moved on. And probably wouldn't have sold more.

The Berg pieces did figure in concert programmes until the 1980s (just).  It's odd and sad that Karajan didn't get round to recording the Berg Violin Concerto for this set - which he'd conducted in 1960s - his planned recording with Anne-Sophie Mutter was never realised. Nor Gurrelieder which he gave in 1967 in Berlin - though its lush Romanticism would have been slightly too much for the set I guess.

The first CD release of the Webern pieces alone came in 1990 as a reduced price CD - it's length seeming even shorter measure in CD format.  But my, what a find it was for me.  I'd never heard music like this and found it taxing, mesmeric and altogether not of this world.  The Passacaglia took my breath away first and my partner at the time said it was the nearest thing to a non-drug induced trip she'd ever been on.  Both its form and sound inspire confidence in the wary newcomer. 

The Five Movements which follow, plunge us right away into the fruits of Webern's studies with Schönberg- his String Quartet movements - blown up to orchestral fare by the composer.  Following their twists and turns is a somewhat breathless experience at first then on acquaintance, they are enjoyed for their momentary explosions, exposing the limits of the instruments.  It's like watching a monochrome firework display on fast forward at first - and eventually the colours emerge like in an expressionist painting and it seems to be as vivid flashes of extreme music.

And the Six Pieces for Orchestra follow that - huge and tiny at the same time.  At first I tried to imagine each para as the shortest symphony ever written.  There's fierce music in there as well as - the fourth piece - Sehr Langsam - the "Funeral March" is as gripping a piece of musical theatre as one might hear anywhere.  And so beautifully and stylishly recorded in the empty Berlin Philharmonie: one could be in a castle of Pelleas, Bluebeard or Klingsor. Karajan holds the piece back to its ultimate conflagration - spotlighting the players who are so clear we might name them.  Op 6 is - as Alex Ross reminds us in "The Rest is Noise" a piece full of abstraction and yet on one of the basic of human themes.  Webern writes on the death of his mother.

And then there's the Symphony - as far as Karajan would go in this journey.  There is more to explore in Webern and thankfully Pierre Boulez did that in a complete Webern box set (6CDs! - ALL his music!) and with the Berlin Philharmonic. I hear more in those recordings - but I don't hear the drama that Karajan imparts.  Once more Karajan is recording for the living room and not to replicate the concert hall.  And so when the horns are recessed in the Philharmonie for the second movement of the Symphony it is as much about the characterisation of that instrument's role as it is matters of timbre and balance.  Its a spiky work and I'm still getting to grips with it over 20 years later.  Only now is the mathematical mirror-work of the first movement opening up to me - though part of me doesn't want it explained - I just want to "realise" it.

But Karajan's injection of drama and as English critic had it "...the glowing crystalline structure" made for a great recording.

The full box set was later released on CD - though as we have gone through the years the covers have become less arresting, the music remains utterly compelling.


Anonymous said…
Thankyou for an interesting article but i don't remember hearing before that Webern had taught Karajan.

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