The life and death of the Karajan sound
16 July 2021-
Today marks the 32d anniversary of Herbert von Karajan's passing. One of the few classical musicians of the 20th century to become a bona fide celebrity, his legacy shines bright to this day...
To most neophytes, a few names come up when you mention classical music from the 20th century and beyond: Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti or Montserrat Caballé when it comes to operatic singers; Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich or, more recently, Lang Lang when it comes to instrumentalists… what about conductors? One name pretty much always come first: that of Herbert von Karajan. An Austrian child piano prodigy-turned conductor, he effectively became not only the most notorious classical conductor of his generation, but also the biggest “brand” of his era in classical music. Despite a few controversies…
First, on the artistic merits of the “Karajan sound”: by all accounts, the conductor’s work ranks among the best we have seen (or, rather, heard) in classical music — ever. Although he boasted a few favorite artists that he often selected for his orchestras to perform (Richard Strauss, Anton Bruckner, Richard Wagner…), he is also known to have conducted pieces by virtually every single noted composer in classical music history. Most times setting a bit of a benchmark on said piece: his Beethoven recordings are renowned the world over; he won Grammy awards for Wagner and Bizet‘s Carmen; he greatly enjoyed performing Verdi‘s Falstaff… In a career spanning over half a century, including 34 years as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, his repertoire is objectively stellar.
Second, on the controversies that surrounded the man: born in Austria at the turn of the (last) century, Karajan lived through both World Wars on the German side of the fight. In other words, to be able to work, he had to be somewhat lenient towards the people currently in power. Which resulted in the musician joining the Nazi party in the 1930’s and performing throughout the second world war in Berlin, up until February 1945. While he was later cleared by a denazification tribunal, always stating that he was merely an artist and never espoused Nazi ideology, his reputation was affected by this de facto collaboration.
Third, on the innovative use of modern recordings in a classical genre: all in all, Herbert von Karajan made no less than 800 recordings in his lifetime, many becoming classics (pun intended). Not only does this number far surpass production by any of his contemporaries, it also ranks amongst the highest in music — period. Recording for decades with his various orchestras, sometimes a certain piece several times over, he was instrumental in helping classical work be heard by an ever increasing number of listeners, aficionados or not. Which was always the man’s foremost intention… mission accomplished!