Herbert von Karajan, Conductor: Beethoven, The Nine Symphonies


Karajan Beethoven Symphonies Cover

Karajan’s conducting of Beethoven represents a head-on collision of two planet-sized egos. One might recall the well-known oil painting in which that old foxy wizard of the piano Franz Liszt is playing to a lost-in-reverie salon crowd, his gaze upturned toward Beethoven’s bust, situated atop the highest point of the instrument next to an open window as thunderheads loom in the distance. It’s the quintessential depiction of how many later composers and performers viewed Beethoven: as a springboard to vault themselves. “What, Beethoven have a bust? I’m going to have one made of ME!” And believe it or not, he did.

Beethoven’s and Karajan’s respective visions of themselves at the center of the universe is what brings the drama, aggression, and power of this music into full focus. While Karajan has been justly criticized for his sometimes harshly authoritarian treatment of his orchestra, akin to a puppeteer and his marionettes, his more marshaled approach appears to suit Beethoven’s lofty vision. And the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras, responds to his baton with razor-sharp, almost militaristic precision in the fast movements yet also plays with a tender singing line and rhythmic freedom in the slow movements. In Karajan’s hands, Beethoven demands our respect as one of the central figures in the musical canon, functioning as the all-important bridge between the classical and romantic styles.

Karajan seems especially at home with the more celebrated symphonies. He gives us an Eroica of heroism and adventure in the outer movements contrasted with a grand, yet deeply despondent, funeral march and a joyous, spritely scherzo. His interpretation of the way-overplayed 5th is anything but hackneyed; the insistent repeated-note pattern of the first movement and blaring, exultant trumpets of the fourth movement verily announce a musical revolution in progress. He understands the epic breadth and suspense of the 9th as well, especially the rising crescendo in the scherzo. His conception of the Ode to Joy is visionary, conveying the work’s monolithic structure.

Even compared with these others, though, his interpretation of the 7th is notable. He brings out the youthful exuberance of the first movement. Unlike Furtwangler, he doesn’t fall into the trap of taking the allegretto too slow and captures the movement’s haunting, whispering quality. He takes the scherzo at a brisk pace indeed, lightly and pointedly; it sounds like a ball for small woodland creatures. The fourth movement, which sounds like a rollicking and folksy peasant dance, is probably my least favorite movement in the Beethoven symphonies, but Karajan’s jaunty performance convinces me.

Not all the performances on this set convince me, though. The 6th (Pastoral), which is one of my favorites, seems too hurried and agitated in the first and second movements, failing to evoke a mood of contemplation and scene of bucolic serenity. Karajan does get back on track in the third movement, lilting through the rustic dance of the scherzo. And the thunderstorm is unleashed in all its fury in the fourth: pelting rains, driving winds, ear-splitting cracks—we hear it all in Karajan’s performance.

Some have commented on Karajan’s sometimes frenetic tempos, arguing that he has a tendency to skirt over the surface of the music. There is undoubtedly some truth to this, particularly in the first two symphonies, which sound a bit perfunctory in places. Also, his balance is a bit thicker and less refined than some of the other great conductors of the past. Sometimes he just needs to go easy on the drums and tone down the horns. But I also like my Beethoven served up with a little outrage. After listening to Kleiber’s rather prissy version of the Eroica, Furtwangler’s accurate but stodgy 7th, and Blomstedt’s standard, lackluster 5th, I was reminded of why I love Karajan's Beethoven. Even when you think he’s a bit gauche, he takes you over the edge. Despite a lapse here and there, this excellent set is a must-have for any serious Beethovenien.

 Joe's Grade: A-


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