After Wilhelm Furtwangler's death, it was Herbert von Karajan who took on the mantle at Berlin Philharmonic and reigned supreme as a Maestro for thirty four years from 1956 to 1989. This documentary has been well crafted along with another that was made by BBC called `Karajan's magic and Myth'. During Furtwangler's regime with the Berlin Philharmonic, he was active in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra for a brief stint in the early nineteen fifties, guest conducting along with the then resident director, Otto Klemperer.
Karajan has always remained an enigma to his fans all over the world. He wore his hair coiffed all the time. With his baton rarely in his hand, he was keen on being filmed from his left hand side with soft lighting focused on him. He insisted that he looked his best from his left side. Karajan is that very familiar face on hundreds of vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, laser discs and videos. There can be no argument about him being the only conductor who turned symphonic music into a big commodity in the period after the Second World War. He was a Maestro who had imperialistic ambitions. He wanted to achieve all pinnacles of media coverage and turned such events into commercially lucrative opportunities for the Berlin Philharmonic and himself.
Within the philharmonic society in Berlin, Karajan was never a popular figure; he remained elusive for people playing under him and was not able to form friendships with those musicians whom he associated with for more than three decades. His political past also linked him to the Nazi party and this was a faint stigma on his reputation throughout his career. There were critics of his style of conducting who repudiated his superficial gloss, and showmanship for orchestral sonority.They thought that he had a philosophy of a one-size-fits-all style for repertoires of Bach to Alban Berg. Some called him the `Emperor of Legato'. Many felt that his style of orchestral sound had no place in the orchestral culture of today. John Bridcut tried to cover all these aspects in his film called `Karajan's Magic and Myth'. there are some interesting moments in this documentary. There also interviews with musicians from London's Philharmonia Orchestra from early nineteen fifties and from the Berlin ensemble. There is an interesting interview with Nikolaus Harnoncourt who played as a cellist with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karajan. Other interviews are by Anne Sophie Mutter and Jessye Norman.
There is also an interesting angle to the filming obsession. As mentioned earlier, he always wanted his shots covering his left profile mostly; he also did not want his principal flautist, James Galway covered on the film as he did not like his facial hair. He also did not like bald players in his ensemble. He made some bald players wear wigs for the filming sessions. Another thing that you cannot miss out about Karajan's inimitable style of conducting is his approach of keeping his eyes closed. The contract with the Berlin Players was made out in such a way that they had to be available at his beck and call round the clock whenever he was stationed in Berlin. They were summoned at just an hour's notice for recordings, rehearsals and filming sessions.
Whatever may be said or written against him, Karajan was an achiever. He achieved fame and stature for himself and his unit. No one can afford to risk rejecting many of his recordings as they are a valuable treasure. Those who reject his conducting will always miss out on the very scale of power and intensity of the sound he created in that famous Philharmonie Halle in Berlin. He was a true visionary in the way he made use of the latest media. An example of his master classes is his rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic of Schumann's D Minor Fourth Symphony. He turned a rehearsal and musical analysis into a great filming experience. What he is saying to the Vienna Philharmonic ensemble gives us a great insight into the makeup of Schumann's Fourth Symphony.
Karajan's philosophy of conducting involved treating every piece of music as one single sweep of momentum in musical terms that was made up of several interconnecting lines of harmony and melodies. He had answered to queries about his closed eyes performances that it was a way of recalling the scores by seeing them in his mind's eyes and turning the pages in his imagination. He told the people interviewing him that he kept his eyes shut in order not to lose his concentration on the musical scores. His physical gestures also told a great story of what he was doing on the podium. You would have often found him reaching down with the help of his hands and moulding a sound wall that began somewhere under his podium. His crescendos were almost always powerful as the music surged upwards with brutal energy and orchestral clarity. His two Beethoven symphonies' cycle with Berlin are a testimony to his dedication to make Berlin Philharmonic an ultimate ensemble to reckon with on the world stage. I recall watching a DVD of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony of a recording that was made in 1968. The cinematography was as strong as his interpretation; so much so that you could almost feel the storm brewing and the stream flowing peacefully in the finale. You could sense Beethoven's expression through your ears and your eyes, as well.
Herbert von Karajan will always remain a Maestro with extraordinary abilities for me and I consider him as one of the top ten conductors the world has experienced.