Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Herbert von Karajan: Telling it like it is..

As a follow-up to my previous Karajan post (here), below an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Barenboim (full source here):

Question: You met two conductors associated with Nazism: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. Did you talk to them about this?

Daniel Barenboim: I met Furtwängler when I was 11 years old. I did not have the courage and even less the understanding to talk to him about this issue. But I believe he never really identified himself with that horror. With Karajan, it was different. I summoned him and he told me: “I had artistic ambitions, I wanted to work in Germany, and for this I had to associate myself to the Nazi Party. That is what I did.”

This is of course, a second-hand source and Barenboim is by no means a neutral player in this game, so one should carefully consider the reliability of the statement. In my view, it makes completely sense. And I believe that many would have done the same, today as well, though it´s nothing to be exactly proud of.

Understandable, from a musical point of view, that Barenboim wants to rehabilitate Furtwängler, but is that warranted? A very good and not easy question to answer, which I´ll nevertheless try to do in an upcoming post - after having chewed my way through the 400+ pages Furtwängler biography "The devil´s music maker".


Gloriana said...

PLEASE keep going...

daland said...

Norman Lebrecht is not easy-going indeed with HvK!

I admit of sharing - on the artistic side - the view of OperaChic:

richard said...

James Inverne in his January editorial in Gramophone takes an interesting slant on HvK. His perspective is that of being a Jew and quotes the Old Testament in that power comes from God irrespective of the character of the person creating something - which is similar to OC's slant earlier today.

An interesting viewpoint that you can't help but admire.

He also comments that Bohm usually gets away with little censure, which based on his track record is surprising - but Krauss was also implicated and only Knappertsbusch comes out of the period with clean hands.

richard said...

Quick clarification - admiration for James Inverne's sentiments as a Jew - not HvK's wartime activities!

mostly opera... said...

I have read Lebrecht´s article, and while it´s an entertaining read, I think he simplifies the achievements of HvK: Of course, DG lances this HvK anniversary in order to make money (it is after all a record company) but the ongoing debate on HvK (both musically and non-musically) is a testament to his importance and his high awareness in the classically interested community today - and in that regard, I asssert that he has passed the "test of time".

Regarding his qualities as a conductor: I must admit, that even thought I find him a first- rate conductor he is for several reasons rarely my first choice in my favourite repertoire:
In Wagner I tend to prefer Furtwänglers searing sound, Solti´s energy, Knappertsbusch´s ethereal beauty (Parsifal) and Thielemann´s or Barenboims mind-blowing performances. But the textual beauty of Karajan´s Wagner is not easily forgotten and I know many who´d put his Ring (esp. Rheingold), Parsifal or Tristan top of the list.

He was a magnificent Richard Strauss-conductor, though I personally prefer Solti´s no-nonsense style in the opera, many would prefer Karajan - and I probably would for the symphonic poems as well, just listen to his Tod und Verklärung.

The dense, beautiful textures of his Pelléas and Melisande remains unparallelled, even by Boulez and I consider HvK magnificent in Debussy.
Also in Mozart - esp. Don G - his reading is close to the top, though I´d prefer Klemperer and Furtwängerler, I know many who´d prefer Karajan.
And so on...I´ve probably forgotten a lot - like HvK´s Shostakovich 10th symphony - elegant in texture and riveting.

Lauren said...

I'm actually doing a PhD on these sorts of questions (music in Germany after the war etc), so I'm finding the discussion very interesting.

I also found the Lebrecht article amusing but simplistic. It's also not completely accurate (perils of being read by an historian, here!)

The Furtwaengler biog (I'm assuming it's the Shikawara) is good, but its conclusions aren't always agreed on these days, and have indeed been controversial since it first appeared. Herbert Haffner's more recent biography, for example, really takes a hatchet to the conductor. Perhaps that's the trend today - I've been a little surprised by the vehemence of the attacks on HvK this year. (Certainly they make the oversized Osborne biography, which is hardly uncritical, look positively mild.)

Incidentally, to the poster above, Knappertbusch's reputation is a bit murkier than has long been thought, although it's still up for discussion. You're right that Bohm has really been able to escape unscathed here. My guess as to the reasons would be 1) issues of dealing with the past are much less developed in Austria, and 2) he falls into the research cracks - not quite recent enough (or flamboyant enough?) to garner the sort of attention Karajan is getting, and not quite famous enough right at the end of the war to have been the immediate focus a la Furtwaengler and Richard Strauss. Incidentally, his autobiography is rather amusingly and sometimes unplesanatly evasive

There's another question, here, of course - what's the connection between politics and great art. I'm a great admirer of the lives of people like Gottfried von Einem, Boris Blacher, Karl Amadeus Hartmann etc, but I can't say their compositions are on high rotation in my CD collection. Cards on the table - I really don't like HvK, but you'll have to pry, for example, the Karajan/Dennis Brain Mozart horn concerto recordings out of my cold, dead hands!

Anonymous said...

It is a classical "Lebrecht" article. Always tries to impress and he has done that in the past. In order to gain impressions, he uses the "easy" way, where different opinion equals opposite opinion. He done that with Carlos Kleiber, Gunter Wand etc. I have to admit that this styles "teased" me, but after exploring various arts and styles, left me totally unimpressed.

As for HvK, he was a great Maestro. Just that. He was responsible for many people to meet classical music, through his countless recordings and tours, in the whole world. I believe that this was his major achievement.

richard said...

Hi Lauren

I was interested in your comment about Knappertsbusch. My view was based on his dismissal from the Munich Opera in 1935 following a dispute with the Nazi Party and his rejection of his tainted colleagues in the post war years. His views were well documented and not challenged as far as I am aware on the grounds of being a hypocrite. I am aware that he conducted at the Vienna Opera in 1944 at the final performance, which was an appropriate Gotterdammerung, so he did still work under the regime.

I am not contradicting your view but would be most interested if you could elaborate.

As an aside, Clemens Krauss took his Munich job and Knappertsbusch refused to share an opera house with him, an example being Bayreuth in the early 50’s until Kruass died.

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