Herbert Von Karajan: Maestro For The Screen

Album cover art for upc 807280145991
Label: ARTHAUS
Catalog: 101459
Format: DVD

This is an extraordinary film. There are no complete performances, rather music illustrations, emphasising the point that this is a documentary about vision and not music. What you hear are snatches from Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto, symphonies by Beethoven (3, 5, 6, 9), Brahms 1, Bruckner 8, Schumann 4, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Verdi’s Requiem, Wagner’s overture Die Meistersinger, and bits and pieces from the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna in 1987. There is just a little rehearsal (Schumann 4), which is a great pity. No punches are pulled in this montage of interviews with (mainly) men from the management and ranks of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. It’s not a biopic, certainly not a hagiography, more a debunking of the man who the public largely perceived as the greatest conductor in the world. He had presence, charisma, was generous to a fault to those in his devoted circle who may have got into money troubles or ill-health, and was above all an aesthete. On the other hand he was disagreeable, vain, perfidious, power-hungry, mistrustful and an egomaniac. The film covers the years 1957–1989. At the start we find Karajan and his cultivated sound, resisting the medium of film when it came to reproducing concerts, live or otherwise. He did not believe that current technology was up to coping with his expectations and high standards. As a narrative, this is a fascinating story, but music is relatively subordinate to the visual thread of the tale. Karajan was unique; an egomaniac par excellence. He ends with a quote from Goethe. ‘If my inner life has so much to give and my body denies me its service, then Nature is obligated to give me another body’. Somewhere in all this were composers such as Beethoven and Brahms, but even they are overshadowed by the kiss curl, those closed eyes and his reference to ‘my music’.

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