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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Herbert Von KARAJAN (1908-1989)
A film by Gernot Friedel

Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras
Agnes Baltsa, Mirella Freni, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Mstislav Rostropovich, John Vickers, et al.
DVD 5 | PAL / Dolby Digital 2.0
DVD Video (Documentary
ARTHAUSMUSIK 100 252 [89 min]

 

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Herbert von Karajan died in 1989, and this 90-minute film by Gernot Friedel, produced ten years after Karajanís death, presents a portrait of both man and conductor through a loosely biographical general narrative, archive interviews and rehearsal footage, and extracts from filmed performances. As such it might have offered a valuable insight into aspects of the artistry and personality of one of the most extraordinary and controversial musicians of the twentieth century. Regrettably it does not do so.

With so much material at his disposal, most of it doubtless provided by the Herbert von Karajan Centrum in Vienna which produced the film, the film-maker approaches his subject with a vagueness of focus which reduces much of the film to inconsequentiality. Crucial moments in Karajanís career, major historical events, personal reminiscence, trivial anecdote, exaggerated praise or unjustified criticism Ė all are compounded in a narrative characterized by both naiveté and pretentiousness. The film-maker seems to have made the fundamental error of not establishing a clear target audience in his mind from the outset, with the result that the film oscillates between childish simplicity and what for many would now be either inexplicable or unimportant details concerning such matters as a requirement to play the ĎHorst Wessel songí on a particular occasion, Karajanís long-lasting Ė but never fully explained - rivalry with Wilhelm Furtwängler, or the final breakdown of the conductorís relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Richard Osborneís monumental study of Karajan, also published in 1999, (Pimlico ISBN 0-7126-6465-3) sets a standard for critical biography and admirably judicious analysis of its material which this film does not begin to approach. A visual medium will always run the danger of encouraging its user to deploy all its features in ways which ultimately detract from rather than enhance the subject being studied, but the films on music and musicians by Christopher Nupen and Larry Weinstein, to name just two outstanding examples, show what can be achieved when inspiration and sound artistic judgement are allied. That Gernot Friedelís film on Karajan cannot be considered in the same light is greatly to be regretted, since the ways in which a study of Karajan might be presented are both numerous and obvious. The life of the Austrian conductor as a dominant force in European and world music for some fifty years certainly merits detailed examination, as would a purely biographical study of his complex and controversial personality, or a detailed critique of his work as director in the opera-house. But what would be of greatest value now, a considerable number of years after his death, would be a serious attempt to deal with the quality of his music-making, and of the reasons for his pre-eminence across such a wide repertoire of music. Sections of the film by Friedel do give some insight into this Ė the quiet rehearsing of a passage from the Adagio of Beethovenís 9th Symphony, an exquisite extract from a production of Der Rosenkavalier, or the energy with which the old and now crippled maestro brings to life a score which was new to him, Richard Straussís Alpine Symphony - but such moments are tantalizingly brief.

Music being both an aural and a visual experience, a study of Karajan such as the one by Richard Osborne in book form, outstanding though it is, can give only a limited idea of the nature of the manís devoted, passionate and inspiring music-making, whether in rehearsal, in the opera-house, or on the concert platform. For that we must have sound and vision, and Friedelís film offers very little in this regard to satisfy the serious music-lover. Though it contains several memorable and even revelatory sequences, this anniversary publication is deeply disappointing. The definitive film about Herbert von Karajan has yet to be made.

Paul Teal

 


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