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Karajan: A Profile
Directed by Gernot Friedl
With: Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, Agnes Baltsa, Janet Perry, Mirella Freni, Gianni Raimondi, Jon Vickers, Peter Glossop, Adriana Martino, Rolando Panerai, Melanie Diener, Renaud CapuÁon, Mstislav Rostropovich, Georg Kreisler, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Claudio Abbado, Flinserin group and drummers
DVD Region Code 0; Aspect Ration 16:9; PCM Stereo only
EMI CLASSICS 2165739 [87:00]
Experience Classicsonline

EMI Classics have made an estimable contribution to this yearís commemoration of the Karajan Centenary - not least their re-release in two volumes of Karajanís complete EMI recordings. They are in a better position to do so than almost any other label. Karajanís career as a studio recording artist virtually began when Walter Legge engaged Karajan to record with the Philharmonia for EMI after the war. He then returned to them in the 1970s and 1980s to make some recordings which are still, in my view, underrated classics. It is a shame, then, that they finish the year with this turkey of a DVD which purports to be a profile of Karajan but is actually an ineffectual hotch-potch which does not satisfy in the least.
 
Musical films are problematic by their very nature. This one falls into nearly all the traps without solving any of them. It begins as a fairly simple biography of Karajan. We are given information about his childhood in Salzburg and his first musical engagements conducting in Salzburg and Vienna. We then find out about his first directorship in Ulm and his move up to run the opera in Aachen. Things become altogether more shady with the war years, however, and the film almost entirely shirks any discussion of the controversy surrounding Karajanís membership of the Nazi party. This isnít a bad thing in itself: in my view this aspect of Karajanís life has been scrutinised out of all proportion to its importance and Iím far more interested in an analysis of his musical work. This, however, is a case in point that illustrates this filmís problems. There is no attempt to engage with the arguments or to provide any rigorous analysis. The same is true of his famous dispute with Furtwšngler, and this superficiality doesnít just apply to the details of Karajanís life but to his music-making as well.
 
After the war years any sense of a coherent biographical narrative falls by the wayside and we are taken to and fro across the various aspects of Karajanís life. The narrator touches on issues such as the EMI years with the Philharmonia, the founding of the Salzburg Easter Festival, directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic and so on; but none of these are treated with any serious analysis or scholarship whatsoever. Instead we get a sequence of frequently bizarre images which more often than not have no obvious link to the music or narrative. For example, when the film addresses Karajanís time in London with the Philharmonia we find out nothing whatsoever about his relationship with Legge, the way he changed the orchestra, his characteristics as a musician, or anything else that could be described as relevant. Instead we are told that he made frequent visits to the National Gallery where he was struck by similarities between works of art and pieces of music. To accompany this we get a long sequence where the camera lingers on various paintings, but there is no explanation at all of what this has to do with the music-making. I am still left baffled as to why Karajan thought that Rubensí Judgement of Paris symbolised Beethovenís Violin Concerto. Elsewhere in the film, however, it gets even worse. We are told about an early film he made placing the music of one of Bachís Passion cantatas next to the work of Cranach and DŁrer. Instead of showing us the actual film we get two minutes of pastiche of the St Matthew Passion next to unrelated paintings which have no bearing on either artist. Why, oh why are we later subjected to a lengthy chunk of footage of an unrelated operetta from the Vienna Volkstheater? The late dispute with the Berlin Philharmonic is compared, in the most facile manner, to Verdiís Otello being deceived by Iago. This insults anyoneís musical intelligence, and is merely an excuse to play a sequence of Karajanís film of the opera with Vickers and Glossop. Iíve always liked this film, but this extract is crow-barred into place in the most clumsy manner imaginable.
 
All is not entirely lost. We are given a few very valuable clips of him rehearsing the BPO, most notably in the Scherzo of Mahlerís 5th. We also see quite a few of the musical films that he made in Berlin, such as Straussís Don Quixote with Rostropovich and a few clips of Beethoven symphonies. While Iíd far rather have these than the nonsense mentioned above, even these clips tend to reveal the fallibility of Karajan's cinematic vision. We get some faux-dramatic sideways views of the chorus for the finale of Beethovenís 9th, while the storm sequence from the Pastoral is accompanied by rapid whirls around the orchestra and, predictably, close-ups of the trumpets when they explode at the climax. Itís left unclear whether the splicing in of footage of a real Alpine storm was Karajanís idea or Gernot Friedlís. The most successful part of the film is the brief footage of the paintings of Lyonel Feininger which informed Karajanís interpretations of the Second Viennese School, though this short section made me all the more frustrated at the clumsy treatment given to the earlier parts of the film.
 
The film ends on a strangely pessimistic note: the last event it deals with is the split with the Berlin Philharmonic in the early 1980s, but there is little analysis of the reasons why and there is no mention whatever of what comes later. We hear nothing of his glorious late triumphs with the Vienna Philharmonic, nor of his later reconciliation with the Berliners. Itís all very odd, but is symptomatic of a deeply flawed film which is neither biography nor musical analysis let alone a fitting tribute. The film was originally made in 1999 and EMI must have felt it would be a good idea to re-release it for the centenary. I wish theyíd left it on the shelf.
 
Simon Thompson
 


 


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