At the opening of chapter 45 - appropriately entitled Incessant traffic - of his magisterial biography Herbert von Karajan: a life in music, London, 1998, Richard Osborne retells a well-known joke that apparently originated at about the time of these recordings:
Taxi driver: Where to, Herr Karajan?
Karajan: Wherever you like. I’m in demand everywhere.
But, as the author makes clear, while the conductor may have been welcome in virtually any country in the world, Japan held a special place in his affections.
“Karajan’s interest in Japan was rooted in the enthusiastic receptions he always received there, his fascination with new technology, and his many friendships: most important, his long-standing friendship with the founder of Sony, Akio Morita, whom he had first met in Salzburg in 1953. But there was more. The formality and, in the best sense of the term, the impersonality of oriental life clearly appealed to him.” [Osborne, op. cit., p.360.]
Here we have a recording, from Japanese television archives, of a concert given by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on their autumn tour of Japan in 1957.
Japanese broadcasters have long showcased classical music. Indeed, the first ever radio broadcast in that country - in March 1925 - actually featured some Beethoven on the programme. But although Japanese broadcaster NHK was relatively technically advanced by 1957 (it was, for instance, to make its first colour TV transmission just three years later, a full seven years ahead of the UK’s BBC), the quality of the visual image on these black and white recordings is alarmingly variable - though that may also be simply a reflection of inevitable deterioration of the raw material during fifty-odd years of storage.
Thus, the Meistersinger prelude begins by looking - beneath some typically large and distracting Japanese titling - rather washed out, though the degree of contrast does improve significantly within a few minutes and at least approximates to producing a black and white image rather than one of varying shades of murky grey. Don Juan, though, is more of an ordeal: it’s almost as though you are watching it through a piece of gauze of randomly variable thickness. There is very little depth of field and the focus of individual cameras can be rather hit and miss, too. Thus, when the director orders a switch from a camera focusing on the timpanist to another directed at von Karajan on the podium, there is a second or two of complete fuzziness while the latter is being properly adjusted.
Something also went technically wrong in the opening 40 seconds or so of the symphony, for we have no surviving film at all and still images are instead superimposed over the music. Thereafter we have the familiar indistinct grey-on-grey contrast predominating throughout the first and second movements, though there is some improvement in the final two.
The television direction is pretty basic. There are some interesting shots of Karajan in action - displaying some beautifully expressive and delicate hand gestures - but some very odd images too. Notably unenlightening is a regularly recurring shot from the audience’s point of view that shows the conductor with his back to us, standing with feet splayed like the Colossus of Rhodes and with a remarkably large and wide bottom (or maybe just a poorly cut set of tails!). Karajan’s hairstyle is also somewhat weird, resembling from some angles a mohawk cut; the later familiar bouffant style was not yet consistently established: in the following year he was even to experiment with an American crew-cut.
More significantly, however, there is a real problem with the sound quality in the symphony. In general it is surprisingly good throughout the DVD - far better than the picture, in fact - but something dreadful happens about 1:25 into the Fifth’s first movement so that we suddenly shift, for about a minute and a half, to a very boxy sound overlaid with a heavy layer of snaps, crackles and pops … and one suspiciously truncated note. The better sound quality then resumes, but this is a serious drawback that really does affect one’s overall listening pleasure.
What of the standard of the music-making itself? According to Richard Osborne (op. cit., p.421) the whole Japanese tour of 1957 was a triumph and, though he offers no references to support that judgement, the rear cover of this DVD quotes the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of 30 November 1957 as assessing the Berlin Philharmonic’s concerts as “the biggest event to date in the roughly 60-year history of Western music in Japan”. In fact, as one might have expected, these are at the very least predictably sleek, high quality BPO/Karajan accounts of three of their favourite calling-cards. But the Beethoven symphony, at least, is something rather more than that. It is a gripping account that combines an approach that is very grand - not to say positively grandiose in the second movement and the finale - with meticulous attention to detail. Whether or not because of the extra dimension of the visual image - flawed though that is - I enjoyed this more than any other account of the Fifth that I have heard Karajan conduct.
This DVD is short measure (less than an hour long), is seriously compromised in its original source’s picture quality and, in the symphony especially, suffers major problems with both vision and sound. But Karajan’s fanatical admirers - of whom there are apparently still large numbers in Japan itself, let alone elsewhere - will want to watch it, I suspect, at least once. Others who choose to do so might even begin to understand why at the time of this recording that apocryphal taxi driver’s question was so redundant.