Herbert von Karajan in rehearsal and performance
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Violin Concerto in A major No.5 K.219
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904) Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, Op.95

Yehudi Menuhin (violin)

Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1966
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Black and White: NTSC; 4:3; PCM Stereo, PCM Mono: Region Code 0
UNITEL CLASSICS DVD 704008 [107:00]

There were six filmed collaborations between von Karajan and Henri-Georges Clouzot, the Frenchman who directed the suspense-laden film ‘The Wages of Fear’. Two of them are enshrined in this DVD, and what a contrasting pair they make. The frippery of the Mozart stands at a drastic remove to the elemental force of the Dvorák, even though both were made in 1966. Both are in black and white.

Karajan directs Menuhin and the Vienna Symphony in Mozart’s A major concerto. Candles flare in a rococo, mirrored room. We stare into the mirror, which reflects the musicians, before we camera pan across to them. In front of them are about six evenly spaced gilt-backed chairs – the symbolic audience (Clouzot was French, after all). Most of the shots are front on, though sometimes we’re treated to shots over Menuhin’s left shoulder, an unusual arrangement. The solid burghers of the VSO sit surrounding soloist and conductor, in a tight horseshoe formation. Menuhin plays with great charm. But something gnawed away at me. The fiddlers are often seen anxiously sneaking a look at Menuhin’s bowing arm and things didn’t look properly synchronised. So, checking Richard Osborne’s biography of the conductor, I read that the musicians were largely miming to a playback track. But that didn’t seem quite right either, because the finale seems fine. My surmise, and it’s just that, is that they were all playing along to a playback in the first two movements, which is why the violins were trying to synchronise their bowing with Menuhin’s and therefore not bothering about Karajan, but were caught ‘live’ in the finale.

This was Menuhin’s only filmed encounter with Karajan, and thus valuable. Clearly the effect intended now seems a touch ridiculous; Franco-Viennese kitsch, lacking only periwigs to complete the rococo picture, but perhaps for that reason it makes for startling viewing.

The Dvorák is a different kettle of fish. The Berlin Philharmonic is dressed in jackets and ties, Karajan in leisure wear, his collar upturned, eyes mostly tightly shut. There are a number of different camera angles. The positioning of orchestra and conductor is such that they are almost lapping at his feet. He stands surrounded by a vast body of instrumentalists, a vast sectional mass. The effect, once the performance is underway and Karajan directs them with such power and precision, is of a giant centrifugal force in action, a supercharged current emanating from a single man outwards. It’s a revealing example of the art of the conductor as mediated by film, the spatial exaggerations emphasising the power balance. It’s fortunate that this is certainly the conductor’s best surviving performance of the symphony – strong, occasionally a touch heavy. It’s good to catch the hint of a benign smile on his face during the scherzo.

The bonus features include a rehearsal segment for the Mozart, in English, in which Karajan encourages ‘open’ playing, and talks of body of tone, and legato phrasing; he’s keen to instil a softened tone and attack. Detractors would doubtless add that this is to beautify the sound. The interview between conductor and soloist is conducted casually with Karajan seated at the piano. This was the time when Menuhin was busy with his Bath Festival orchestra and Karajan tries to probe him as to his own ideas on conducting, especially as Menuhin had just conducted the Berlin Philharmonic. ‘Twelve words will change the music’ announces Karajan, ‘…too long, short…’ His pragmatism contrasts with Menuhin’s occasionally sycophantic platitudes, but for once – and in English, too – the violinist is comprehensively out-talked by Karajan. The most memorable comment indeed comes from Karajan, who says that when an orchestra is encouraged to try a different approach it’s like a flock of birds changing direction. The final bonus, and I enjoyed it, is the discussion, in German, between Karajan and Joachim Kaiser on the subject of folk melodies in Dvorák.

Jonathan Woolf

A revealing example of the art of the conductor.