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BEETHOVEN. Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125, Choral. Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, René Kollo, José van Dam, German Opera Chorus, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon VIDEO 072 133-3. 69 minutes


If you have never seen a video of Karajan you have missed one of life's most dubious spectacles. When it is realised that he is the artistic supervisor of this production and that he is seldom out of view, one can easily realise that his intentions are of arrogance and self-aggrandisement. He puts himself forward as a glamorous Hollywood megastar and it is a nauseating experience. The camera work focuses on him to such an extent that Beethoven is lost sight of. And Karajan performs a sort of conductor's solo ballet and one wonders if we are going to be able to count the hairs up his left nostril. There is no doubt that he is the father of the modern jet set of conductors who are not so much concerned with being faithful to the composer and his music but with personal megalomania.

Perhaps one could forgive Karajan for being so obsessed with himself if he were faithful to Beethoven's score. But he is not. He knows better than Beethoven; Karajan is the master, not Beethoven. As I am a confirmed Beethovian, I do not warm to Karajan's adultery. He uses two timpanists for a passage in the first movement which is not what Beethoven wrote and employs eight horns. This is Beethoven, not Wagner.

And the theatricals continue. The orchestra, which is all male, are made to play with an unnatural exaggerated energy as if there were wild Indians pursuing the seventh cavalry and desperate for scalps. Indeed, it is often very exciting but it is merely ostentation and insincere.

There are visual effects that are frankly quite stupid. In the finale we have, just for a few minutes, some lights showering Karajan; the artistic supervisor is highlighted with glitter. The compulsion which is evident is that he is to outdo Beethoven.

All this is so puerile and distracting. The performance is precise and mechanical and the camera operators' fascination with Karajan, who obviously supervised it all, is laughable and no wonder their names are not given in any credits.

Equally ridiculous is that Karajan does not look at the orchestra for the first three movements apart from wanting a handkerchief to mop his brow. Indeed, he conducts the floor and a vacuum cleaner in his hand is more suitable than a baton. His movements are often eccentric to the point of being both inane and painfully embarrassing.

But he is not the only conductor to behave in such ridiculous ways. However, it is curious that these 'mad' conductors are often the famous names. Perhaps Sir Adrian Boult and Fritz Reiner would be worshipped as Karajan was, if they had been musically cranky in performance. Fortunately they were not.

The choral finale is well done and for this Karajan does look at the performers but I suspect he is wanting them to look at him. The soloists are a mixed bunch. José van Dam is as solid as a rock; René Kollo struggles at one point because of the eccentric conducting; Anna Tomowa-Sintow may be just a little over the top while Agnes Baltsa is the exact opposite of Karajan in that she is natural, composed and unaffected.

But the affectations of Karajan are something else. Does it make a travesty of the genius of Beethoven? Perhaps not, for his incomparable ability remains unsullied whatever man may do to him.


David Wright.


David Wright.

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