Wednesday 17 December 2014

Silver foxes

By and large, I'd rather hear the first two - Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger (photographed by Marco Borggreve), whom I encountered together in a stupendous BBC Symphony Orchestra concert a couple of weeks ago - than the third, were he still alive. Whatever his good qualities, Herbert von Karajan was vain, tyrannical, egotistical and a control freak. I lost most respect for him when I saw that in all his carefully calculated films he has his eyes shut. The point is pithily made in the excellent 'Great Conductors of the Past' DVD where we move from the ocular knife-twists of Fritz Reiner to the narcissist Karajan and then on to the wonderful, eyes-wide-open George Szell. What an insult, said spirited BBCSO trumpeter Martin Hurrell when we brought this up in one of our BBC Symphony Orchestra class - 'I'd shut my eyes back, and what would he say to that?'

Well, many musicians lost their jobs for much less. John Bridcut's superb documentary screened on BBC Four brings a reality check to the Karajan myth. Yet weirdly I did shed a tear or two in the narrative of his death. It's a Greek tragedy, really, a saga of hubris finally brought low when the musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who had put up with his arrogance and personal disregard for so many decades turned against him. He went out hand in hand with the Vienna Philharmonic, who hadn't experienced the worst excesses, but still, just as nearly all politicians end their career in failure, so this musical operator who strove for godhood turned out only to be a man after all.

There are plenty of testimonies in the documentary to the special magic, and one contributor wondered whether collegial work with a conductor could ever reach the same heights as inflexible autocracy - to which the answer can be given with a one-word example to the contrary - Abbado. By the way, do get hold of the Lucerne memorial concert in his honour just released on Accentus. I wrote the notes, and a couple of days ago ten copies arrived in the post - most of them quickly earmarked as special seasonal gifts. Though the opening movement from Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony is played to an empty podium, Andris Nelsons pops up as a natural and again - unlike Karajan - a considerate successor.

I came to feel that most Karajan performances were more about him than the music - the glossy sound was applied indiscriminately, great when it worked, inappropriate when not. Oddly, I liked his Italian opera the best, above all his recordings of Don Carlo, La bohème, Madam Butterfly and Tosca (surprisingly, more the second one with Ricciarelli and Carreras - did ever an operatic love duet sound more swooningly sensuous than this Act One number). There were some luminous sounds in his later CDs; the documentary reminds us of the special way he lit the sunset epilogue of Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie

I wish I'd seen him live. I stood outside the Festival Hall before his last London concert - Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Brahms's First Symphony - and was about to buy a ticket for £40 off a tout, only to hear a loudspeaker message to the effect that fake tickets were being sold, so I backed off.

The best antidote to the extremes of autocracy in the documentary comes from the humour of the players, above all James Galway, whose beard annoyed Karajan when he was a Berlin Phil principal, and so the 'maestro' replaced him on the post-soundtrack film with a colleague.

Bald players were given wigs; the audience was made up of cardboard cutouts. Most of the shots were from the four cameras trained on Karajan; usually the orchestra just appeared as the instruments, not the players (as in the case of the flautist who did appear; only his fingers were seen).

Did Karajan have friends? Not that anyone knew. Did anyone in the orchestra love him? No - there was respect, but not love. I won't go into further details: just watch and be charmed by the contributors, especially Galway, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Jessye Norman.

Now, thank goodness, it has to be about friendly collaboration. If you're a natural master, like Abbado, you just make the players think it's coming entirely from them. Among the best now, I rate Jukka-Pekka alongside Vladimir Jurowski as the conductor with the most supremely elegant and yet economical technique, the dour exterior concealing huge feeling.

I remember being hugely impressed by his comment about Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony, which he conducted some years back at the Barbican, that there was so much pain in it that he found it almost unbearable.

There's certainly unbearable tension in the subcutaneous horrors of the Third, its material taken mostly hook line and sinker with unchanged orchestration from the world of the infernal opera The Fiery Angel. What most amazed me at the concert the other week was the sound Saraste brings with him - silvery-steely, so apt for this work as it was last season for Shostakovich's Fourth. There's a spring-heeled quality, perfect rhythmic definition, avoiding portentousness but never lightweight.

I'll bet Brett Dean was impressed by the orchestral maneouvres in his Dramatis personae, inspired by Hardenberger, the trumpeter who gave the premiere and the performance we heard. With the rhythmic underpinning superbly negotiated by Saraste with characteristic clarity, this came across as the most impressive work of Dean's I've heard yet: some leave me cold, but there was an element of theatre here - as, we agreed in our pre-performance chat, there is to a degree in all music - which stopped it ever being mere mood-music.

Writing for a personality makes such a difference: several of the contemporary concert works I've enjoyed most over the past decades have been concertos: Widmann's ad absurdam for Sergei Nakariakov, Magnus Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto for Kari Kriikku, now this. Of course there's entertainment value in the Ivesian meeting of marching-band music and a thornier idiom towards the end, inspired by a scene from Chaplin's Modern Times, but the instrumental ideas are always fresh and haunting. And I want to hear it again soon - which should be possible when it's finally broadcast (I thought it went out live on 5 December, but that slot was taken by a BBC Philharmonic concert, so it must be scheduled some time soon)..

Meanwhile, unmissable on the Radio 3 iPlayer for the next three weeks, is the recording of the last and, for me, the most astounding orchestral concert of the year,  Sakari Oramo's championship of Rachmaninov's Spring, Nielsen's Second Symphony and Busoni's Piano Concerto with one of the few soloists able to master it, Garrick Ohlsson.

I'd taken the students through 'The Four Temperaments' the previous evening, and we came out on a high, as we did at the concert's interval, but to my amazement the Busoni trumped even that, if only because it's like nothing I've ever heard, and like most folk there I'd never heard it live. I try to articulate my confused thoughts about it in my Arts Desk review.

As a coda to the year, though, and to the first concert, nothing could have been more spellbinding than Saraste's encore to mark Finnish Independence Day and the impending Sibelius celebrations, the magical 'Scene with Cranes' adapted from the incidental music to Kuolema. What could be spookier than the introduction of two clarinets to the string textures for the sound of the accompanying birds? Here it is as a wintry epilogue, albeit not in Saraste's audience-stilling performance. Leif Segerstam was always going to be slower, but he's still a master.


David Damant said...

Karajan's closing his eyes was not vanity, or rather maybe vanity on a higher level. He claimed to know the scores and indeed not to need the scores at all, so was following them in his mind's eye.. But this led to his come-uppance. At the performance of Meistersinger for the 1939 State Visit of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia (Princess Paul was the sister of Princess Marina of Kent, and the whole visit was vitally important politically) he made a mistake.

" That is extremely inconsiderate to the public as well as the singers " an angry Hitler is reported to have said, adding that he would never again set foot in any event where Karajan conducted. And Karajan was never thereafter in the Fuhrer's inner circle.

I thought that the BBC Four film was rather well balanced (from my inexpert point of view )

Susan Scheid said...

I remember reading somewhere just recently about Karajan's "eyes closed" approach and thinking it peculiar. I had thought, though, that Mutter had genuine affection for him. In any event, it's good to know that a collaborative spirit prevails at present. I wonder whether you've run across Cristian Măcelaru, who conducted the Bard Conservatory Orchestra this last weekend. I thought he drew a very nice performance from the orchestra--and the program was inventive, too. As for Sibelius Scene with Cranes is a beautiful piece. I find the original theater music for Kuolema particularly lovely, too.

David said...

It was vanity pure and simple, David. First and foremost an insult to the musicians before him. Plenty of conductors know the score - whether they have it in front of them or not is immaterial, I'm not especially impressed when that happens. Their absolute priority in my eyes is engagement, communication. Maybe there was alchemy in the way it worked, but it would have worked better with eyes wide open. For most conductors they're more important than hands or baton.

Yes, the doc was well balanced, but still extraordinary that no-one except the secretary could be found to say 'I loved/adored him'.

Sue, I've heard someone - forget who - rave about Macelaru, and I thought he was up for a top conducting post here, but let's see. Looking forward to seeing him in action.

The tyrant conductor era is well and truly over. Musicians then felt they had to tolerate stuff they wouldn't dream of putting up with now. For Karajan the tragedy was that time marched on, and the Berlin Phil players with it. Whatever else one may thing about Rattle, you can't deny his collaborative efforts with an orchestra.

David Damant said...

When Karajan died the chairman of the Berlin Phil - I think he was a cellist - told my tailor ( all right, OK, but he made suits for several of the orchestra) that they had Rattle in mind for "next time" - after Abbado. Interesting that they should have planned ahead so clearly.

David said...

The issue of the next successor seems less clear-cut. Nelsons has said he's not ready for the post, and Thielemann would raise shades of the uncommunicative (in personal terms) autocrat again. Meanwhile the LSO hold back announcing Rattle's appointment there, which I would have thought a given. Maybe there are fund-raising issues.

Susan Scheid said...

This is a bit of an aside, but the use of the baton has come up in recent conversation. It doesn't appear to me to be essential, though it seems to be standard in teaching conductors. Any thoughts on this?

David said...

Very much on topic. Thoughts now are that it's more about shaping with the hands, and no orchestral players need beating. When I did my few sessions under Martyn Brabbins at the Orkney Conductng Course, it felt like the stick controlled and the other hand (my right - I follow in the footsteps of Runnicles and the late, great Paavo Berglund as a left-hander) was free to be a bit more creative. Though of course I soon came a cropper with ideas of rubato.

Gergiev famously uses a toothpick and no-one can follow his beat, though it works. Trying to remember whom I saw recently abandoning the baton for key passages. It should come to me.

Laurent said...

In Canada conductors are selected by a Board and not the Orchestra musicians. The musicians are consulted about the candidates but the final decision rests with the appointed Board. As for the debate on Karajan, such a man and the period he lived in brings in much debate along the lines of he should have done this and that etc... But how to judge the past if we did not live in it, the whole collaboration with the Nazis is an interesting debate, I was born 11 years after the end of that era and know of it simply by reading books. But I have come to learn that the past is not always as it appears to us today there are nuances, unfortunately we live in a nuance deprived age. Karajan made several orchestra great because of his talent not sure what would have happened if he had not come along.

David Damant said...

The late Gunther Wand conducted by extending his arms and wiggling his fingers. Admittedly in his last years this was with an orchestra who knew him well. He made Brahms sound impressive

David said...

Do watch the documentary if you get a chance, Laurent. It's made abundantly clear that Karajan was not a Nazi but that he joined the party because of careerism - certain posts would not have been open to him otherwise. That's fairly clear and no nuances need be found there (the case of Strauss, standing aloof in his musical world-within-world, is quite a different matter).

Karajan certainly did amazing things with the Phiharmonia. And he brought his own, sleek sound to the Berlin Phil, but remember his predecessor there was Furtwangler, and for me there's no comparison with this infinitely greater conductor.

Gunter Wand strikes me as a far greater musician, too, though we only know him from the time of his grand old mastery. Brahms should be impressive, always, Sir David, but Bruckner can be harder work. Several BBC Symphony players who took part in his Proms Bruckner 8 will tell you it remains their greatest concert experience.

David Damant said...

Had Strauss - or Furtwangler - taken a different view and resigned what should have been the action of their successors? Or should no one have agreed to conduct any German orchestra whilst Hitler was in power? Or does our criticism only apply to famous names who might be considered to lend credibility to the regime?

But what about the famous Berlin Phil itself? They were sent to occupied countries as a propaganda tool. Should they all have resigned?

I also wonder what action should have been taken by industrialists whose factories were converted from tractors to war material. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was the German people as a whole who were guilty of electing and supporting such a regime, though it is perfectly clear why they did so, bearing in mind the history of German and indeed Europe from 1914 onwards. I prepared an analysis of this last point and though I knew where I was going on the topic I was amazed as I worked out the logic how clearly the voters could be - if not excused, at least understood

David said...

Agreed, David: with Karajan the motivation is clear - opportunism. But with the others, true, it's more nuanced.

Of course Strauss didn't resign from his post of Reichsmusikkamer president - something he never sought but was burdened with in the early 1930s, and probably thought it would be as meaningful as writing parade marches for the Kaiser - but was stripped of it when the letter he wrote to his Jewish collaborator on Die Schweigsame Frau, Stefan Zweig, was intercepted (famously, it spoke of 'only two kinds of people - those who have talent and those who haven't').

Laurent said...

Well careerism is still with us and going strong. I saw plenty of it in the Foreign Service. Life is all about choices and yes people make very wrong choices.
I also saw a video of Furtwangler conducting Berlin Phil for Hitler's Birthday and F looked positively sick, giving Goebbels a limp handshake at the end. But the Regime in Germany was not elected, history shows that and I do not think that any of those conductors gave Nazism legitimacy by playing along. I will have a look at the docu.

David Damant said...

In 1932 Hitler achieved 37% of the vote and in 1933 a coalition of the Nazis, the right wing parties and ( it was envisaged - though not by Hitler) the Centre Party there would have been a majority in the parliament. Perfectly reasonable coalition building. And if Germany had had the "first past the post" system as in the UK Hitler would have achieved a majority on his own. Also it must be remembered that half Europe was in those days run by authoritarian regimes ( Italy, Roumania, Hungary, the Baltic States etc). Germany was not unique in disposing of democracy. For artists and others to cooperate with a dictatorship was unavoidable in many places. Of course Hitler turned out to be a world historical madman, but that was not so clear for quite a time

David said...

Indeed, Laurent. Shostakovich's setting of Yevtushenko's 'A Career' as the last movement of the Thirteenth Symphony still applies.

Sadly the lines about 'those who hurled curses are forgotten, but we remember those who were cursed' doesn't entirely apply, as the harking on Hitler here all too well proves.

'Hitler turned out to be a world historical madman, but that was not so clear for quite a time' - sadly not true, Sir David. Maybe not in the world, but in Germany in Jan 1933 it was all too clear. Kurt Weill at that time: 'I think that what is going on here is so sick that it can't last longer than a few months, but I might be wrong'. On 29 January: 'what I'm experiencing now is something like taking lessons in human degradation'. As both Jew and Communist, he quickly fled for Paris, after a couple performances of Silbersee in Leipzig.

Of the premiere an observer wrote 'Everyone who counted in German theatre met together for the last time. And everyone knew this. It was the last day of the greatest decade of German culture in the 20th century.'

Now, can we cut Hitler out of the conversation and concentrate on the featured artists?

Laurent said...

Well as for the artists, I like them warts and all. As long as it is enjoyable and of quality, I will forget the défauts which makes them human.

David said...

Unfortunately the défauts, as you put it, of Karajan and Gergiev make them inhuman, or inhumane at least. But even with the latter I find it complex, to say the least, that he supported Graham Vick's latest Mariinsky production of Prokofiev's War and Peace. But more on that in a future post.

Laurent said...

I never met or saw Karajan in real life, however I did see and was able to observe at close range in Salzburg
Gergiev speaking with technical staff and people around him while he was waiting to get a table at a restaurant. What I saw was a man who appeared uncomfortable and insecure if not a bit nervous. I am told he also drinks a lot. He may be a maestro with a following but to me what I saw was a troubled person who is not sure of his standing and is always looking around. A troubled soul?