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.