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Monday, October 26, 2009

A Little Sample of von Karajan's Ego

Herbert von Karajan, Maestro for the Screen
A film by Georg Wübbolt. (2008)

ARTHAUS MUSIC 101459 [52:00]

Herbert von Karajan was not only one of music’s giant conductors; he was without a doubt in possession of one of its most giant egos. In an effort to secure his place in history, he left behind a huge trove of filmed performances, oftentimes reworking music from the standard repertoire with each new development in technology. The result is a trove of hundreds of hours of performances that document Herbert von Karajan. Oh yeah, and there is some pretty nice background music by Beethoven, Bach, Strauss, Schumann, Wagner, and Brahms et. al.

Georg Wübbolt has put together and interesting portrait of Karajan the technology buff by using very candid interviews by some of the key people who helped make his films possible. He speaks with members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, Karajan’s personal secretary, music journalists, directors and key figures in the recording and television industry.

Karajan was practically unrivaled in his use of technology. The only other superstar musician to exploit the media so completely was Leonard Bernstein, who was rather a constant thorn in Karajan’s side having adopted especially the use of television some years earlier than his German colleague. Members of the Berlin Philharmonic began to have a love-hate relationship with Karajan’s media exploits, being annoyed at the amount of focus being placed on the conductor as opposed to the music and the orchestra, but at the same time, relishing the considerable extra income they received from the filming sessions and royalties. Much emphasis was placed upon appearances and musicians were forbidden from wearing beards and bald players were required to wear wigs.

Karajan’s relationships with film directors were often nightmares and after a few years, Karajan became his own director, further slanting all of his projects to be all about him. Whether or not the music suffered from the conductor’s ego can be debated. What is certain however is that Karajan was an innovator and pioneer, and despite his self-centered nature, he was a master musician. As such, he delivered the goods with the orchestra. His interpretations of the standard repertoire, particularly the romantic literature are often second to none.

This brief documentary (in German with French, Spanish, English and Italian subtitles) is a rather fascinating look at a man of tremendous talent and ability who for good or ill left an indelible stamp on the world of classical music. It is most interesting to see how the filming of music performances evolved from the earliest television broadcasts into the 1990s and how von Karajan learned, adapted and developed with the technology and the times. I am not sure that this is a DVD that deserves a permanent place on the shelf, but it is definitely worth renting once or twice.

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