Conductor Herbert von Karajan Featured on Symphony @ 7

Herbert Von Karajan(Photo: music2020/Flickr)
Herbert Von Karajan(Photo: music2020/Flickr)

The Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan died 25 years ago on July 16, 1989.  He was one of the greatest and most influential conductors of the 20th century, but there was some controversy as well.  For the rest of this week on Symphony @ 7, I’ll be featuring some notable recordings he made with the Berlin Philharmonic and on Friday’s program, the last recording he made just two months before his death at the age of 81 with the Vienna Philharmonic, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

Karajan left a very large legacy of recordings of a uniformly high artistic standard.  It’s said he sold some 200 million records, making him the top-selling conductor of all-time.  Although he did conduct some other orchestras, Karajan is most closely associated with the Berlin Philharmonic, of which he was made “music director for life” in 1955.  There are also important recordings he made with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London after the Second World War, and more with the Vienna Philharmonic toward the end of his life when his relationship the the Berlin orchestra became strained.

Karajan was certainly a man who wanted to be influential and wield power.  At the height of his influence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he acquired the nickname, the “general music director of Europe” when he led the Berlin Philharmonic, The Philharmonia, the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and the Salzburg Festival.

The first area of controversy surrounding Herbert von Karajan centers on his having joined the Nazi party in Austria early on in 1933, apparently more for reasons of self-serving career advancement than any particular love of the ideology;  he saw which way the wind was blowing and chose the direction that would provide the smoothest sailing.  He was cleared by the Austrian denazification board in 1946, but still, it did not speak well for his character, and many people never forgave him.

The other area is about artistic interpretation and temperament.  Karajan was able to create an amazingly beautiful and uniform orchestral sound, both sleek and powerful, emotionally moving and thrilling to many listeners.  His command of the orchestra was never in doubt, both technically and artistically.  Some people, however, found it too calculated and mannered.  The debate goes on because, in spite of newer trends in orchestral interpretations and conducting styles, people still listen to his recordings.

Join me on Symphony @ 7 and decide for yourself.  This evening, I’ll have Karajan’s 1960′s DG recording of La mer by Debussy with the Berlin Philharmonic and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 in a 1970′s EMI recording.  Wednesday, we’ll hear Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Thursday, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Mstislav Rostropovich, and Friday, Bruckner’s Seventh with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Here’s Herbert von Karajan conducting Beethoven:

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