Karajan the Conqueror
By DAVID CAIRNS
Through the tumult the heavy brass and per- cussion moved up and the conqueror, who smiled with his lips while his level gaze took us in dis- passionately, celebrated his triumph with a per- formance of the Tannhduser Overture so ruth- lessly insensitive that, as I stared at those spidery arms feeling at the controls and the faceless trom- bones, their yelling bells raised to the roof, images of Attila and Frankenstein went feverishly through my brain. It was superb, irresistible, and terrifying. I was glad to get out into the air.
Yet to say just what was wrong with the per- formances is extraordinarily difficult. With Karajan, just because there is so much beauty on the surface and so little music below it, one is forced back on vague statements about 'lack of feeling' and, still less objectively, descriptions of how he seems on the rostrum, the strangely machine-)ike movement of his arms. There are details of tempo you can criticise, but that never gets you very far. The first movement of the `Pastoral' Symphony was nowhere near allegro ma non troppo (this was Nature seen from the Auto- bahn), but did Toscanini never take Beethoven too fast? Karajan's fluctuations of 'tempo in the finale of the Brahms were disconcerting, but Furt- wangler's were more so. Yet Toscanini's structures had a singleness of vision and form beside which Karajan's seem prefabricated; Furtwangler was searching for a truth that Karajan's performances do not admit the existence of.
What' makes Karajan so formidable is that what Can be most politely called his limitations as an interpreter are indissolubly linked with an excep- tional sensitivity in training an orchestra to per- fection. Everything is in place. And it is all, in a superficial way, intensely alive, intensely musical. You could not ask for more exquisitely spun lines of violin melody than in the Scene by the Brook, more ravishingly tender string texture than in the opening bars of the Brahms slow movement. Karajan, though pre-eminently a synthesiser of orchestral tone, is no mere flash boy; his skill is far subtler than that. In Beethoven, he does not crudely flaunt his ego and crack the music into submission with a showman's whip. He plays what is written, and plays it beautifully.
Too beautifully. For, once one has got used to the sheer sound (and with the Berlin Philharmonic this takes a long time), one suddenly sees how essentially undramatic his interpretations are. Smoothness of line and tonal blend is the be-all and end-all. Even in the 'Eroica' he ironed out the accents; there was not a true sforzato to be heard. Except in his codas, Karajan's range of dynamics is surprisingly narrow.
But all this is forgotten in the crafty blaze of sound which he rarely fails to summon up at the end. Here, I think, is where this supreme techno- crat gives himself away. It is significant that he, normally the most scrupulous of conductors, should have added cymbals to the last two chords of the Meistersinger Prelude. Save everything up till the end, then let them have it : the formula works—they're on their feet before the final bar. What matter if it has little to do with music?
To dignify this bread and circuses technique by talking of 'classical restraint' and 'mastery of form' is blind nonsense, and ignores the fact that classical form is a matter of organic growth, unity of opposites, resolution of tension; that a sym- phony is a drama, and truth is arrived at by argu- ment. Karajan, the Supermac of the musical Establishment, does not like argument, and sees to it that awkward facts (explosive sforzati, unpre- dicted modulations, extreme disparity of dyna- mics) are safely smoothed over. There is little inner tension about a Karajan performance. Take away the vote-catching codas and the most striking thing is the lack of incident. Until the end, the Scherzo of the `Eroica' was simply dull; nothing happened—the music did not grow, did pot even live. For all the trace there was of the high spirits, the excited suspense, the energy which; on any reckoning, Beethoven poured into this revolutionary movement, the composer might as well have torn up the whole score and not merely the title page.
And this is only one example. Whatever formal adjustments may be taking place on the surface, the underlying mood remains the same. Tann- hauser's song to Venus (an exalted, springing melody, but played last week with impersonal bril- liance), Falstaff's delight in the Brook from which such rich liquor flows—it makes no difference; the music purrs superbly and indifferently on. Beauty without form, sound without meaning, power without responsibility—it is the deadly logic of hi-fi. Machines, we are told, will one day com- pose symphonies; now they merely perform them.