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Herbert von Karajan has always been a controversial figure, lambasted by some, adored by others, but generally respected as a musician of outstanding professional integrity and impeccable ability. It is this conclusion that passes through Richard Osborne’s magnificent biography, a true monument of scholarship and fastidiously researched detail. The first chapters are unremarkable but the narrative is always interesting even if it has to do with describing Heribert von Karajan’s domineering mother. As we move on to the first days at Ulm, it is always clear that here was a man who knew he wanted to be the best, and the way he conducted business was already astonishingly mature. Aachen beckoned and here Osborne recalls with his inimitable penchant, that Karajan plied his trade and learned all the tricks in the process.

At less than thirty he was already master of his art, but fate was to deal a cruel blow when the young conductor applied for Party membership in the Germany of the Nazis. That stigma was to stay throughout his entire life and it brought him absolutely nothing in return. For after leaving Ulm, Karajan was to stay in a no-mans land, endlessly drifting almost to the point of breakdown. It took some outstanding friends of the likes of Raffaelo de Banfield to drive the gremlins away, that is until Walter Legge found Karajan in Vienna in 1946. The Vienna series of recordings are legendary and they are accorded full detail with some interesting anecdotes that put us deep into the world of what bureaucracy can mean. After Vienna, it was on to London and the Philharmonia.

In my mind, this is the most exciting chapter of the book as we learn of the trials and tribulations that permeated this magnificent artistic partnership. For a start, Osborne is at pains to point out the first series of exemplary recordings made exclusively for the gramophone, and what recordings they were! As the uncharacteristically brusque and dandy-like figure of Andre’ Mattoni began to dominate the scene, we also sense a whiff of greed creeping into the conductor. This is also the time of Furtwangler’s demise and of Karajan’s power brokering in Berlin and Salzburg, and as Osborne notes, no other artistic figure was more capable at negotiating a better deal for himself.

As Berlin beckoned, Karajan kept on dilly-dallying with EMI just to defect for a ten-year period of glory with DG, a period in which some of his most outstanding recordings were made. The reader will relish the incredible regime that Karajan set himself, sessions, concerts and all the rest just packed into one really incredible life. Karajan’s women are also given their due but thankfully neither Anita von Karajan or Eliette Mouret are allowed to break the narrative down.

As the years rolled by, Karajan became more affable as some European stints and artistic discoveries (Anne Sophie Mutter et al) were landed. Michel Glotz was also an important presence as were EMI and the fairy-tale episode with the Staatskapelle ‘Meistersinger’. Karajan’s advocacy of all things modern showed in his fascination for fast cars, something which he shared with Dennis Brain (the Autocar episode is hilarious). His race against time to make digital versions of most of the repertoire is also a poignant moment in the book. Relationships are too numerous to mention here, but Callas and most of all Sibelius played an important part in the conductor’s artistic life; indeed the latter’s music was to haunt Karajan for almost two decades. There are a number of highly intriguing plates with the conductor’s life appearing as if on a silver platter. Two appendices dealing with rehearsals and post-War depositions are essential accompaniments. Osborne’s narrative attempts to quell the Nazi stigma, and if not laying the ghosts to rest, we are at least left with a man who was definitely hounded and shelved by the same autocrats. ‘Rough it may be, boring never’ could be most readers’ afterthoughts, but after listening to the end of the Adagio from Mahler’s Ninth the conductor would say to Glotz: ‘It is music coming from another world, it is coming from eternity’. The oracle of music could hardly have spoken better.

Copyright © Gerald Fenech, March 8th 1999


by Richard Osborne. Chatto & Windus 851 pp.
GBP 30.00       ISBN: 185619 763 8

Herbert Von Karajan: Selected recordings:

Balakirev: Symphony No. 1, Roussel: Symphony No. 4
Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Mono (1949)

Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5, Finlandia
Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Mono (1953/54)

Beethoven: Nine Symphonies
Berliner Philharmoniker
Deutsche Gramophone (1961/62)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
Wiener Philharmoniker
Deutsche Gramophone (1988)

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