Greatest conductor wars

Anne Midgette, music critic for the Washington Post, thinks there’s a winner:

Mariss Jansons may be the best conductor in the world. This is
hyperbole, certainly, in an age that includes such real and putative
lions as Lorin Maazel, Simon Rattle, James Levine, Yuri Temirkanov,
Gustavo Dudamel and others, but it is hyperbole with a foundation in
demonstrable fact.

Fact: a track record at orchestra-building, notably in 22 years spent
turning the Oslo Philharmonic from a relatively unknown body into an
internationally competitive ensemble. Fact: powerful recordings such as
his complete Shostakovich symphony cycle, preserving performances that
tend to be at once forceful and straightforward, penetrating to the
music’s heart. Fact: that he is now chief conductor of two of Europe’s
leading orchestras, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich and
Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, with whom he will play Strauss and Mahler at
the Kennedy Center this afternoon.

It’s an interesting list of great conductors that includes Dudamel (who can hardly be considered more than an immensely promising cub at this point) and excludes Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev. But more important is that her basic premise is wrong.

All good conductors are good in some things and not so good in others. There’s not a name on her list (or mine) that I’d trust with Bach, and I’d only trust a few of them with Mozart (certainly not Rattle, who I heard grossly over-interpret the “Prague” symphony at Carnegie Hall with Berlin a while back).

Greatness in sports teams is hard enough to measure, even with a bottom line – the final score – that’s precise and objective. But greatness in conductors? Not only is it impossible to measure, it’s very difficult even to discuss intelligently. Great in what respect? In terms of orchestra-building, the greatest American conductor of the past half-century might well have been Kenneth Schermerhorn, who took two little-regarded orchestras (Milwaukee and Nashville) and raised them to national prominence. In terms of building audience awareness of repertoire, it was probably Leonard Bernstein. In terms of pure musicianship, who the hell am I to judge – much less a critic? The conductor I would most like to have worked for was Sir John Barbirolli. That only makes him the greatest conductor of the last century if you think my judgment about conductors is infallible, and even I don’t believe that.

A parallel discussion has been going on regarding Herbert von Karajan’s place in history. The always-provocative Norman Lebrecht thinks he was a bad guy and a less-than-great conductor:

The world’s festivals and orchestras are commemorating the centenary of [von Karajan’s] birth, starting this month in Salzburg and Lucerne and proceeding via Berlin and Vienna, where his hegemony was unchallenged, to a celebratory London concert by the Philharmonia, which booted him out in the mid-1950s for being too much of a Nazi. ‘Remember! Karajan 08’ is the slogan that’s going up all over Japan. Wherever you look this year, Herbert von Karajan is back on top of the classical agenda and a whole industry is working all hours to keep him there.

Death is a great leveller except to those who die rich and can buy themselves a shot at immortality. No classical musician, not even Pavarotti, died richer than Herbert von Karajan. At his death in July 1989, Karajan’s tax-sheltered fortune exceeded £200 million and the record royalties continue to roll in to this day to his third and last wife, Eliette, a sometime Dior model who has just published her memoirs…

Karajan was the most recorded conductor in history, with almost 900 albums to his name, including five sets of Beethoven symphonies in mono, stereo, video, digital and super-video. He yielded one-third of the revenues of the dominant label, Deutsche Grammophon and he used his clout to exclude Bernstein, Solti, Harnoncourt, Barenboim and other perceived rivals from Salzburg and Berlin, twin citadels of an art that he subjugated to rampant commercialism and cultural retrogression…

Raised in Salzburg during and after the First World War, Karajan struggled to make a career until Hitler seized power in Germany. With the eviction of Jewish and leftist musicians, Karajan became, at 27, the youngest music director in the Reich and, in a 1938 Goebbels headline, ‘Das Wunder Karajan’. He was just what the Doctor ordered – fair hair, clean-cut features and piercing stare – and he was a poster boy for party culture until he crossed a line by marrying an heiress who was partly Jewish.

After the War, he was whisked to London by EMI’s Walter Legge to make records with the newly-formed Philharmonia. Meeting British players who had fought on the opposite side, Karajan applied an electrifying charm and skill to forge a world class ensemble and polish up his trademark line of beauty, a style of music making that placed aesthetics above meaning. Some were stunned by the illusion of perfection, but many critics recoiled from the intellectual vacuity of his concerts.

By the time London players attacked his ‘inexcusable’ arrogance, Karajan was on his way to becoming conductor for life at the Berlin Philharmonic and director of both Vienna State Opera and Salzburg Festival. No maestro had ever attained such power and, while he gradually relinquished most posts, Karajan wielded to his death an insidious, reactionary, counter-democratic and entirely unaccountable influence on an art form which depends for its every performance on a flow of public funding.

It is that lifetime achievement which is now being ‘celebrated’ with a flood of soft-focus media programmes and a general blurring of memory. It amazes me to see Karajan’s demagogic pose in Paris, where he conducted the Horst Wessel Lied during Hitler’s occupation. It astonishes me no less to hear the self-made Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle claim Karajan as a mentor, as if they secretly covet his power…

Sampling Decca’s box of Vienna Philharmonic recordings, I find myself exhilarated once more by his cosmic energy in Holst’s Planets and irritated immediately after by his languid, self-admiring fjord cruise through the highs and lows of Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Karajan had a tendency to homogenise music, bending it to his line of beauty, suppressing its diversity of character. Hearing an excess of Karajan is like spending a month at McDonalds, a bloating, desensitising experience. Those who listen to Karajan for the first time this year will, I suspect, be stupefied by the sameness of his brand.

There’s no question that von Karajan was a party member, although it’s fair to remember that joining the Nazi party meant something quite different in 1933 to an Austrian who grew up amidst the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian empire than it does to us now. He may very well have been a less-than-exemplary human being, although that’s true of some on anyone’s list of good, bad or indifferent conductors. And it’s true that he was better in some repertoire than others. I find that his Strauss is incomparable, and I still treasure his Sibelius recordings, even though it’s likely that he discovered Sibelius because Hitler viewed the Finns as “Aryan.” But some of the works amongst his 900+ recordings are pieces that no one should have let him near.

Dominic Lawson, writing in The Independent, supplies a wise corrective to Norman’s complaint:

Surely, however, what the likes of Sir Simon Rattle worship is not Karajan’s character but his musicianship. Lebrecht describes him as "a moral and creative nullity" but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he believes the first part of that accusation leads inexorably to the second.

It doesn’t follow. Much as we would like it to be the case, there is no connection between good character and good art – in music as in anything else. Bobby Fischer, who died a fortnight ago, regularly expressed a violent and abusive anti-Semitism which would not have been out of place in Der Stürmer; but Fischer’s best chess games have an elegance and creativity which compares with a Mozart symphony. He had, in that sense, a beautiful mind. He was also a hateful person.

(This discussion continues on Lebrecht’s blog, and apparently CBC Toronto will air a discussion between Lebrecht and Lawson sometime this weekend as well.)

What impresses me most about von Karajan is how smart he was. He had no inherent claim to be the most famous conductor of the 20th century; an enormous talent, to be sure, but hardly more gifted or a better musician than Toscanini, Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, or Sir John Barbirolli. (Greg Sandow has an interesting article on Toscanini up on the Met website that makes a good case for Toscanini being right at the top of the list.) But von Karajan managed his image, and his career, with a kind of supernatural acuity that was unique amongst his peers – no doubt helped by the fact that he had no moral objection to throwing sharp elbows when needed. The fact that he died with $300 million or so in the bank – and this after owning and crewing his own mega-yacht and private jet – is only one measure of that.

It is sad, but true, that morality and great art have little to do with each other. The SS guards listened to Schubert after herding people into gas chambers. That’s no reflection on Schubert. But it is a lesson on the limits of great art.

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