Essay

Orchestrating the myth

IN OCTOBER 1938, the state-controlled German newspaper Berliner Zeitung am Mittag carried this headline, "In der Staatsoper: Das Wunder Karajan" (In the State Opera, the Karajan Miracle). It referred to a production of Tosca conducted by the 30-year-old Austrian conductor, Herbert Von Karajan. That day, a star was born. "Das Wunder" was to dominate the European music scene for the next 50 years in a way that no other cultural figure on that continent has been able (or allowed) to do since.

Herbert Von Karajan's capacity for reinvention – a necessity after the Second World War, when his Nazi Party membership loomed like a Sword of Damocles – and ability to control every aspect of the classical music industry were second to none. In the course of his postwar career, Von Karajan turned orchestras in the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria into personal fiefdoms, was allowed unfettered freedom by recording companies to ensure the production of state-of-the-art sound and notoriously nearly sent a video company broke by shooting 20,000 feet of film for a 1982 edition of the Beethoven symphonies. When he took over the Salzburg Festival in 1957, Von Karajan made it abundantly clear at his first meeting with the festival's board that he would not only control the artistic input but also the financial and marketing deals.

Von Karajan was a narcissistic pop star, vain beyond comprehension. In later years, he persuaded his recording company, the prestigious Deutsche Gramophone, to put his photograph on every album he issued. Visit any CD store today and you will find Von Karajan's coiffed hair, tanned face and stretched skin – the legacy of many facelifts – dominating the cover of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann CDs.

 

PERHAPS WHAT DISTINGUISHED Von Karajan most from his colleagues was that he wanted to be a European power figure. The confines of the concert hall and recording studio, the dominance of which is generally enough for the egos of most maestros, could not satiate the desires of "the Von".

This was a conductor who married three times – each bride a beautiful woman to adorn the arm of the maestro – and who often shunned his musical colleagues. He preferred instead to ski and sail with the financiers, politicians and industrialists of resurgent postwar Europe.

And, of course, play politics. Von Karajan's role as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the late 1960s and 1970s meant that he was a trump card for West Germany in its battle against the East. Von Karajan took the orchestra to Russia, provocatively playing the dissident Russian genius, Dimitri Shostakovich, and enjoying the fact that the Soviet authorities found his presence in their country an irritant. It was Von Karajan who befriended British Prime Minister Ted Heath – the man who secured the UK's place in Europe in 1973. But it was Margaret Thatcher whom Von Karajan most admired.

 

IT OUGHT TO be said that if it were not for the bumptious Englishman, Walter Legge, Von Karajan's stellar postwar rise to the self-styled title of "General Musikdirektor of Europe" would have been, shall we say, less well greased. Legge was Von Karajan's "enabler" – as they say these days. In the suspicious drab world of postwar Europe, politics and music were inextricably linked. In the years immediately following Germany's defeat, Von Karajan's membership of the Nazi Party was a looming "showstopper". His most recent biographer, Richard Osborne, notes that Von Karajan conducted regularly in Germany, Austria and other occupied countries, a reward for party membership. There were other rewards: in 1942 Von Karajan's second wife-to-be, Anita, approached Joseph Goebbels to ensure there would be no obstacles to the marriage – a necessity given her Jewish heritage. Goebbels cleared the way for the union. Von Karajan did not flee Europe during the war, as did some of his colleagues who found new and brilliant careers in the United States.

After the war, the Allies were happy to make life difficult for Von Karajan in Vienna – the Americans banned him from conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in March 1946. His appearance before the denazification commission in Austria and its subsequent finding that he could perform as a conductor "but not in a leading capacity" meant that Von Karajan's enemies, including the older but great rival, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had ammunition to undermine the rising star.

Walter Legge, a self-taught impresario of boundless energy and with a brusqueness of equal measure, arrived in Austria in January 1946 to recruit new artists for his employer, the English record company, EMI. He met Von Karajan at the right time. With political forces arraigned against him and little work, Legge's offer of a recording contract was just the tonic. But Legge was to prove even more invaluable in ensuring that "Das Wunder" would be back on the upward curve of musical dominance and the power that accompanied it.

When Legge found out that the Russians were going to ban Von Karajan from conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on January 19, 1946, he rushed around to Von Karajan's apartment bearing gifts – whisky, gin and sherry. According to Legge, they struck up an instant rapport.

The rest, as they say, is history. The arrogant and relentless Legge persuaded the British to ignore the French and US military orders and allow Von Karajan to record with the Vienna Philharmonic in the summer of 1946. According to Osborne, Legge told the outraged Russians and Americans that they could do nothing to stop Von Karajan recordings because they were being done by a British company backed by that country's government.

These first recordings set Von Karajan and Legge off on a journey that would last more than a decade and result in 150 recordings. Von Karajan was tapping into the emerging mass market of long-playing records and the consumerism of the 1950s. He became a superstar during these years and as many critics have noted, Von Karajan's fame was cemented by his prolific and high-standard recordings with the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra in the 1950s.

As that deliciously gossipy but unnervingly accurate music writer Norman Lebrecht noted, Legge taught Von Karajan "that the musical future lay in the recording studio and that international law was no obstacle to artistic ambition".

 

CARLOS KLEIBER IS an autocrat. He famously demanded 34 rehearsals of Alban Berg's opera, Wozzeck, and, according to Lebrecht, once said, "When there is no trouble in the theatre, I make it."

Kleiber is also a recluse. He refuses to sign up with any one orchestra, writes his own contracts and cancels concerts at the drop of a hat. His legion of fans email and ring each other whenever there is the merest hint that Kleiber might be appearing somewhere in Europe. These fans become positively delirious when an article on Kleiber appears anywhere – literally – in the world media.

"Anywhere" though, is "somewhere in Europe" because this maestro, whom Lebrecht describes as a "polyglot intellectual", doesn't make regular crossings of the Atlantic, as is the want of so many of his colleagues. He conducts his local orchestra – the Munich-based Bavarian State Radio Orchestra – and various German and Austrian opera companies and orchestras. He hasn't ventured further than Milan and Florence in Italy and in the UK, only Covent Garden has been graced with his electric presence.

Kleiber is a creature of habit, for all his eccentricity and maverick image. He has little or no interest in conducting anything outside the Classical and Romantic periods. One recent list of his recordings puts the number of composers whose works he has conducted at a mere 20. And the South American-raised Kleiber – whose father, Erich, also a brilliant conductor, fled Nazi Germany – records infrequently.

In contrast to Von Karajan's burning, relentless and cold ambition, Kleiber has little stomach for the surreal world of conducting. No doubt Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic's maestro whose capacity for "superstardom" rivalled Von Karajan's, would have been uncharacteristically dumbstruck when Kleiber told him that he wanted to be a vegetable. "I want to grow in a garden, sit in the sun, eat, drink, sleep, make love and that's it," Kleiber told Bernstein.

And like vegetables in the garden, Kleiber doesn't do media interviews. You can trawl the net for days and search, but they just aren't there. However, as always with Kleiber, it's not that straightforward. He penned a letter to a German newspaper using a pseudonym in which he attacked another great and equally eccentric conductor, Sergiu Celibidache.

Kleiber has a penchant for doing something that Von Karajan would have never contemplated – disappearing before or during a performance, a habit shared with the now dead, gorgeously named and eccentric pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

The mysterious Kleiber is no monk – not for him the ascetic life of the Greek-born Dimitri Mitropoulos who catapulted the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra into the top rungs of American ensembles in the middle years of the 20th century. Kleiber conducted a three-way auction in 1989 for tapes, which was a roaring success. Sony paid about $600,000 in this bidding war.

And in 1995, feeling the urge to splash out on a new Audi, Kleiber agreed to a concert in the home town of the car maker, Ingolstadt in southern Germany. His fee was a $US100,000 car with a number of extras that Kleiber catalogued precisely in the contract he wrote: "A spherical external back mirror; leather-covered steering wheel with heating; front and rear seat heating; rolling shades, on the rear motor-driven, laterals manual; electronic protection equipment; spot heating and ventilation; radio installation (preferably with the antenna concealed in the rear window) with cassette player and (if possible) separate CD-player (feeder on the baggage compartment not necessary)."

And even though Kleiber turns 74 this year – still young for a conductor, it ought to be said – and appears to have retreated to his hideaway behind Munich, still the European media publish thousands of words on his whereabouts and the possibility of him assuming the podium again.

On April 9 this year, the Austrian daily, Die Presse, in a piece entitled "Missing: Where is Carlos Kleiber?" noted that although Kleiber is perhaps "the greatest conductor of our time" or at least "the most in demand", it's now five years since his last concert performance. Die Presse speculated about the reclusive Kleiber: What was he doing? Who had glimpsed him? Rumours abound about his activities. But as the newspaper noted, there is only one statement that can be made with any confidence: "The most sought-after conductor in the world is not conducting!"

 

KLEIBER AND VON Karajan are chalk and cheese – the former a reclusive and autocratic reluctant musician, the latter a power-junkie with an indefatigable belief in his own talents and the power that springs from them. Both are extraordinary individuals who stand out even among the exaggerated and complex personalities of 20th-century conductors.

But there is contrivance in Von Karajan that does not exist in Kleiber.

Von Karajan's image of creative and political omnipotence was a constant work in progress. His every move at the podium was contrived – the closed eyes and feet perfectly still with the hands waving a beat in a deliberately ethereal manner. Von Karajan's squabbles with civic authorities who controlled orchestras and venues, his involvement with European Union cultural events, and above all, his unquenchable ambition to control as many of the major opera companies and orchestras as possible, were hallmarks of a man who thought of himself as a cul-tural/politico demigod.

But Kleiber is a different creature altogether. His instincts are those of a perfectionist – a neurotic one who cancels and disappears from the stage when he fears that the holy grail of perfection cannot be attained. Kleiber – leaving his penchant for Audis and casinos aside – has no interest in being an icon. The myth of Kleiber is built on what he is not, rather than what he is or wants to be.

As Elias Canetti, that wonderful polymath of the 20th century, once said of conductors, "There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor", to which might be added, given the cases of Von Karajan and Kleiber, "in or out of the concert hall".

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