July 16, 2014

Keep Calm and Karajan: what was the man behind the maestro like?

A few surprising facts about the great conductor on the 25th anniversary of his death.

Think of conducting as an art form, and the elegant, intensely energetic Herbert von Karajan - in tuxedo or turtleneck - is likely to be the image that pops to mind, even 25 years after his death. He was hailed 'Das Wunder Karajan' at the age of 30, after a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin State Opera in 1938. But there's more to the maestro than his reputation as a tyrant at the podium or a Porsche-driving playboy: many of the musicians who worked with him characterise Karajan as shy offstage.

His musical instincts and charisma were such that he could make bestsellers out of avant-garde figures such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, whose music he rehearsed intensively with his forces. At one point in his life he held, simultaneously, six of the world's most prestigious musical posts (director of the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna State Opera and 'conductor for life' of the Berlin Philharmonic among them). But with all that power and pressure, how did he achieve the mental clarity and equilibrium required to reach ever-greater heights in music?

It might be surprising for some to discover that this master of western tonal music practised yoga every morning. He was also a believer in reincarnation according to Zen Buddhism principles, saying he hoped to be reborn as an eagle to soar over his beloved Alps.

In keeping with the animal theme, the legendary EMI producer Walter Legge who signed Karajan said that the conductor was fascinated by siamese cats and would stretch out like one while studying scores.

On a more serious note: following the Second World War, according to biographer Richard Osborne, "Karajan underwent a course of psychoanalysis, which taught him the importance of reliving traumatic episodes to understand them emotionally rather than merely intellectually."

Although he may have enjoyed a meteoric ascent to the top, it wasn't without bumps along the way. When Karajan arrived in Bayreuth to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the festival's post-WWII reopening, the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler had his younger colleague thrown out of the rehearsal.

He lived life to the fullest, on and off the podium ("Whether it's conducting, skiing, or motor racing, I simply want to be the best," a young Karajan once told his brother.) He was thrice married - the third time to glamorous young French model Eliette Mouret, with whom he had two children - and his leisure time when he wasn't at the helm of an orchestra was spent at the wheel of a yacht or piloting his own aircraft.

But music was always his supreme passion, as an unusual scientific experiment confirmed in the 1970s (Karajan's heart-rate conducting Beethoven was taken at an average of 115bpm peaking at 150; when performing dangerous maneuvers while flying an airplane it measured at 95-115bpm).

He died a decade later, at the age of 81, from a heart attack. Just months before his death, the conductor who had been at the forefront of recording technology and innovation remarked: "I would like to cryogenically freeze my body and come back in 25 years. One could redo everything one had done, adapting to the recording techniques of 2015." Twenty-five years later, Warner Classics has come as close as possible to fulfilling this final wish, remastering Karajan's complete EMI orchestral and choral recordings across 100 discs and 13 boxed sets, using the most sophisticated technology available at the famed Abbey Road Studios.

The 13 boxed sets of the Karajan Official Remastered Edition are available here.