Sunday, August 09, 2015

Karajan's Bruckner 8th on video

I have long praised Herbert von Karajan's performance of the Bruckner 8th with the Vienna Philharmonic as one of the most sublime recordings ever. Until recently, I had not watched the DVD of him in charge of the same music (made a few years earlier than the studio CD). The DVD was taped at St. Florian in Linz, Austria, with an audience present.

Is there a reason to acquire, or at least watch, the DVD? I am not expert enough to comment on any interpretative differences between the performances, and am not even sure whether they are quite the same version of the symphony (all Bruckner's symphonies except the 6th were revised by the composer and later editors). Musically, I hear no cause to choose one over the other. The sound is surprisingly good on both video and audio discs, though not up to the best to be had today.

At the very least -- yes, the DVD is worth viewing and hearing. Part of the reason is the venue. St. Florian monastery is, like so many Austrian churches and cathedrals, a Baroque visual knockout.
An explosion of color and ornament, yet restrained and balanced. You don't get a lot of close-ups of the performing space in the video disc, but it's there in the background adding beautiful atmosphere. In this monastery Bruckner studied and taught before his date with immortality in Vienna. His human remains are buried here.

Karajan is the most controversial conductor of all time. To over-generalize a bit, listeners love his performances, critics hate them and him. In the U.K. especially, to get your Critics Union card, you must demonstrate a longtime history of Karajan bashing. Their den mother is the noted loon Norman Lebrecht.

The maestro doesn't go in for histrionics on the podium. No making faces à la Bernstein. No jumping and arms raised to the skies. He doesn't jab a finger or his stick at the orchestral section about to make a big statement.

Karajan does use his hands, albeit with restraint. But his face is mask-like, unsmiling. As usual in his later years, he conducts with eyes closed. Watching Karajan in this DVD would probably drive Lebrecht and his colleagues to new heights of loathing. "Look at him, he must be angry at the orchestra! Self-centered impudent snob!"

On the contrary, I think he is telling the orchestra members something like this (and from the evidence, they get the message):

While you are playing this symphony, nothing else on earth matters. Not me, not the audience, not the decor of the hall. Every cell of your being will concentrate on the music until we get to the final note. Every phrase you draw from your instrument will be a prayer directly to Heaven. You are privileged to be expressing one of the great works of the human soul. In it, Anton Bruckner was striving to reach God. I don't care what you believe or don't believe when you get home; for now, you will do whatever is in your power to realize God in sound. A musician can have no higher calling.

1 comment:

Marcus Marcellus said...

I had not visited your website in over year. I'm very happy I did. I discovered you through the late Larry Auster. In times like this, it is much more important to read and write about Bruckner and Karajan than Obama and Hillary. Thank you!