When Musical Ideologies Collide
Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi who played the notes as they were on the score.
To be fair, there is a lot of debate about whether Karajan bought into the ideology of Nazism, but he was a card-carrying member that haunted him the rest of his life. Rather than flee Germany, he stayed and played. He followed the rules. And perhaps that mindset translated to his musical sensibilities. Always following the rules.
That said, he is my go to when I listen to a new piece of orchestral music. It is my frame of reference. I know that this is the way it is written on the paper – perfect timing and notes. Karajan recordings are polished.
Contrast that style with Leonard Bernstein. You never knew what you were going to get with Lenny. He interpreted and shaped the notes on the paper, transferring them to the orchestra. He was never afraid to explore where the music could go, perhaps at times taking liberties with the intentions of the composer.
I recall the last movement of the Tchaikovsky 6th. Two recordings (coincidently both on Deutshe Grammophon) by both Karajan and Bernstein. Same piece of music, with the Karajan recording timed out at 9:51 minutes. Bernstein’s final movement clocks in at 17:12. Same music. Same notes. Completely different results. Karajan’s 6th demonstrated Tchaikovsky’s melancholy through the notes he wrote on the paper.
Bernstein took those notes and demonstrated the pain Tchaikovsky felt while writing the piece (insert joke about how painful it is to sit through an already slow movement doubled timed).
Both are valid performances that deserve to be heard and collectively deepen my understanding of Tchaikovsky’s intentions.
It seems ironic in a way that in this day in age of cultural enlightenment, classical programming is closer to that of a Herbert von Karajan than that of Leonard Bernstein. Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic act like rock stars, but play it safe. Chicago was semi-adventurous with Barenboim, but Muti is from the Karajan school. I don’t even know who the conductor of the New York Phil is anymore.
I’ll give Madison Opera credit for their performance of “Dead Man Walking” a few years back, but since they have been very conservative. For the record Karajan’s recording of “Carmen” is stiff and boring, a fate I fear for MO’s upcoming performance.
The Madison Symphony program seems very meat and potatoes this year. Brahms’ first this year (they played 10 years ago). Almost like clockwork. Brahms and Beethoven. Very conservative.
Not the programing I would expect for a progressive town like Madison in either account.
Karajan is my reference for the notes on the paper. Steady. Conservative. But not what I am looking for in programming a season of opera or symphonic music. At least throw me a tiny bone and play a little John Adams. “Short ride in a fast machine” or “Nixon in China” would certainly be more exciting than what I am seeing on the schedule.