Posts Tagged: Karajan

Great Moments in Classical Music Cinematography

Lots of blog space has been devoted to the various horrors of classical music LP and CD cover art.  But methinks a great deal of plumbing is left to do in the world of video!

1. Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1
Alexis Weissenberg, pianist; Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Let’s start with this chestnut from Herbert von Karajan, an entertainment dynamo whose vast ego pushed him to ever more creative, and ludicrous, video projects.  It’s moments like this that have made his an ever-reliable name in the cringe department:

The color scheme, the obvious miming on the part of the musicians, the irreverent placement of wind players, the great “action shot” literally coming from the piano’s action with no discernable movement from the hammers: it’s a veritable smorgasbord of delights.  [Not to mention that 2:10 – 2:20ish makes a very convincing case for filming classical music performances in 3D!]

2. Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra, mvmt. 4
Lorin Maazel, conductor

So, lot to pick apart here.  First, there’s the fact that Maestro Maazel seems to be communicating with his home planet during the opening 10 seconds of this clip.  Then there’s his utterly unique solution to the tricky meter transition right around 2:19. [By the way, let me just interrupt here and say that one often hears about Loren Maazel being a conductor with a flawless technique.  I mean, 4rlz?  My sneaking suspicion is that the original source for this popular opinion is none other than… Lorin Maazel.  I’m not saying that he’s a bad conductor AT ALL… or am I?]

Then of course there’s all the camera spinning, the gong action, the trombones, etc…

3. Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Sergiu Celibidache, conductor

OK, so I’ll finish this installment with a little gem that first came to my attention via one of those “The Art of Conducting” VHSs that I used to watch like 10 times a day when I was in high school.  A very young Celibidache conducting Beethoven’s “Egmont”:

There’s no fancy camera work here, but there is some amazing editing (I mean, come on, 7:13? Srsly u guys?) and the fact that Celibidache’s hair looks like it was spring loaded by the special effects department.  And then there’s that set, which, what exactly is it?  Might it be a discarded “Lion’s Den” from a production of Der Freischütz.  For a nation destroyed by war, trying to reclaim its international reputation by means of its illustrious artistic tradition, this was an… interesting choice.

Tamino, ach mein Gott!

Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Gustav Mahler CO / Abbado
Crystalline beauty, like floating atop the clouds.

Hilde Gueden, soprano; Wiener Phil / Böhm
Heavier, but with a full mode of expression, every note a deep moment.

Irmgard Seefried, soprano; Wiener Phil / Karajan
Would somebody please call the Humane Society to put this creature out of its misery?

And now, statues of the Vienna Philharmonic

This creeps me out:


Do you notice the bizarre motionlessness of the players?  I’ve never seen anything so surreal.  How did Herbie get all of those musicians to remain so perfectly still for this performance??  Frankly, in certain shots it appears to me that these gentlemen are not even playing.  Take a look particularly at the brass fanfare at 0:31 — is the fourth trumpeter playing?  Woodwinds at 3:15 – is the principal flute playing?

Now check out the shot of the violins at 3:37.  When have you ever seen a row of violins in straight formation like this?  Yesterday while I was watching Karajan’s similar video of Dvorak 8, I hypothesized that they must have re-shot several of these segments after the performance so they could get the right camera angles (and ensure that the lighting was perfect for the glowing halo surrounding the orchestra).

The sound is, of course, über-Karajan — very precise, very aggressive and yet with a pristine wash over the whole texture.  This particular clip doesn’t reveal as much the very dishonest engineering job that was done to the balances — that is to say, the sound here is not really reflective of the actual performance of the orchestra, it was largely engineered in the control room.

The overall effect is a little bit terrifying.  The military-like rigid formations, the doctored, in-your-face sound, the halos surrounding Karajan and the orchestra — what was Karajan’s goal here?  Dare I say the whole thing is just a bit Nazi-ish?  Why would such a superb musician want to present his music this way?  I think we can safely assume that Karajan supervised every detail of these videos…

Now let’s compare.  Same orchestra, same hall, same time (give or take 1 year), but different conductor:


UNbelievable!!  Look at how much the musicians move when given the chance!  You’ll have to wait a bit, but look at around 1:40.  The orchestra looks like a living, breathing organism, completely invested and physically experiencing the music.  The sound is so much more open and real.  We get the impression that Kleiber loves the music and lets the musicians express themselves.  Look at how cheeky the oboist can be with his coquettish little solo at 1:52.  It’s inspiring.

I feel with Karajan that he cared less about the quality of the musicians (who cares, we’ll change it in the editing room) than the fact that they are a bunch of Aryan men who can serve as a set piece to maximize his God-like persona.  With Kleiber, I get the sense that all he cares about is that this orchestra is a body of musicians who are part of a vitally living tradition of playing the greatest works of all time.

Also, notice how Karajan does not allow the beautiful Musikverein itself to be filmed, lest the magnificence of Valhalla outshine Odin himself.

And then of course, there’s Lenny:


Need we say any more?