I was interested to read in the March 2008 copy of the BBC Music Magazine some accounts of Herbert von Karajan. I knew him very well at first hand having played countless concerts, recordings and tours with him when I was a member of the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra for five years in the 1950’s.
I was engaged to play a five stringed double bass in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the express wish of Walter Legge and von Karagan. There had been pieces by Richard Strauss and other composers that called for low notes, but there was only one five stringed bass, Gerald Brooks, in the Orchestra. We met in a pub near the Festival Hall and he told me that he had been sent as an emissary: They were offering me a position in the core orchestra, extra pay for the five-stringer, and that I would be allowed to keep my freelance connection within reason. The terms seemed fine to me so I accepted.
A few days later I played my first recording with him. That would have been in 1953. He was in his mid-forties with jet-black hair cut/ en brosse /in the old German style. He looked aristocratic and well suited to his adopted patrician “von”, (he was born Heribert Karijannis of Persian stock). He was extremely polite to the orchestra, addressing everyone by name. He had a good stick technique and his tempi seemed just right. The attack in the entrances was never ragged . The nuances were all there but, overall, after all those years of playing for him I cannot say that he was one of the world’s “Greats”
Comparisons are invidious, but in the Music Magazine articles his name was linked with Furtwängler, but he was no Furtwängler, I know because I played for him too. The overall impression I got was that he was a good business man first and foremost. That he was ruthless in his desire to get to the top and that he loved material things. He had a yacht, a plane, a villa and, too, a beautiful second wife. He employed an excellent manager, Mattoni, and a Viennese lawyer.