Herbert von Karajan #2

Comment on article in BBC Music Magazine:

I well believe von Karajan when he said he joined the Nazi Party only to further his career. It could have been normal for any young man to have done so if he thought it would help him, however, so far I have not heard of any involvement he had in committing atrocities. After all these years I am willing to forgive him for being a Nazi, but not if he had been in the S.S. and committed any atrocities.. I was on the battlefield with the British Army and certainly have no time for the S.S. after many of my comrades were murdered by them.

It was Walter Legge who discovered him in the late forties by listening to a record, so I’m told, and then built up his career. He paid back Legge and the Philharmonia in a rather bad way. It happened like this: The Philharmonia Orchestra was playing a concert in Baltimore at the end of a long, exhausting tour. There were demonstrations outside the concert hall about his Nazi past and as a result the hall was not packed as were all the other concerts we gave.

At the morning seating rehearsal a violinist, Peter Gibbs, an ex-fighter pilot, stood and berated von Karajan for conducting the British and American National Anthems in what he thought was a casual way. Legge stood up and told him to sit down and afterwards assured von Karajan that Gibbs would not be allowed to play that night. However, Gibbs came to the concert dressed and ready to play, at which von Karajan refused to go on stage unless Gibbs was sent away. Dennis Brain, the principal horn and Gareth Morris the principal flute and a few others said they would refuse to play unless Gibbs played .

After a long wait and some slow hand-clapping von Karajan came on after Gibbs had sat down in the orchestra. There was a second long wait after the interval.

Next day, in Washington, we were to board the plane home to England but Legge, von Karajan and Mattoni, his agent, were not with us.

A few days after we arrived home, the chairman of the orchestra members committee called a meeting and told us that he had received a letter from von Karajan’s lawyer in Vienna demanding an apology signed by every member of the orchestra. This was discussed, and as it was around Christmastide we sent him a card wishing him a happy Christmas.

Shortly afterwards we received another letter stating that although von Karajan was under contract with EMI the name of the Orchestra was not mentioned in it so henceforth von Karajan would be making the recordings solely with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He had already been approached by the Berlin Philharmonic to be their conductor so the row at Baltimore gave him an ideal excuse to leave the Philharmonia.

Herbert von Karajan #1

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.