Watchmaker takes Karajan cash

Watchmaker takes Karajan cash


norman lebrecht

March 11, 2011

I had to rub my eyes twice and pinch myself in the fleshy parts before I could give credence to this news report, but corroboration across the German press suggests that it must be true.

The winner of the 2011 Hebert von Karajan Prize, with a fifty-thousand Euro stash and a widow-signed certificate is…. Helmut Rilling.

Rilling, right? You know who I mean. Chap from Stuttgart, has been conducting Bach all his life. Never frightened the horses, never got charged with war crimes. Quiet chap, does his job nicely and goes home to his slippers.
Rilling is the new Karajan? Not quite. The citation says ‘he’s one of the most outstanding personalities on the international music scene’. Maybe that’s how they see it in the quieter parts of Germany. The award is made in Baden-Baden. 
Previous recipients include the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (natch), Daniel Barenboim and Anne-Sophie Mutter. I guess they won’t be sending their cash back.
Still, Rilling? The only times I have seen him, twice, it was standing in for one of the big beasts who called in sick (or bored). Rilling came on stage inconspicuously. He did not look like Karajan, strut like him or bear any perceptible charisma, good or bad. He looked, to me, like a Dickensian watchmaker and the longer he conducted the more little wheels he set spinning in my head, tick-tock, tick-tock. He did not need rewinding.
The idea that Rilling, 77, should be honoured with a Karajan prize is priceless. Beyond irony. 
Mine’s a Rolex, thanks. 


  • Oscar Williamson says:

    Agree, that’s rich. Saw him in 2009 perform the B Minor Mass at USC, leading the very not German USC student orchestra and choir. RILLING good!! (ouch)

  • Steve de Mena says:

    John Neumeier won it too. Why just list famous musicians?
    The prize money is supposed to be used to further the career of young artists.

  • I think the above comments are rather unfair. In Germany Helmuth Rilling is indeed a very highly respected conductor who has had a major impact on the German choral scene over the last 40 years. He is one of the few conductors to have recorded the complete J S Bach choral works (including ALL the cantatas) with his own ensemble, and his repertoire extends well beyond the confines of Baroque choral music. I think it is wonderful that a conductor renowned for his championing of J S Bach’s music, and who has over the years made himself more aware of Baroque performing practice despite having a typically conservative musical background, receives the Karajan Award (an award named incidentally after a conductor who did virtually nothing to champion Baroque music or Baroque performance style).

  • I think it should be pointed out that the Karajan Award is not made as a prize for great conducting, but is rather awarded as a reflection of the personal achievement of the recipient and in recognition of his contribution to the world of classical music (particualrly in Germany).

  • GW says:

    This is an entirely appropriate award and a welcome gesture to music-making of substance rather than show. Rilling has been the leading German Church musician of his time, which means a career entirely different from that of a concert or opera conductor, but every bit as demanding and — for many, especially the faithful — much more important. As an organist, a conductor specializing in choral works, and as a teacher, his stature is immense and his achievement, including the first complete recordings of the Bach sacred vocal music, is safely on record, and, as the USC performance indicates, has an international dimension, especially in music pedagogy, that continues to resonate, particularly in the annual Bach academies in Stuttgart, Oregon, and Japan.
    What is priceless and beyond ironic is the fact that you — supposedly the champion of music made despite the big name management system — would fail to recognize this.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Rilling’s approach to baroque music may sound unlike that of historically informed performers, but his performances sound deeply thought out. His erudition and dedication to his craft are not in question. He doesn’t deserve those negative remarks.