Scoop: Karajan preferred Boston sound to Vienna

From acoustician Willem Boning’s recent interview with the late Leo Beranek:

WB: I don’t particularly like the sound in Vienna.

LLB: You’re right—Boston is better! And von Karajan and I talked a lot about this. And he liked Boston better.

 

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And what did he have to say about that?

First of all, the Musikvereinsaal gets very loud. It’s very intense noise. Sound, not noise, but sound. And as you go back in there the reflections off the side walls change. It’s not uniform reflections. So it depends on where you sit and what you hear. It’s not uniform.

How does the sound change?

Well [laughs], it changes when the reflections from the side walls change. That’s what you hear.

They become relatively stronger…

… or weaker. And that’s particularly at the higher frequency ranges, you see?

karajan-vienna

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  • I have never been to Boston but I have heard several times Karajan in the Musikverein, both with the Vienna and the Berlin orchestras. The music came out perfectly well. I remember the best Mahler 9 in my life in early May 1982. Superb sound. No noise. The same of the Beethoven 9 the day before. Both with the Berlin Phil..

  • Misleading title. We are talking about the hall acoustics and not the orchestras. While the halls are similar in concept (shoe box), the hall in Vienna has many more reflective surfaces (with all the statuary etc). Symphony Hall in Boston is much simpler in comparison.

    The real art for the conductor is to keep things in balance and not let the brass and percussion overwhelm the other sections even in loud passages.

    • Having played in both of these great halls Boston gets my vote. However the shoe box halls throughout the world are generally better than the modern ones despite all the latest technology.

  • I remember many excellent recordings from the Musikverein and less from Boston. If the recording companies had thought like Mr. Boning about the superiority of the Symphony Hall, they would have flocked into the Hall to make more recordings there.

    • How a hall sounds in recordings is no sure indication as to what it sounds like in person. The many fine-sounding San Francisco Symphony recordings from Davies Hall (e.g. the Blomstedt recordings on Decca and the MTT Mahler symphony discs issued by the orchestra) give a much better impression than the hall does in person. Although I have never been there, I’m pretty sure the Berlin Philharmonie would fall into the same category. There are lots of reasons, some having nothing to do with acoustics, why recordings aren’t always made in acoustically good halls — cost, location, scheduling and other logistic issues for example. Carnegie Hall is far too busy a place for recording sessions, which is why most recordings from there are made live. And there are halls with widely admired acoustics that are under-represented in the catalog (Lucerne, Dallas, Birmingham, Nashville, Sao Paolo and several halls in Asia including Beranek’s masterpiece at Tokyo Opera City).

      Having made some live recordings in Boston I can attest that some of the very properties that make for superb sound in person can get in the way of the sonic pickup necessary for a successful recording. That’s why actual recording sessions there have often seated the orchestra on the floor in the middle of the hall. This enables pickup of the rich reverb while reducing the pickup of early reflections that can color a recording but which are absolutely necessary for the sense of envelopment in a live concert.

      • Very true. The type of reverberant sound desired for recordings is a bit different than the one desired for a live concert situation.
        Probably for the same reason in Concertgebouw Amsterdam also often for recordings the orchestra was seated in the middle of the hall, not on stage.

  • The Musikvereinsaal is much smaller than the Boston Symphony Hall. It is bound to get louder there. On the other hand, period instrument orchestras sounded underpowered (to my ears) in the Boston Symphony Hall.

  • I think one has to be careful with Karajan soundbites – or the way they are used by people who say he “discussed” things with them. Judging from reading the texts from his record producers and sound engineers, he seems to have loved the DECCA sound, the DG sound, the EMI sound, digital sound, …. whatever he seems to have been interested at the time. It also seems he liked to show his knowledge of technology and may have been a bit “generous” with giving opinions on topics that were not the core of his considerable expertise.

    • Oh yes. It is probably not far from the truth, that Karajan liked first of all himself in all these different representations of his own phenomenality.

  • Interesting he talks about an even sound throughout the hall. Modern practise is to recognize that an even sound throughout the hall is unobtainable. But should recognize that there should nevertheless be good acoustics in most seats. (Even the best halls have some seats with relatively poor sound, such as right at the end of the rows in Boston).

    • I’ve sat and stood just about anywhere in the Musikvereinssaal Vienna. Of course the sound is not “uniform”, but it seems to be clear, beautiful and involving throughout most of the venue. I even fondly remember a Bruckner 8 with the VPO and Solti which I heard (as opposed to saw) in the standing area just behind a pillar, the horns ringing out gloriously. In many other halls there are very clear “sweet” and “dead” spots. (E.g. I really hated the Vienna Konzertsaals’ (just 10 minutes walking distance from the Musikverein) rear seats under the balcony: Dry and dead, like in a padded wooden crate. Higher up it sounds just fine again.)

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