How Karajan got his sound

How Karajan got his sound


norman lebrecht

August 31, 2019

This 1950s clip of Herbert von Karajan rehearsing Schumann’s 4th symphony with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – where Nikolaus Harnoncourt was principal cello – shows the perfectionism, the precision and the pedantry that went into obtaining the Karajan Sound.

It’s very instructive – not just just for what Karajan does but for everything that Harnoncourt rejected.


  • Olassus says:

    Legato, legato, and once more legato.

    … which means linked. He was nuts about Schumann Fourth.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Karajan got his sound by teaching his players to listen to each other. Something wrong with that? Pedantry in your eyes? Not in anyone else’s I would think!

  • sam says:

    Back in the days, conductors could get away with all this endless talking and re-molding of the sound of an orchestra.

    (Of course, TV was new back then, and the conductors were performing for the camera, and for posterity.)

    No music director today can do this — so radically altering the sound of the orchestra — with his/her own orchestra, much less as a guest conductor, for a number of reasons: limited rehearsal time, balance of power has equalized between orchestra and conductor, culture of non-talking conducting, TV and streaming aren’t that special…

    So we get the opposite extreme of silence: Kiril Petrenko at Berlin.

    No interview, no recording…

    • Tristan says:

      who cares if he speaks to bloody journalists who mostly have not the slightest ideas anyway! Let him make music like Carlos Kleiber who didn’t talk either! Look at the mess in Salzburg where Christian Thielemann declines to talk to the new Manager instead speaks to the press and all he says is untrue – Bravo Kiril and many others who just concentrate on the art!

  • MJA says:

    Precision and perfectionism, yes – where is the pedantry?

  • bluepumpkin says:

    I’ve always found it hard to believe that this was a real rehearsal and not simply Karajan playing to the cameras. I would love to have had 10 minutes on his stylist arranging his hair as well. And where is the sweater draped over one shoulder?

    • Petros LInardos says:

      Whatever the theatrical aspect of this rehearsal, we hear an orchestra respond to the conductor. Their sound develops during the rehearsal

      • Saxon Broken says:

        It looked like he had a clear idea what he wanted and knew how to get the orchestra to play the way he wanted.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    His approach has not aged well, but works much better for late romantics like Richard Strauss. By the way it is funny how self consciously studied a way he projects himself even at that time. A man of pose which now seems ridiculous.

    • Novagerio says:

      His approach is about a long line, transparent and translucent minorities, overall equilibrium and an orchestra that produced the same phrasing and listened to each other.
      You prefer to hear the barline with an emphasis on the first beat (a former costume of the british orchestras in the past), and Fortes as slamming doors?

      By the way, the Wiener Symphoniker were his own orchestra between 1948 and 1964. Of course, he had to work harder with them than with his official first orchestra, the Berliners.
      But he was a monument of not only pose and elegance, but also correctness, patience and objectivity. Orchestras even today like an easy understandable technical languages in only 3 words, no Blaha-blaha.

      And about Clouzot: He found Karajan so fascinating that he convinced him to let him film him in a rehearsal, in a series that combined highly impressive readings of the Schumann 4, The Beethoven 5 and the Dvořák 9.

    • Novagerio says:

      I meant sonorities, not “minorities”!
      (Wordlist fascism)

    • Olassus says:

      I don’t know whether you listen to Christian music but his 1952 recording of the B-Minor Mass is a landmark in authentic approach, and the sincerity is palpable. He played the organ and the harpsichord, you know, as a young man. He knew his counterpoint. That’s one of the reasons his Strauss is so good.

  • John Russell says:

    This is IT!
    We’ve all had the experience, occasionally, of working under true Talent and Leadership on the podium, but it’s very RARE!
    In my limited experience, Tennstedt, Bernstein and Ozawa (plus, a few others; close seconds) and, lately, Muti.
    Exhilarating, heavenly moments…

  • Dave T says:

    I wonder who the “oppressed people over there” that slimy scum bag is referring to (3:20)?

    I’m pretty sure I know who he’s not referring to. I’m also pretty sure he doesn’t know a thing about actual oppression.

  • Rafael says:

    You’ve always hated Karajan and everything he stood for, almost as much musically as personally. Why the grudging attempt to be fair, Norman? His legacy is there to ponder, debate, and generally enjoy. Yours, alas…

  • Pedro says:

    Hard work. Lots of hard work. No pedantry.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    The choice of the word “pedantry” is highly subjective. Carlos Kleiber rehearsed for hours and hours in order to get things right, As did Günter Wand. As did Bernstein, when he chastised the Vienna Phil, who thought they knew how to play Mahler, that they needed to go over the allotted rehearsal time. Why attack Karajan for being a perfectionist? Oh yes, in order to bring up the problem of his closeness to the Nazi regime yet again and besmirch his reputation in this way. Walter Legge once said that Karajan never produced an ugly note. André Previn believed (as did Colin Davis) that the period mafia just produced ugly sounds. You can hate Karajan or hate Harnoncourt or admire them both. But please don’t argue that one approach is “objectively” better than any other. In art, everybody seeks the truth. And nobody has the right to claim that they alone have a monopoly of wisdom in this regard.

    • bluepumpkin says:

      With Carlos Kleiber you felt the music was the thing and not the conductor (HvK with his slicked hair and coolly draped sweater). And as for “perfectionist”, I am always interested when I hear BBC Radio 3 reviewing CDs of Karajan and pointing out when his so-called “fabled ear” let him down.

      • M McAlpine says:

        I am always amused by the BBC’s reviewers claiming their tin ears are better than Karajan’s!

        • bluepumpkin says:

          I think when you have, as the BBC. sometimes does, a university scholar on the case who knows something about the score and tuning , you need not regard him/ her as having tin ears.

      • Cyril Blair says:

        Yes, but I think Kleiber would disagree with you.
        He revered Karajan (as he put it, Karajan swam circles around the other stickwielders like dolphins around an oceanliner).

        • Alexander Hall says:

          Stefan Bevier, who played double bass under Karajan before becoming a chorus master, once told me that Karajan never beat time (unlike other “stickwielders”) but used his baton to shape the music. He relied on rigorous rehearsal to get the technicalities right so that he could focus on the longer line in the music. There are few conductors who have used their “sticks” in order not to enforce metrical precision. Watch closely and you’ll see!

  • John Borstlap says:

    K’s custom of gluing the phrases together contradicts the written phrasing, but his way of psychologizing the sound is superb, filling the score with life. Where the early music tradition gets ‘anti-romantic’, it becomes typical 20C modernism, a disembodied sound, and sterile. The point is to get the balance right – clarity and expression.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Fascinating. Would that we had anyone today remotely close. But no. Was he a smoking chimney? Because he certainly sounds it.

  • NN says:

    This rehearsal is one of my favourites. It shows exactly how professional Karajan was indeed. He was able to describe exactly what he wanted what the musicians should do exactly in order to get it thus creating a very cooperative athmosphere.

    Something that many big-mouth “conductors” esp. from the HIP community never achieved. Many of them prefer lecturing the orchestra with second-hand-information they got from books or with general “images” about the character… Just search Youtube for rehearsals with Harnoncourt & Co. and you will understand what I’m talking about…

  • Mock Mahler says:

    Director Henri-Georges Clouzot made the film of Verdi’s Requiem with Karajan conducting Price, Cossotto, Pavarotti, and Ghiarurov.

    And also “The Wages of Fear” and “Les Diaboliques.” [Insert your joke here.]

  • Bone says:

    I get the precision and perfectionism, but not sure I see the pedantry: HVK is going about music making like the old guard of Nikisch through Furtwangler. Does it yield a particular sound? Absolutely. I don’t see anything pedantic about this type of rehearsal in service to a very specific vision of what a proper orchestral sound should be.

  • Andrew R. Barnard says:

    Pedantry? Since Karajan’s determination to work on small details produced a truly iconic, distinctive sound, that seems to go against the definition of the word.

  • Dyonesis says:

    This was from the 1960’s

  • George says:

    Worthless article.
    How did you show that HVC got his sound???????

  • Edgar Self says:

    Bit wait. His eyes are open! And isn’t that a baton? There are no motions like sharpening pencils in his ears. How do we know it’s really Karajan?

    I hope everyone’ knows Furtwaengler’s record of Schumann’s Fourth with the Berlin Philharmonic. Yes, it’s 1951. Doesn’t matter. You can bet that Karajan knew it.

  • prof says:

    Well, I didn’t make it through the whole thing, but I can tell you that blending the violin sound “flautando” so that it allows the colors of the actual flute to gleam through, is EXACTLY the kind of music making that Harnoncourt later was known for.

  • PHF says:

    People sometimes seem to forget (or to intentionally leave aside in their passionate comments) how he used to change things only according to his taste, from doubling woodwinds and brass in Beethoven symphonies to literally inverting dynamics and tempo marks in several romantic works. Abbado’s trouble in his first years at BPO are a just taste of this problem.

  • Hunding says:

    Harnoncourt was a tutti cello player NEVER principal @the Vienna Symphony.
    AND Karajan one of the Greatest even THE GREATEST!

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    The important thing is not to obtain the Karajan sound, the Ormandy sound, the Stokowski sound, the Boulez sound, etc, but to capture the Beethoven sound, the Brahms sound, the Ravel sound…to produce the sound that reflects the composer’s musical style and universe.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Anyone got a time machine?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      “The important thing is not to obtain the Karajan sound…but to capture the Beethoven sound”

      Sounds clever but all actual performances are “interpretations”. In all the interpretations we will still hear Beethoven, but the version that day by Karajan or Ormandy (and their orchestras).

      Even if we might not like the interpretation, we can still recognize that Karajan knew how he wanted the piece to sound, and knew how to communicate with the orchestra to get that sound.

    • Jay Haverstock says:

      I want an artist at the podium, not a musicologist.

      Problem today is we have too many of the latter and not enough of the former.

      Karajan was an artist.

  • bluepumpkin says:

    Any videos of Karajan’s interaction with flautist James Galway and the Berlin Philharmonic, or perhaps when the Sabine Meyer debacle was kicking off? I wonder what kind of sound we’d hear there.

    • bluepumpkin says:

      Ah yes, there was little sound during the latter problem. New York Times, 8 January 1983: “’But Mr. Karajan was already championing her cause – and his own judgment – by canceling all but the eight concerts a year his contract obliges him to perform with the orchestra.”

  • Amos says:

    Regrettably dolce legato playing, no matter how precise, does not a performance make nor should it be used as the basis for conducting a score. If music making were able to influence glucose metabolism HvK recordings would induce hyperglycemia.

  • Jay Haverstock says:

    Karajan was many things, but never a vulgarian. He scrupulously avoided all things maudlin.

    To call Karajan a Romantic, or to suggest that his conducting is too “sweet” is to showcase one’s total ignorance of his music-making.

  • Alexandros A Lavdas says:

    The clip is from the mid 1960s, and shows how wonderfully unique the work of Karajan was.