When Karajan met Rachmaninov

When Karajan met Rachmaninov


norman lebrecht

April 15, 2022

This is the only time Herbert von Karajan ever undertook a Rachmaninov recording.

He did it at the behest of his intimate friend Alexis Weissenberg.

Glenn Gould, who called Rachmaninov ‘intolerable’, played this recording on a series he hosted titled ‘Music I don’t like by people I do.’




  • Edoardo Saccenti says:

    Not entirely true: HvK recorded the concerto with Weissenberg also for EMI in 1973. Was the video a DG (Unitel??) release?

    • RAFAEL says:

      I love the LP/CD version, but this video one has Karajan doing something I find extremely inelegant: Weissenberg sets his tempo and Karajan pushes the orchestra to play faster.

  • Pedro says:

    Not even the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom Rachmaninoff recorded his complete concertos, ever played like this. The major problem of the Karajan recordings in his last fifteen years or so was their producer Michel Glotz. I attended quite a lot of Karajan’s concerts or opera performances made at the same time of the recordings and the difference was abyssal. Glotz was no Legge, Culshaw or Gerdes. A real pity.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Sadly I agree with your assessment.
      Here is what I don’t understand: what did Karajan make of the difference in the sound of the Glotz recordings?

      • Pedro says:

        I think he didn’t care and was already elsewhere when the final touches were put in his recordings. He trusted Glotz, who was also his agent and friend and that’s it.

    • JB says:

      Are you sure that Karajan, who was absolutely maniac about his recorded legacy, let Glotz decide on the sound ?

      • Pedro says:

        I suspect so. For a kind of the real Karajan sound you may go to Saint-Laurent studio CDs in Canada. It is amazing what he does to recordings of Karajan concerts (two Mahler 9ths and the Brahms symphonies, among many others).

  • music lover says:

    Terrible recording,IMHO….Weissenberg´s cool,objective style is totally at odds with Karajan´s wash of sound.Terrible mismatch…

  • Paul Sekhri says:

    And yet here, in this historic recording, Weissenberg totally screws up the very end. It’s pretty shocking actually and both pianist and conductor look like they can’t wait to get off the stage.

    • Ferruccio says:

      I would not call Weissenberg’s minimal mistake in the last tutti “shocking”, especially after a virtually flawless concerto. He didn’t “totally screw up”, and he very professionally jumped in at the next phrase.
      I would like to see you playing this concerto, and doing better than Weissenberg.

      • Fliszt says:

        I wouldn’t call it “minimal” either! He forgot to repeat the phrase. But he covered up the mistake professionally.

      • Jan Venter says:

        That kind of statement doesnot make it ok…. Im not a pianist and know my music very well if its a mess its a mess… Im an ex ballet dancer if I cant do two pirouettes when 5 is asked for I should not dance that part… Period!

  • Herr Doktor says:

    I’m a huge fan of Karajan, but I have to say, with the exception of two particular recordings, I don’t think Karajan was in his element with Russian composers. However, those two exceptions are jaw-dropping stunning:

    Karajan’s performance of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony with the BPO on DG, and his 1970’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony with the BPO on EMI/Warner, which is explosive and to my ears second only to Mravinsky’s earth-shattering stereo recording of the 6th with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on DG while they were on tour in the UK in the early 1960s, which is an unsurpassable, dangerous performance that leaves shock waves in its wake.

    • J Barcelo says:

      I think Karajan was much better at the Russian repertoire than doing the German stuff. His early Balakirev 1st, that amazing Boris Godunov, the Tchaikovsky cycle on DG, the first-rate Prokofieff 5th, and a fine Scheherazade…very fine indeed. Why he didn’t take to Rachmaninoff isn’t that hard to understand: HvK was not one to let his hair down and let the emotions take over, a requirement for that composer. Herbie was too cool and controlled for this.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Your comments are well stated. But if I may, I have difficulty with that line of argument that Karajan performances were not emotional. There are plenty of examples of this, but for one, listen to his Bruckner, both in studio and live. His Bruckner 2 (studio), second movement is perhaps THE most emotional performance I’ve ever heard in this symphony from anyone (and I’ve heard all of the “good” ones), his Bruckner 8 in all incarnations, let alone his astonishing studio Bruckner 9 with the BPO, are all highly charged, highly emotional readings–among many others.

        The bottom line: I think Karajan was not *impulsive* in his display of emotions. But to say his performances lacked in emotions are are generally “cool” doesn’t square with what my ears tell me.

    • SJJ says:

      Looking for a main verb in your second paragraph

  • msc says:

    I am baffled by how Weissenberg continued to get recording contracts. On occasion he could show genius, but most of the time he seems completely disconnected from what he is playing. It’s like he’s a musical post-structuralist, interested in everything but what makes the music beautiful or emotional.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      I cannot entirely agree; I think his Rachmaninoff Preludes for RCA Victor are very impressively played and interpreted.

      • Hilary says:

        his version of the Bach/Liszt Prelude and Fugue in Aminor is unparalleled. Controlled intensity . A very divisive pianist as this comment section demonstrates.

    • Ludwig's Van says:

      I’m baffled that Weissenberg had a career, period. His callous musicianship reduced his interpretations to raw butchery. OK, so that approach worked for Petruchka, which he bashed the living hell out of – and the video of it resurrected his career in the mid 60’s (after it had been dormant for 10 years), largely due to the efforts of Michel Glotz, who got him in with Karajan and the industry mafia. Weissenberg had ice in his veins, and his music-making was simply dreadful.

  • Monsoon says:

    I could write a book about how these Karajan films are shot like 1930s fascist propaganda films.

    -Dramatic bright white overhead lighting, like it’s moon lit.
    -Almost every shot Karajan is in, he dominates the frame (there’s an angle where Karajan is in front of Weissenberg and Weissenberg looks like this little man hunched over in the distance).
    -The overhead lighting puts a halo around the musicians’ upper body and shades their faces (because the only face you’re allowed to see is Karajan’s).
    -In shots of just the orchestra, the focused is rolled to obscure their faces, or, the frame is tightly cropped, only showing someone’s hands and chin.

    It’s crap like this that makes it impossible for me to take Karajan seriously. It’s Kanye West levels of narcissism.

    • Petros LInardos says:

      To take Karajan’s considerable musical legacy seriously is an exercise in not seeing people in black and white. The direction in his filmed performances is deplorable, not only for the reasons you are rightly stating. But at his best moments, musically speaking, Karajan was as good as any conductor.

      • Hilary says:

        It’s a tad over-choreographed but the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with Weissenberg is incredibly imaginative in terms of cinematography and by no means focused exclusively on the conductor. Moreover, you’d never guess it was made in the late 1960s. The director Ake Falck also did the film of Weissenberg playing Petrushka.

    • Hugo Preuß says:

      I won’t argue with the narcissism charge, but I’m reasonably sure that Karajan was a much better conductor than Kanye West…

  • Piano Lover says:

    Not worth listening to :only the beginning bars and the first orchestral theme.
    Then X!
    Richter and the Wislocki on DGG is the only recording to withhold!

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Interestingly enough, the Rach 2nd was indeed the only piece by the composer that HvK conducted. But his collaborations with Weissenberg were not the only ones in the piece: he once even played it with Gieseking!

    But the Karajan / Weissenberg performance that I really want to hear is that of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue! The recording of the concert survives – maybe St. Laurent Studio can offer it part of their Karajan edition.

    And another Karajan performance that I would like to have available is that of Bach’s cantata 51 with none other than Leontyne Price! Though, in this case, I don’t know if the recording of the concert still exists.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Terrific recording. There are different ways of doing it but this is one way.