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“Herbert von Karajan in Rehearsal and Performance” is a 2006
DVD release. It consists of a 60-minute rehearsal that is followed
by a performance of Robert Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4.”
Then Joachim Kaiser hosted a four and one-half minute interview
with Karajan, during which he answered questions while expanding
on the then-pioneering methods of shooting rehearsal and
concert footage. A fascinating seminar followed this exchange,
in which Karajan coached a young conductor while he took the
lower strings of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra through their
paces, during a rehearsal of the second movement of Beethoven’s
“Fifth Symphony.” The next segment was a performance of this
work, conducted by the Karajan. The entire DVD was shot in
black and white, and had a running time of approximately
139 minutes.

I feel that this DVD release is important for a number of reasons.
Supposedly, it is the only visual record of Herbert von Karajan
rehearsing an entire work. It was also the first in a series of
collaborations between Karajan, French director, Henri-Georges
Clouzot and cinematographer Armand Thirard. These films
revolutionized the techniques used to shoot footage of a
large ensemble, and anyone who has seen other von Karajan
films will recognize the precedent that was set here. These
performances reflected the prevailing “New Wave” of cinema,
which swept Europe and France, in particular. I count myself
among many viewers who have been mesmerized by this
stylized filming method, and I discussed it in an earlier blog
post entitled, “Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen.”

Watching Karajan in rehearsal was fascinating. He was
“efficiency personified,” and seemed to have been born to teach.
Much of the session was spent trying to achieve the proper
sound in certain musical passages, such as the opening attack
by the strings in the Schumann symphony. In fact, Karajan was a
sound “sculptor,” in the same vein as Leopold Stokowski
(1882-1977), and watching Karajan in performance was an
opportunity to witness the molding of sound, with his
eyes perpetually shut.

The performance of Robert Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4” was
the 1851 version of the piece. Although it was written in 1841,
the revised version is commonly performed, which is why it is
referred to as the “Symphony No. 4,” instead of the
“Symphony No. 2.” According to the common practice of this era,
Karajan doubled the woodwinds. He also doubled the
trumpets and used four trombones, thereby making this a
“big orchestra” version of the Schumann piece. I have to
admit that I liked it, and the combination of fervent playing
with the aforementioned dynamic filming methods produced
an artistic result. The four movements of this piece were joined
without pause, and I believe that the transition between the
third and fourth movements (particularly in Karajan’s hands)
were one of the glories of German romanticism.

I noted that only the strings were shown in the rehearsal
portion of the film, and during the performance of the
piece, the video and audio elements of the strings were
not always completely synchronized. The Vienna Symphony
performed this November 1965 concert.

The performance of the Beethoven work was filmed just a
couple of months later, in January 1966. As noted Karajan
authority, Richard Osborne, mentioned in the accompanying
booklet, it was a “high octane reading” of the piece, with a
running time of only 29 minutes. Nevertheless, the performance
worked, and the visceral interpretations were aided and
abetted by the innovative filming methods. I truly felt as
though I was “in” the performance, in a way that differed
from my standard film-viewing experiences. At one point in the
aforementioned interview, Karajan indicated that he aimed
to achieve a visual version of the aural experience. I understood
what he was attempting, and performances like these were
almost an orchestral “Gesamkunstwerk,” in terms of their
audio and visual impact.

As with the Schumann work, the orchestra was also large.
In addition to the aforementioned doubled woodwinds,
trumpets and four trombones, eight horns were used here!
The large string contingent included 10 double basses.
I liked this visceral, exciting performance and picture of precision.

The “Karajan approach” to filming concerts could be
considered anachronistic today, yet films like these provide us
with fascinating glimpses of a different era. This slice of history
was well worthwhile, both in terms of watching a giant of
the podium at work, along with observing these special
methods of filming concerts and rehearsals. This highly
recommended DVD was released on the EuroArts label,
in conjunction with Unitel.