Karajan versus Karajan: How different can two Eroicas be?

“He once said something about Toscanini: how wonderful it would be if there were some material to show us what he did as a conductor,” recalled Gela Marina Runne, Herbert von Karajan’s film editor.

“In my mind the penny dropped: I get it, we’re building a monument!… He wants to put everything he’s done down on film, for later generations to see.”

That was the project that became the extraordinary collection of concerts and operas now streaming on medici.tv: filmed between 1982 and 1988, these four seasons of films represent Karajan’s own musical testament. And it was all overseen, in meticulous detail, by the man himself.

©  Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute

The idea, as Runne realized, was to create an archive of the repertoire closest to Karajan’s heart, giving it a permanent audiovisual form that would outlast the man himself. But is it ever possible to create a definitive version of something as subjective as a musical interpretation?

Most works are recorded just once in this collection. But, by chance, there are two versions of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” one dating from 1982—performed to mark the 100th anniversary of the Berliner Philharmoniker—and the other from 1984, when it was part of Karajan’s complete Beethoven cycle. Both feature the same orchestra. Yet the films are quite different. Though recorded just a couple of years apart, the two recordings show just how widely interpretation can vary—not just the musical interpretation, but also the interpretation shown by the film itself. Let’s take a look at the two of them, side by side.

First movement: Horn versus clarinet

To begin with, here’s 1982. You might want to turn your speakers down a little.

An explosive, grand start. Which is appropriate: it’s an explosive, grand symphony. But now have a listen to the 1984 recording. Turn the speakers up again first, though.

Now, of course volume isn’t everything: the huge difference in volume between the recordings might simply indicate that they have been mixed differently. But that’s not quite the end of the story. And remember that Karajan had complete oversight of the process, exerting tight control over both the audio and the visuals.

Look at that first cut away from Karajan, which occurs at exactly the same moment in the score in both recordings: at 1:38 in 1982 and 1:16 in 1984. The first instrument shown in close-up in 1982 is the horn, an instrument with connotations of hunting and the nobility. In 1984, meanwhile, the instrument chosen is the gentler, humbler clarinet. It’s a subtle indicator of the very different tones of the two recordings.

Look at Karajan’s body language, too. In 1982 he seems just a little more impassioned, more extroverted. The best proof of his different mood comes not at the beginning but later on, towards the conclusion of the movement. After a series of aggressive chords emphasizing the home key of E flat major, there is a moment of calm. Here’s the 1982 Karajan calming the musical tides:

He makes a very different gesture in 1984. He suddenly draws his left hand back into his body, as if a little shocked by the volume of sound. He then draws his hand up in preparation for the magical D flat major chord that follows, just as in 1982—yet still, in 1984 the whole passage conjures up a profoundly different mood: mystical and subtle, and very far from the grandeur of the 1982 version.

Second movement: Oboe versus oboe

The funeral march that follows again differs, in terms of the film editing, Karajan’s gestures, the playing, and the recording. The 1982 march is an apt successor to the 1982 first movement, full of grandeur and theatricality. Karajan’s left hand beats time in huge, expansive gestures, while his right hand (holding the baton) begins the movement almost motionless. The oboist who takes over the melody gives an impassioned rendition, even moving physically during the solo.

Everything is different in 1984. For a start, the quieter sound comes into its own here, as there is less background noise. But Karajan, too, seems to be in a quite different mood. That expansive left-hand beat has been exchanged for some minimalist gestures in both hands, and what results is an orchestral performance of quiet, contemplative power. The solo oboist—a different player this time—is a model of stillness, and carefully understated in his interpretation.

Is the later performance less dramatic? Perhaps it evokes a different sort of drama. The position of the camera in this passage is interesting as well: in 1982 it shows Karajan from side on, at around head height, but in 1984 it’s positioned from within the string section, with Karajan towering above. This may be the more understated performance, but there’s no doubt who is der Chef.

Third movement: Lightness versus gravity

The third movement of any symphony is often meant as light relief. Beethoven opted to write a “Scherzo”—literally a musical joke—but even the more customary minuet was always meant as a kind of interlude: a little bit of dance music between heavier fare. In 1982, the filming makes it clear that this is a movement with a lighter character:

What’s immediately striking is how little there is of Karajan himself. The camera in the first two movements, in both recordings, always defaults back to Karajan. But here, the musicians of the orchestra truly become the stars, once that exciting opening zoom has brought them into focus. When we do eventually get to see Karajan himself in action, he seems uncharacteristically relaxed, his arms calmly by his side. Yet, of course, this passage is the culmination of a long crescendo: even in this relaxed mode, he still wields tremendous power. In contrast, Karajan is back in focus in 1984. The whole thing seems like less of an interlude, but more of a crucial chapter in the ongoing symphonic narrative.

Fourth movement: Sweat versus serenity

The closing bars of the Eroica are a typically Beethovenian climax: a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Tense, pensive music is suddenly interrupted by a triumphal peal of trumpets, and the music switches into full heroic mode. It’s no surprise that in the 1982 version we see Karajan ushering in this triumphal conclusion with a huge downbeat. We also see him vigorously beating the final bars with ferocious energy, and can even glimpse a bead of sweat falling from his brow after the final chord. Hard, draining work, but worth it for Beethoven—that’s the message the film communicates.

The 1984 recording is a little more circumspect. First, the flautist is unusually featured in profile, creating an atmosphere that is ethereal rather than suspenseful. And as the triumphal final bars sound, Karajan strikes a cooler pose than in 1982, with not a hint of sweat. Perhaps there is a little less theatricality in this film—but, more than in the 1982 version, it suggests a conductor in utter, otherworldly, calm control. As the hall fills with applause, “Herbert von Karajan” is the first name that appears on the screen. As if we needed reminding.

Conclusion: Karajan ≠ Karajan

These two Eroicas have so much in common, yet they also differ so much—and in ways that are clearly deliberate. In addition to the differences in Karajan’s musical interpretations, the time spent editing the visuals was crucial in shaping these two contrasting takes on one famed symphony.

Which of the two is the definitive Karajan version? Maybe both are… or maybe neither. We wouldn’t still be performing two-hundred-year-old pieces like the Eroica if every performance of it sounded (and looked) the same. As these two films vividly record, it’s a piece that can be interpreted in profoundly different ways, and still sound like itself. Which was just as well for a musician like Karajan, who returned to it again and again, and found something new in it each time.

©  Eliette and Herbert von Karajan Institute


  1. Thank’s a lot. I hope you will show us one day the many versions of Claudio Abbado’s Beethoven symphonies interpretations with BPO. With his commentaries recorded live shortly before his death.

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