NEW YORK — I DID not actually hear the late Herbert von Karajan conduct a concert until 1974. But growing up in the '50s and '60s, I found it was impossible to be interested in classical music and opera and remain unaware of this near-mythic man, whose recordings were displayed in the record stores every bit as prominently as those from American giants Eugene Ormandy and Leonard Bernstein. Overseas, Karajan's every activity was news. He was a regular matinee-idol figure in such European magazines as Paris-Match for his musical and extra-musical activities - his fights with stars, his racing cars, his sailboats, his airplanes (including jets). I eventually heard Karajan concerts on 10 different occasions between 1974 and this February. All but one of the performances were high points of my concert-going experience, and three reached unforgettable heights: Strauss's ``An Alpine Symphony'' and Mahler's Ninth Symphony, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982; and Bruckner's Eighth, with the Vienna Philharmonic, five months ago - all in Carnegie Hall.
In all three cases, it was not just the remarkable accomplishment of the orchestral playing, and Karajan's unceasingly magnificent way with the sound of the score at hand, but also his unerringly deep probing of the mood and vistas of each work, and the sense that he was working as a partner with the orchestra to scale interpretive heights. It was a total absorption in the music - with Karajan, and often the players, so lost in the work that the public might well not have been there.
When people talked about Herbert von Karajan, they often cited his powerful position in the music industry, or the contentious side of his personality, or his dictatorial ways, or more than occasionally his Nazi past. What was not often stated outright was his place as one of the greatest conductors of the century, the last link in a distinguished chain of Central European musicmaking that effectively began with Richard Wagner.
Karajan, who passed on July 16 at his home in Anif, a town just outside his native Salzburg, Austria, grew up in a remarkable musical age. He began his career at a time when Europe boasted an astounding list of major musical figures and when Richard Strauss was still a dominant personality as composer and conductor. Karajan considered Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtw"angler to be his major musical influences. He heard both as a young man, and the latter, a highly jealous man, actually barred him from conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1939.
Karajan's musicmaking was marked by a fanaticism for tonal allure and rhythmic accuracy. He built the Berlin Philharmonic from a great European orchestra to the finest in the world - a nigh-superhuman ensemble that executed his every musical desire and did so flawlessly.
For Karajan this perfectionism was but a means to an end - unlocking the mysteries of each piece. In the more than 800 recordings - along with a number of video projects - that comprise his artistic legacy, it is this desire to explore the emotional and spiritual core of the work at hand that is clearly the animating impulse.
The maestro was not an especially tall man, but he had tremendous personal impact on the podium, even in those later years when illness left him hobbled and somewhat wizened. His conducting manner was controlled. Where many conductors wildly thrash and chop the air before them, too often with the left hand imitating the right (baton) hand, Karajan used his gestures with restraint and for complete communicative meaning.
In that unforgettable Bruckner Eighth - which was effectively his valedictory to America - his baton hand was often all-but-motionless, and the left hand was doing the guiding work for his musicians. In fact, Karajan had the most expressive and poetic left hand I have ever seen. Yet in the Mahler Ninth, I can still see his baton arm sweeping down from above his right shoulder to near his left thigh in successive repetitions as he mimed the shattering climax of the final movement. It is something one hopes the videos will be able to capture.
Karajan was not always the most noble of human beings, and his consuming ambition peaked in the '60s when, as the most powerful figure in music, he controlled simultaneously the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and also the Salzburg Festival. Yet once he had his fill of those glories, he gave up all but Berlin and Salzburg to devote more time to his musicmaking, which, it has been reported in West Germany, generated him an income of approximately $6 million annually.
Karajan's impact on the world of music would have been enormous just for the sheer quantity of his recordings spanning over 50 years of his career, sales of which have been estimated in the hundreds of millions. The best of his opera recordings set new standards as well; most singers who worked with him - even if they eventually feuded - admit that no one has ever supported and accompanied the human voice with greater love and understanding.
But it was Karajan's personal standards that set him apart - even when he was not always able to reach them. To all who care to study his gift, his recordings give more than a fleeting glimpse of the possibilities in the pursuit of idealism and truth in music. They demonstrate just how, at his best, this man and his orchestra could become the transparency for a composer's unique vision.