18 April 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Hans Hotter – setting standards for Wagner

Hans Hotter was a major figure in Karajan’s Vienna years as artistic director (1956 – 1964).

Hotter is widely seen as one of the most important German bass-baritones of the 20th century – not only for Wagner and Richard Strauss but also as a Lied singer. Although he performed at every big opera house in the world, his special commitment to the Vienna State Opera in almost 600 performances (from 1939 to 1989) was evident. In Karajan’s era he performed under his baton no fewer than 69 times in Vienna and 13 times at La Scala.

Karajan and Hotter were about the same age. Their first collaboration was in 1937, at a concert of the Aachen orchestra featuring Brahms “German Requiem”. Hotter recalled:

“The thing I remember mostly from Aachen was the absolutely striking and fascinating control he had over his emotional behaviour – after all, he was only 29 years old and he conducted one of the most moving pieces I have come across in my whole life.”

Immediately after the war, in 1946, Karajan and Hotter met for studio recordings of two monologues from Wagner’s “Meistersinger” and (in 1947) the Brahms Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth. Both recordings were Karajan’s first recordings of these works. In the following years, Karajan and Hotter did not collaborate on an entire opera. They performed Beethoven’s Ninth and Haydn’s “Creation” in Vienna. It was only in 1952 that they started out on their first Wagner collaboration in Bayreuth, “Tristan und Isolde” with Hotter as Kurwenal. The production was recorded live and Karajan’s biographer Richard Osborne praised:

“The twin glories of the 1952 Bayreuth performance were Martha Mödl’s Isolde and Hans Hotter’s Kurwenal. Mödl’s first act […] and Hotter’s third act are both classic examples of the singer-interpreter’s art, aided and inspired by the conductor’s own quick-witted responses and imaginative daring. Here it is not so much the letter of the score that is attended to – though both Mödl and Hotter are extremely accurate singers – as the emotional tides that swirl around it.”

Hotter as a young man worked closely with Richard Strauss on the first performances of his operas “Friedenstag”, “Capriccio” and “The Love of Danae” and on the best way of approaching his Lieder. Karajan, who adored Strauss both as a composer and a conductor, was very keen on getting inside information about Strauss’ rehearsals.

“He would recall a conversation with Hans Hotter about the occasion when Strauss told him to omit a difficult top E: ‘Nobody will hear it, the orchestra ’s too loud. But don’t forget to breathe in and open your mouth or else the audience will know you’re not singing. (Osborne)”

Karajan only worked in Bayreuth for two seasons. The “Tristan” with Vinay, Mödl, Malaniuk and Hotter was his last performance on “the Green Hill”. He and Hotter teamed up again for a single “Salome” performance at La Scala with Hotter as Jochanaan and two “German Requiems” in Vienna in 1956. Karajan had already been managing director of the Vienna State Opera for six months before his schedule finally allowed him to conduct his first performance in his new function. It was the premiere of Wagner’s “Valkyrie” on 2 April 1957 with Hotter performing one of his best-loved parts – Wotan. In December, he returned as “The Wanderer” in “Siegfried” and in the following years up to the end of Karajan’s terms in office, he also appeared regularly in “Rheingold” (Wotan), “Fidelio” (Don Pizarro), “Tristan und Isolde” (König Marke), “Twilight of the Gods” (Gunther), “Parsifal” (Gurnemanz) and – only once – in “Tosca” (Scarpia).

Hotter’s and Karajan’s many joint projects were occasionally marred by setbacks (like postponed productions because of quarrels with the stagehands’ union) but they also fielded some remarkable rarities like Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella cattedrale”.
Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880 – 1968) was a “late-impressionist” Italian composer and is almost forgotten today. The contemporary of Respighi composed thirteen operas, one of the last being “Assassinio nella cattedrale” after T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”. The first performance was in Milan in 1958. Karajan invited Hotter to Milan to watch this production and based his decision on Hotter’s reaction to the main part. Hotter was favourable and Karajan produced “Assassinio nella cattedrale” in German at the Vienna State Opera in 1960. Joseph Wechsberg wrote in Opera: “One had the satisfying feeling that this work just couldn’t have been done in any other way. Karajan conducted with great devotion and obvious warmth for the beautiful, lyrical score, and the Philharmoniker played the music with especially mellow sound. The centre of the whole performance and perhaps its sole raison d’être was Hotter’s Archbishop Thomas Becket […] The part is made to order for his powerful personality.”

Like many other great artists at the Vienna State Opera, Hotter didn’t continue working with Karajan after his resignation as director. The “Parsifal” performance on 24 May 1964 was their last artistic encounter.

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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