25 August 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Mahler: The Fifth Symphony

“Karajan was too young to have heard Mahler conduct but he had gleaned a good deal from those who had.”

Richard Osborne

Karajan’s approach to Mahler was a lengthy business. It may have taken so long not only for repertoire reasons – Mahler’s music was far less popular in the years when Karajan built up his career – but also because of a resemblance between the two men’s biographies, both of them heading the Vienna State Opera and counting among the most famous conductors of their time. During his studies in Vienna, Karajan must have heard a lot about Mahler. In the 1920s, Mahler may not have been widely recognized as one of the great symphonic composers of the turn of the century but there were still a lot of musicians who had met him or had worked with him, not to mention the composers of the Second Viennese School who were strongly influenced by him.

Another source was Karajan’s mentor in Salzburg, Bernhard Paumgartner. He was twenty years older than Her(i)bert and his brother Wolfgang. Paumgartner’s mother knew Mahler well. “One can only guess at the tales Bernhard Paumgartner passed on to the Karajan boys – one of them destined to be Director of the Vienna Opera – about Mahler and musical life on Mahler’s Vienna. […] There is a sense in which Heribert would have ‘known’ Mahler’s Vienna better than we might think. (Richard Osborne)”
It is a well-known story that, when he performed his Eighth Symphony for the first time, Mahler demanded that the bells on the city trams had to be silenced.

“Some thought Mahler was a megalomaniac; others put it down to his incurable perfectionism. Karajan, it goes without saying, opted for the latter explanation. (Osborne)”

Before 1960, Karajan had only performed the “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” twice during an American tour. On the occasion of Mahler’s 100th anniversary in 1960, Karajan added “Das Lied von der Erde” to his repertoire but it took him until 1973 to present his first interpretation of a Mahler symphony. It was the Fifth, the most popular, which had gained spectacular attention due to Luchino Visconti’s film ‘Death in Venice’ shortly before. “The film fascinated Karajan. What also fascinated him was the fact that the use of the Fifth Symphony’s Adagietto as the film’s musical leitmotif had turned the work into a prime commercial property. (Osborne)” Karajan recorded the symphony in the studio and performed it 9 times in concert – only with the Berlin Philharmonic and only between 1973 and 1978. Listen to Karajan’s live recording at the Salzburg Festival on 15 May 1978, his last-ever performance of this work.


This valuable clip shows Karajan rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1978.

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

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