28 March 2024

Philip Jenkins

Spotlight von Einem: The piano concerto

It is well known that Karajan was a responsible mentor for musicians and singers who were younger than he was. Equally well documented is his dedication to the music of his contemporary composers Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But there were also numerous occasions when Karajan conducted pieces by composers who were younger than himself.

Gottfried von Einem (1918 – 1996) was one the most important Austrian composers after World War II. Karajan’s first encounter with a work by von Einem was the premiere of his “Concerto for Orchestra” in 1944. The title is identical with Bartók’s famous work but von Einem’s was in fact first performed nine months earlier! The aristocratic von Einem was the illegitimate son of the baroness Gerta-Luise von Einem and the Hungarian count László von Hunyady, a fact that Gottfried only learned in a Gestapo interrogation when he was 20 years old. By that time, Hunyady had been killed eleven years before by a wounded lioness when hunting in Africa.

Von Einem was a pupil of Boris Blacher, a contemporary composer Karajan valued greatly. Immediately after the war, von Einem became part of the directorate of the Salzburg Festival for many years and had tremendous success with his operas. The first performance of “Dantons Tod” in Salzburg in 1947 was originally planned with Otto Klemperer but he fell seriously ill. Karajan recommended to the composer Klemperer’s assistant, a young Hungarian conductor Karajan recently had heard in a concert in Vienna – Ferenc Fricsay. The production was a breakthrough both for von Einem and Fricsay. Nevertheless, Karajan did not hesitate to attack von Einem when he had the impression that von Einem lacked respect for Richard Strauss, one of Karajan’s household gods. In a letter to von Einem, Karajan wrote:

“If you consider it important to remain in touch with me, then I demand from you an attitude towards the music of past generations which is dictated, if not by love, then at least by respect for it. […] But your personal attitude towards Strauss does not interest me in the slightest. I am only hurt by the dismissive way you speak of an artist who was the complete expression of the thought and sensibility of his own time. And may God bless you if you are able to do the same for your time.”

Although Karajan and von Einem disagreed on many things like the programme of the Salzburg Festival, Karajan conducted von Einem’s piano concerto in Salzburg in 1957 with the Berlin Philharmonic and Gerty Herzog, the wife of Boris Blacher, at the piano. This is the only recording of a von Einem piece by Karajan.

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

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