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Herbert von Karajan : A BIOGRAPHICAL PORTRAIT by Roger Vaughan (Norton: $16.95; 226 pp.)

May 18, 1986|Martin Bernheimer | Bernheimer, Times music critic, first encountered Herbert von Karajan at the Vienna Staatsoper in 1958 and has been watching and listening ever since--with mixed feelings.

There are lots of famous conductors plying their mysterious, if not mystical, trade these days, but the number of genuine superstar conductors probably can be counted on three fingers. Leonard Bernstein is the most glamorous and, in America at least, the best publicized. Georg Solti is the most dramatic and, perhaps, the worst publicized. Then there is Herbert von Karajan--the perfectionist, the intellectual, the technical wizard, the schemer, the crybaby.

Obviously, Karajan isn't just a conductor. He is an industry, a legend, a tyrant, a matinee idol, an institution, an enigma. He inspires hysteria among the masses; adulation among snobs; consternation compromised by respect among musicians; fear and jealousy among his colleagues; controversy tempered by awe among critics.

Now 78 and in frail health, he is beginning to wind down a career that scaled the heights despite tainted politics and sometimes self-defeating ambitions. At one time or another, Karajan has ruled--that is the right verb--musical Vienna, Salzburg and Berlin. Technically, Berlin is still his. He left his mark on La Scala in Milan and, briefly, on the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

He has sold more than a hundred million recordings, preserved many a performance on film for a presumably grateful posterity, toured around several worlds. He has dabbled publicly in stage direction and in arts management, privately in skiing, piloting and the pursuit of slender young women with long blond hair.

FOR THE RECORD - Wrong Con Man
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 25, 1986 Home Edition Book Review Page 7 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Reviewing "Herbert von Karajan" by Roger Vaughan (Book Review, May 18), Martin Bernheimer wrote: "The biographer . . . is a journalist. . . . The biographee is a notorious, heroic con man." The Book Review printed: "The biographer . . . is a journalist. ... The biographer is a notorious, heroic con man." Apologies to author and reviewer. Condolences to subject.

Roger Vaughan's book--the first major one about Karajan in English--is significantly subtitled: "A Biographical Portrait." This is no historical study of a hero long dead. This is an official report, written with the breathing subject's cooperation and approval.

At first, that gives one pause. The biographer is, by his own admission, a journalist, not a musician. The biographer is a notorious, heroic con man. One fears hype, hyperbole and blind faith.

Most such fears are dispelled two pages into the foreword. Karajan, Vaughan writes, "would be more likely to engage Liberace as guest (sic) soloist than even consider scholarly arm-wrestling with a professional music person." This does not mean, however, that the book avoids arm-wrestling. The wrestling begins, in fact, in the next paragraph:

"By the age of 73, (Karajan's) ego had become blinding, colossal. He doesn't argue, he doesn't discuss. He dictates."

Playing detective, Vaughan discloses, to the maestro's displeasure, that the young Karajan must have been a more enthusiastic Nazi than he cares to admit. Rediscovered documents suggest that he may have joined the party not under pressure in the Germany (Aachen) of 1934 but voluntarily in the Austria (Salzburg) of 1933.

Karajan protests that his motives related only to his art--that is, to career advancement. He also protests, now, that he lost any favor he might have enjoyed with the Nazis when, years later, he married a woman who happened to be one-quarter Jewish. Perhaps he protests too much.

In breezy, hardly pristine prose, Vaughan chronicles Karajan's traumatic rivalry with Wilhelm Furtwaengler, his brief encounters with Hitler, his convenient memory lapses regarding the years between 1940 and 1945, his apparent lack of moral contrition, his love-hate relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, his treatment of fawning minions, his need for a loyal retinue, his undoubted artistic achievements and, yes, his apparent failures. Tough and remarkably thorough, this author does not value rose-tinted glasses.

Some readers may be discomfited by occasional lapses and detours. Many a point is distorted or exaggerated ("Sarah Caldwell . . . is a woman of such girth that a screen is always placed between her and the audience"; the Salzburg Festspielhaus is "the best opera house in the world").

Many a minor point is misunderstood (Judith Somogi is not music director of the Frankfurt Opera; old-fashioned operatic acting is not a hallmark of post-war Bayreuth; Leontyne Price is not a mezzo-soprano; Kapellmeister does not mean "choir master," and, as any self-respecting gourmand will gratefully confirm, Kaiserschmarrn i s not "a combination of custard and baked egg whites").

Nevertheless, the book offers a broad, fascinating, tellingly detailed chronicle of the progress of a would-be Uebermensch . It delves, with some sophistication, into the power wielded by a charismatic conductor in modern times, on both sides of the podium. It examines, with remarkable sympathy, the fragile relationship between proud orchestral followers and an inspired, ruthless leader.

Karajan triumphed against all possible adversity, Vaughan theorizes, because "he held with tenacity to his guiding principle: namely, that his musical mission put him essentially beyond reproach."

It is a sobering principle.

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