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Book review: Sympathy for the old devil

SOME THINGS cannot be quite forgiven. Like many other Germans with jobs to get or keep, the conductor Herbert von Karajan joined the Nazi party in 1935; like a lot of people in the aftermath of their success, he applied to join two years earlier - and forgot to send his subscription. He was young and ambitious and he did what he thought expedient. And it was something terrible.

In spite of a myriad vague accusations, that was the worst he did. There is no evidence that he denounced or betrayed anyone. He was a young star of German music, distrusted by the regime for the simple reason that Hitler did not like his conducting. Also, he had a taste for modern music, and banned music. When alone, he and Siemens of Deutsche Gramophon would play Mendelssohn - banned as a Jew - together.

When, ultimately, he was faced with important moral choices, he did the right thing. He fell in love with Anita, who was half Jewish, and was told that if he married her he would never work again. He married her and took the consequences - as it happens, consequences that were never more than inconvenient. But he could not have known that.

Rumours of far worse always dogged him. He looked, and conducted, too much like the poster child of Prussian militarism for people to believe that he was as little guilty as he was. Osborne demonstrates that those rumours were based on mistakes or distortions. It has even been claimed that he divorced Anita in 1942, rather than marrying her.

Osborne has too little to say about the complications of Karajan's emotional life. When he divorced Anita, in 1958, to marry Eliette, he continued to behave publicly as if he were married to both, bowing to one at the interval of concerts, to the other at the end. For all his superficial conservatism, Karajan was a swinger at heart, and Osborne does not investigate these contradictions.

He neglects the question of Karajan's women protegees. Clearly, when the Berlin Philharmonic rejected the clarinettist Sabine Meyer, their principal reason was sexism, but another was dirty-mindedness. There are no grounds for assuming impropriety, but Osborne's failure to say this explicitly is a mistake.

He particularly neglects protegees who failed and were dropped. One reason why he hardly talks about the Karajan recording of Wagner's Ring cycle seems to be that it would involve talking about Helga Dernesch, whom Karajan plucked from obscurity to be the Brunnhilde of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. When Osborne does talk about the damage to Dernesch's voice during the recording of Tristan, it is to blame her. This begs a lot of questions.

Standard criticism of Karajan has been his restricted repertoire. Osborne convincingly shows that, when younger, Karajan conducted rather more new music than in his last two decades. He never recorded it because his recording companies would not let him - which is why we do not have, for example, his Shostakovich Eight or Five. Oddly, the book does not include a discography.

Osborne is a devotee of the work, and is snooty about criticisms. Karajan's obsession with perfection can be claustrophobic. James Galway talks of how the flute part in Bach's St Matthew Passion was shifted between players so that no one was ever heard doing anything so human as taking a breath.

Far too much of the time, Osborne talks about Karajan's wisdom or dignity. This is music, for heaven's sake, not philosophy. This attitude is of a piece with the sentimental idealism in some of Karajan's work that makes his later Brahms, for example, hard to like.

He was, as Osborne notices in some of his better critical pages, at his best when trying to make us hear for the first time. Karajan did not play Webern or Schoenberg like Boulez plays them, but his recordings were admirable servants of the scores. Again, there was arrogance here - he wanted to rescue great music from an avant-gardism that neglected his version of conductorly values.

Osborne is too kind about the way Karajan interpreted the Baroque and Classical periods. One does not have to be an authenticity trainspotter to find his big-band Brandenburg Concertos camp. Again, Osborne could have tried a bit harder to second-guess posterity.

The most attractive part of this overly kind account of a fascinating dinosaur is Karajan's own essay on rehearsal. He had grown up in the hard school of small-town operatic rep, and if he was at times obsessional it was, we should never forget, out of love of music. Proud, opportunistic, selfish, at times tasteless, Karajan, like the Flying Dutchman, is ultimately redeemed by that love.