Meeting von Karajan

KarajanDuring 1978, I was in Munich to record for the Bayerische Rundfunk.  I hadn’t met my German agent (Herr Stoll) before, and my agent in England suggested that I buy a bottle of whisky (duty free) on my outward journey, and give it to him when we met.  I went to visit Herr Stoll on a Friday morning after my final rehearsal, only to be told that he couldn’t see me as he had a problem that needed his full attention.  Stoll’s secretary informed me that he was on the phone to Herbert von Karajan, who was trying to find a Tamino for Die Zauberflöte. I asked her to interrupt him, and inform him that the role was in my repertoire.  She went in; he came out, and asked if I could be in Berlin at the Philharmonie for an audition at 9.00am on the following Sunday morning.  Of course, I said yes, and took the midday flight on Saturday from Munich. I checked into the hotel, had an early dinner and was in bed by 9.00pm, knowing that I had to be up by 5.00am to get the voice going.

Singing that early in the morning is not a favourite pastime for any singer.  I walked past the Brandenburg Gate and into the adjacent park at around 6.30, singing with the birds at the top of my voice, and on to the Philharmonie for an 8.00am rehearsal with the pianist, prior to my audition at 9.00am.

Well, 9.00 came and went, so did 10.00 and 11.00, and at about 11.50, Maestro Karajan came out of the concert hall and asked for me to go in.  I immediately noticed that there were cameras in the hall. He said that they would neither interfere nor film my audition, as they were only making a film to celebrate his seventieth birthday.

He asked what I would like to sing, and I said ‘Che gelida manina’ from La Bohème and Tamino’s aria from Die Zauberflöte. He replied that he was only interested in the Mozart.  I had sung just two bars, when he sent the cameras down to film me.  At the end of the aria he came down, said that it was some of the finest Mozart singing he had heard in a long time, and proceeded to give me a twenty-minute coaching session on the aria, with him at the piano.

'Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön' from die Zauberflöte.
 A 1985 recital for Cyprus TV, with pianist Marios Papadopoulos

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In his loge after the audition, he offered me Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at the Vienna Staatsoper, a film of Bruckner’s Te Deum with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein – the most beautiful concert hall, where they film and record the New Year’s Day concert every year – and many others.  Not bad for one year!  That audition was filmed and a part of it appears in the film for his 70th birthday called ‘Impressions’.

Later in 1978, when I arrived at the Musikverein for the first stage rehearsal of the Te Deum, my heart sank. The orchestra in front of me and the other soloists were school children, and on the podium was the conductor, no older than 14 years of age, with a baton that equaled his height. An instruction came over a loudspeaker to commence the rehearsal, which was followed by an orchestra playing the Te Deum (an earlier recording of Karajan’s) to which the children were miming.  Approaching my first entry, we – the soloists – stood up, and a voice came booming over the speakers, “Herr Rendall, put your music away”.  Of course, this was the Maestro himself, and only when he then asked me to look up toward the left and look angelic did I realise that he was giving camera directions for the TV broadcast and recording.

The next rehearsal was with ‘himself’ and the real Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  The performance, I thought, went well and was recorded.  Karajan took this recording to his mountain retreat during the break between performances. On his return to almost sea level, we were taken aback when he told us that everything was too slow, and that we had to re-record for the film. I was already aware that his conducting and tempi were controlled by his own heart rate, so it was with great trepidation that I asked if – before embarking on a further take – we could listen to it again together now that he was at a lower elevation, which we did. After no more than one movement he said, “It’s fine”, and agreed that his heart rate had probably been faster in the mountains. He was, however, a man for speed; he flew his own aeroplane and drove a very fast sports car very fast indeed!

Bruckner's Te Deum
 (Herbert von Karajan, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa,
 David Rendall, José van Dam)

Karajan conducted from memory, and for much of the time with closed eyes. After one of the movements there was a rather long pause;  the Maestro looked at the ‘Konzertmeister’ (1st Violin), who whispered something like, ‘Allegro ma non troppo’, and off he went.

On another occasion I was offered a contract with Karajan that I had to turn down, as I was committed to another contract with a different conductor. Karajan told me to cancel my prior commitment, which I was extremely reluctant to do. Despite knowing the potential consequences of saying no to him, I told him that I couldn’t renege on an existing contract, and asked him how would he feel if I were to cancel him for another.  He asked, “Who is this other?” and I replied, Leonard Bernstein. I never worked with ‘god Von Karajan’ again.  What a shame, but at least I had the privilege to have worked with such eminent conductors in the very early years of my career.

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3 thoughts on “Meeting von Karajan

  1. Hi ,
    I could be completely wrong but did I hear you sing Edgardo in Lucia in Liverpool in the late early 90’s (possibly earlier. I think Francis Ginzer (?) was the Lucia. I thought you were great (that’s if I am correct!) Enjoyed the Blog. Dave in the UK

    • Hi Dave in the UK,

      No, I haven’t performed Edgardo in Lucia di Liverpool or even in Lucia di Lammemoor. I have sung in L’Elisir D’Amore and Don Pasquale and some excerpts from these will appear in later blogs.
      Also, look out for my debut at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in Rossini’s ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’ Regards, David

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