In an earlier age, when popular light music was part of the classical mainstream, great conductors were as willing to lavish their art on the lighter end of the repertory as they were on loftier masterpieces. Not that the music was easy. “I conduct a lot of light music,” Herbert von Karajan remarked, “and it can be very difficult for an orchestra to realise it properly.”
The Berliner Philharmoniker were used to the intensity which Karajan brought to the great works of the repertory but even they could be surprised by the care he lavished on performances of popular overtures, operatic intermezzi and other musical delicacies – musical “lollipops” as Sir Thomas Beecham used to call them. After making a record of operatic intermezzi with Karajan, a player reported: “If a bomb had gone off beside him, I doubt whether he would have noticed, so absorbed was he in the music.”
In the case of the intermezzo from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, which is included in the present concert, Karajan was present in Milan in 1943 when the composer attended rehearsals for a revival of the opera. Though ill and lame, Mascagni had hobbled to the rostrum to conduct the intermezzo. Karajan recalled: “He lifted his baton and there was an explosion of sound no one could possibly have anticipated. I shall never forget it. It was incredible.”
Karajan himself had been ill in the winter of 1975-76 with a spinal condition which nearly cost him his life. The condition left him with restricted movement and periods of intense pain but, as is evident in this 1978 New Year’s Eve concert, he never spared himself when in the presence of music he loved.