As the classical music world observes the centenary of conductor Herbert von Karajan with a plethora of compact discs and DVDs, you realize he represents not just his own huge talent but something larger - a musical utopia. Many dream about such things, but Karajan created one, in which the typical limitations of rehearsal time, production money, and most manifestations of human frailty all but ceased to exist. Perfection, of sorts, was achieved.

Seen, however, from the relatively short distance of 19 years after his 1989 death at age 81, his lost utopia is hardly inviting. This is not to debunk Karajan but to examine what happens when one of the century's great talents pursues an apparently noble goal that eventually becomes a gray area between the rarefied and the inconsequential.

In an age of autocratic musicians (Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Arturo Toscanini), Karajan was the last and the ultimate. His primary power base was the Berlin Philharmonic, but his ties in Vienna, Milan, Paris and London were strong enough that he seriously curtailed the European career of one particular rival, Eugene Ormandy. He knew big-money people in ways that are unthinkable today. He had his pick of the world's great musicians, who feared that saying no would kill all future chances with him. But while his achievement of maximum control was the ultimate triumph of the autocratic model, he also embodied its failure, since ideal circumstances only sometimes lead to great artistic expression.

I write as a longtime Karajan skeptic who had a momentary though seismic conversion at his final New York appearance in 1989 with the Vienna Philharmonic. Back problems left him so physically broken that he needed a special podium to hold him upright. But I remember the moment in Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 when the music-making morphed into a zone I'd rarely experienced, in which nothing existed but the music, and nothing would ever be more important.

The catalyst in that situation, I believe, was a challenge that lay beyond his utopia and that had to be surmounted. In his first decades with the Berlin Philharmonic, the challenge was building the orchestra he wanted. In his final years, the main barrier between him and perfection was his own physical wreckage. The work he did in these periods has aged best, obviously, because people speak more clearly when they fear they won't be understood.

That's why the unreleased recordings of Karajan's live 1958 performances with the New York Philharmonic are so distinctive. Being in alien territory - he actually asked then-music director Leonard Bernstein for the gig - gave him extra fire. After a 1960s stint at the Metropolitan Opera, he was a remote presence in the United States, encountered on short tours with European orchestras or in increasingly airbrushed recordings and videos.

A pity. Without his edge, Karajan is particularly inscrutable. In the Robert Dornhelm documentary just released by Deutsche Grammophon, Karajan: The Music, The Legend, those close to him were never sure how intelligent or cultured he was. He mumbled to cover his stutter and is described as supremely lonely. In the first photo I ever saw of him, the cover of Beethoven's Triple Concerto on EMI, the soloists seem jovial but Karajan looks wizened, distracted and haunted. "What's his problem?" I wondered. On second thought, I didn't want to know.

Slight of build, with extremely long arms and piercing blue eyes, the Salzburg-born Karajan had no silver spoon but worked his way up from provincial German conducting positions and joined the Nazi Party as one might a labor union, yet even amid the uncertain postwar reconstruction he seemed to foresee his starry destiny. Though nobody had ever negotiated a lifetime appointment with a major European orchestra, Karajan did when Berlin Philharmonic chief conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler (who hated him) suddenly died.

Over the years, he variously stated his aesthetics, a seemingly impossible fusion of Toscanini's objectivism and Furtwangler's subjectivism (that was achieved - by Carlos Kleiber), and more vague objectives, like making music "beautiful" (whatever that is).

Any smart artist knows to modify amplitude of expression before the microphone, but Karajan traded the animal instincts that were almost violently abundant in live performances for abstract doctrine. Conductors like Leonard Bernstein showed their personality even in their earliest performances. Young Karajan was all over the place; even after codifying his personality, he was full of senseless contradictions, cutting Verdi's Otello for no good reason or casting light-voiced singers in heroic roles. No wonder his backbone became so distressed.

One consistent element was note decay: It happens naturally within nanoseconds after a note is sounded. Karajan challenged that, creating a seamlessness that gave the impression of the Berlin Philharmonic's sticking to soloists like adhesive, with unparalleled sheen. While that made much of his repertoire sound like Richard Strauss, it was the source of his mystique as an orchestral wizard in his endless rotation of symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Strauss and Mahler.

In later years, the sound was applied perversely and indiscriminately. Phrases spoke in a monotone. Musical events were smoothed and massaged into a stream of sound. The conductor who made the greatest-ever recording of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in the 1950s reduced Don Giovanni to a well-coiffed glimmer of its usual self in the 1980s.

His move into stage directing yielded opera films that only now have wide U.S. release on home video. I heartily recommend his Das Rheingold - and not because it's good. Aside from such camera-savvy singers as Peter Schreier as Loge, the 1978 film is utterly stilted, with special effects (including bare-chested Rhine maidens) that are pathetic by 1960s Barbarella standards. It's fair to guess that Karajan identified with Wotan, king of the gods, who is so picturesque here that even the character's missing eye is apparent only in his mild squint. The powerful world-ruling ring is more garish than Las Vegas bling.

This is utopia?

No. It's postwar German television, which ran to badly dubbed Gunsmoke reruns and musical variety shows with stars warbling operetta. Unknowingly, Karajan revealed what may always have been hidden behind his imperious manner: He was a bourgeois Austrian. Nothing wrong with that - ask Franz Welser-Möst - unless denying it led him to erect barriers around himself. That's the ultimate fallacy of utopia: It filters out the worldly sophistication performers need in order to grow and relate to their times. Karajan's utopia was something of a prison. He held the keys but used them far too infrequently.

The Best of Karajan

Mahler: Symphony No. 9, Berlin Philharmonic. Live. Deutsche Grammophon.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8, Vienna Philharmonic. Live. DG.

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis. Live. Vienna Singing Society and Berlin Philharmonic. DG DVD.

Karajan: The Legendary Decca Recordings. Vienna Philharmonic. Decca.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier with Schwarzkopf, Ludwig et al. EMI.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Vinay, Modl and Hotter with Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Live. Orfeo.EndText

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.