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A Box Of Karl Böhm’s Late Recordings

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Jeremy Lee writes

The circumstances for the reissue of these “late recordings” in a box set is rather curious.  Usually when a box set documenting the artistry of a legendary artist (in whole or in part) surfaces, its release date coincides with the anniversary year of that artist’s birth or death or other meaningful anniversaries.  Released in 2015, the present set seems to have nothing to do with the anniversaries of Karl Böhm (1894-1981).  Even more curious is the choice of recordings that qualify to be included in this “late recordings” set.  The earliest selections from the box date from 1971, so why not include his 1970s VPO Beethoven and Brahms cycles?  Or some of the early symphonies from his Schubert cycle with the BPO, dating from 1971?  It may be that DG left the aforementioned recordings out because they were released previously in the form of various Collectors’ Edition box sets, but that would make the title of this box set a bit misleading.  It should have been called “Karl Böhm:  The Late Recordings That We Haven’t Already Reissued In Collectors’ Edition Box Sets“.  Oh well.

At any rate, it’s good to see these recordings back into circulation again, especially since the majority of them have gone out of print.  A glance at the track listing at the back of the box confirms Böhm as an Austro-Germanic repertoire specialist:  the overwhelming majority of the pieces are from composers of that heritage, while the remaining non-Germanic pieces are by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, whose symphonies were heavily influenced by the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition.  Certainly these works were Böhm’s forte:  Böhm’s gravely serious approach to music-making, often striving for directness and emphasizing musical structure and integrity at the expense of surface beauty and thrills, suited the music he chose to conduct to the hilt.  And of course he had some of the greatest orchestras in the Austro-Germanic repertoire at his disposal:  most of these pieces were recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, with the Tchaikovsky delegated to the London Symphony Orchestra and the Schubert 9th and some Beethoven overtures to the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Beethoven (CDs 1-4)

Disc 1 opens with Böhm’s last official recording, his digital Beethoven 9th from November 1980.  And it gives me no pleasure to say that it isn’t a very good performance.  At 79 minutes this is certainly one of the longest recordings of the work, but slowness is, as always, never a problem per se.  The problem lies in the lack of the imaginativeness of the whole performance, with ponderous and slack phrasing, little cumulative tension or impact in the climaxes of the first movement, and some surprisingly imprecise playing (the Maestoso 3/4 section in the finale’s coda).  Böhm may have one of the starriest quadrumvirates in the solo voices, but they seem to be hampered by Böhm’s grim and unfocused conducting–observe how Berry and Böhm can’t agree on each other’s tempo as Berry delivers his first “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” line with a vivacity and speed that Böhm didn’t bother to catch up with.  Even the sonics are awry, with a glassy (at times shrill) string tone and an under-prominent chorus (thanks to early digital recording technology).  Thankfully admirers of Böhm have the 1970 recording to fall back to.  Recorded as part of his integral Beethoven cycle, the basic interpretation is pretty much identical (Böhm was nothing if not consistent), but the playing is much more precise and beautiful, the conducting at a marginally faster tempo so much more invigorating and fiery, and the sonics more truthful and comfortable to listen to.

The remaining three Beethoven CDs reveal Böhm as a much greater Beethoven conductor than the digital Ninth suggests.  The overtures that half-fill Disc 2 are splendidly done, with conducting high on drama and vigor and gritty, weighty playing from the Vienna Philharmonic and (in Fidelio and Leonore III) the Staatskapelle Dresden.  [Note:  These Dresden performances are also included in the Collectors’ Edition box of the 1970s Böhm Beethoven cycle; they were miscredited as the Vienna Philharmonic in that box despite the booklet mentioning that they were recorded in the Lukaskirche in Dresden.  A quick listen of the orchestral sonority, with dark strings, biting trumpets and thunderous timpani, reveals it to be, unquestionably, the Staatskapelle.]  Böhm recorded a mono Missa Solemnis with the Berlin Philharmonic before; I have not heard it but I must say that this stereo performance from 1974 with the Vienna Philharmonic is one of the greatest (and underrated) performances that the work has ever received.  Yet again it’s on the slow side (89 minutes) but the faster sections are certainly brisk and impactful enough; the slow tempo taken for the Sanctus and Benedictus adds a dimension of tenderness and spirituality that is instantly affecting.  In fact one of the strongest points about this performance is the unusual clarity of textures despite the massive sonority of the choir and orchestra.  Observe, for example, the clean rhythms of the timpani and strings in the Gloria:  every note is clearly and effortlessly discernible.  Another strong point concerns the splendid quartet of soloists, with Margaret Price a focused, creamy soprano that rivals Gundula Janowitz in Karajan’s 1960s recording, though less inhumanely perfect.

Bruckner (CDs 5-6)

It is a matter of regret that Böhm did not record the 9th to complete his Late Bruckner Triumvirate, for the 7th and the 8th are undoubtedly great performances.  The 7th was in fact one of the first 7ths I bought, and I particularly enjoyed comparing it to Giulini’s and Karajan’s Vienna recordings (which I obtained shortly after), due to the huge difference between the sonorities that the three conductors cultivated from the same orchestra at around the same time period.  Böhm’s gruff, unvarnished string and brass sound (with particularly prominent horns) and edgy timpani was in stark contrast to Karajan’s undeniably beautiful sonority, one that was highly polished, burnished and smoothed-out, while Giulini’s sound sat squarely at the middle of the spectrum and combined the best of both worlds.

If some may feel that the orchestral sound in Böhm’s 7th is a bit too rough-hewn for their taste, his 8th is noticeably more refined and polished, with silky strings and sonorous brass that don’t turn coarse like they sometimes do in the 7th.  (This is surprising since both symphonies were recorded by a fundamentally same recording team only a few months between each other.)  Here the Böhm-Karajan spectrum of Vienna Philharmonic Orchestral Sonority Smoothness is narrowed considerably, with Böhm’s sound quite similar to what Giulini obtained, though Karajan’s sound is as gilded and glossy as always.

Interpretation-wise, Böhm’s tempi are generally middle-of-the-road, except in the first movement of the 8th which is around 2 minutes faster than both Giulini and Karajan.  Böhm’s approach to both of the symphonies is unsentimental, unfussy and utterly natural.  With a laser-like focus and powerful will, Böhm directly reveals the gravitas, darkness and inner strength of the work to a greater degree than the two other conductors mentioned above, though Giulini and Karajan may be preferred by those seeking a mystically spiritual approach.

Haydn (CDs 7-8)

Karl Böhm’s approach to these five Haydn symphonies (88-92) is, as with his approach to the music of other composers, gravely serious and unsmiling, which might not be to one’s taste in an exuberant composer like Haydn whose musical voice was distinctive for, amongst other things, his sense of humour.  Bernstein with this very same orchestra reveals this bubbly humour and joie de vivre in a much more idiomatic manner, not to mention Jochum’s wildly exciting recordings with the erstwhile second-rate London Philharmonic (and the first-rate BPO in 88), and even Klemperer (who most of the time is temperamentally similar to Böhm) injects the music with energy, colour, charm and (deadpan) humour that is most infectious.  A comparison between the four conductors’ Haydn 88 finales will instantly show this difference.

There are redeeming features, however.  Monochrome and charmless his Haydn may be, but it certainly is graceful, and his treatment of the minuets are in this regard inimitably idiomatic.  But the main attraction of these performances is the immaculate playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, which thanks to Böhm (probably) is technically assured and meticulously balanced.  Meanwhile, the Sinfonia Concertante suffers from the aforementioned problems to a lesser degree.  Elegance abounds in this performance, which is beautifully and characterfully played by the four soloists (the whiny oboe sound is a particular delight).  The sonics are all extremely fine with the soloists in the Sinfonia Concertante standing out more than Bernstein’s.

Mozart (CDs 9-13)

Böhm’s 1960s complete Mozart cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic (the first of its kind) was and has remained one of the great achievements in classical music recordings as well as a perennially top recommendation for those seeking for a complete cycle of the Mozart symphonies; indeed the late symphonies culled from this set, now on DG Originals, has long been touted as legendary.  The present box set contains the (less famous) Vienna Philharmonic remakes of symphonies 29, 35 and 38-41 from the 1970s, and the main difference is the tempi:  already a bit ponderous in the Berlin performances, Böhm slows the music further, resulting in some of the slowest Mozart ever recorded.

Partly because of this, and partly because of Böhm’s unyieldingly strict and grim interpretations, most of the symphonies just fall flat, especially those bearing Haydnesque influence (my criticisms of Böhm’s approach on this kind of music has been documented in the above section so I shall not further elaborate).  In fact, the finales of the 29th and 35th symphonies are singularly depressing, such is their uninspired dullness (the 29th finale should be called “Allegro non spirito”!).  Hearing Böhm’s earlier recordings of the same music after hearing this (especially the thrilling 1972 live performance of the 29th with the Staatskapelle Dresden on Orfeo), not to mention those by conductors as diverse as Bernstein, Karajan, Marriner and Levine, is a blast of fresh air.  Probably the only exception to this stodginess is the surprisingly brisk and spirited Jupiter symphony.

Yet these same attributes, when applied to some of Mozart’s most tragic music, resulted in performances of uncommon depth and terribilità–I am of course referring to the 40th symphony and the Requiem.  Böhm’s approach in the former work most resembles Fricsay (though Fricsay is even slower), only with predominantly fabulous playing from the Vienna Philharmonic strings (as opposed to occasionally sour Vienna Symphony strings).  While Giulini’s late Berlin Philharmonic recording on Sony also sported similarly slow tempos, Böhm (and Fricsay) doesn’t smooth out the restless rhythms that open the first movement, nor does he underplay the sudden dynamic contrasts throughout the music.  The latter work under Böhm’s baton is probably the darkest and bleakest I’ve heard.  Tempi are, as expected, very slow (probably the only slower recording is Celibidache’s), but this allows Böhm’s grim determination to shine through.  The Kyrie fugue and Confutatis are cases in point:  despite the slow speeds the listener is drawn into the music with a powerfully compelling force and guided inexorably through each bar–in short, this is a performance of unprecedented magnetism, one that reminds me of “the oppressive, terrible brutality of ancient Mexican monuments which has always evoked dread” (to quote, oddly, Messiaen).  The soloists are all exemplary, with Karl Ridderbusch delivering probably the most commanding and sonorous Tuba Mirum ever recorded, and the choir massive in tone and rock-solid in technique.  There are other ways to present this music, but Böhm’s vision is uniquely ominous and imposing, and for that reason one of the greats.

Schubert and Schumann (CDs 14-16)

Like the Mozart, these Schubert items with the Vienna Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Dresden are remakes over a complete cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic in the 1960s, a set that I treasure and respect but find hard to love, again largely because of Böhm’s no-nonsense take on the music bordering on stodginess.  I’m afraid it’s the same story with the Schubert 5th, an unsmiling reading of music that should exude youthful charm, with an Andante con moto that’s hardly “con moto” at this tempo.  The Unfinished, however, is a spectacular performance.  It’s very slow (almost 26 minutes and without the exposition repeat), even slower than Sinopoli’s famous Philharmonia recording in the first movement, but Böhm, like in his Mozart Requiem, presents a reading unprecedented in the way it mesmerises and pulls the listener through the symphony’s architectural and emotional trajectory.  Climaxes are thunderous and towering; pianissimi are ethereal and luminous.  Böhm also extracts some unbelievably beautiful playing from the Viennese strings, particularly the cellos in the second subject of the first movement and the unbelievably clear pizzicato lower strings, golden horns balanced just atop them, that opens the second movement.

Then we come to the 9th with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a live performance from 1979 and apparently recorded for radio broadcast.  The sonics, therefore, are not as good, though still more than listenable (if you can afford a little duplication try obtaining the Japanese individual issue for significantly better sound quality).  Böhm presents a conception largely similar to his famous BPO 9th, with slightly faster tempi all round, but this performance is remarkable for the livelier playing and heat-of-the-moment excitement, as well as the coarser and darker string tone of the Dresden orchestra and “air-siren” (read: in-your-face) brass playing from the trombones and trumpets that reminds me of old Russian orchestras.  The way they blare out in the chorale at the end of the first movement is what one would call a “naughty thrill”, though it may strike some as slightly vulgar.

A few recordings of Böhm’s view of Schumann’s Fourth exists:  this studio recording, a live Salzburg Festival performance from 1972 also with the Vienna Philharmonic, and yet another live Salzburg Festival performance from 1975, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra.  I have yet to hear the LSO performance, but I have heard and compared both VPO recordings.  The always consistent and reliable Böhm yet again presents a similar interpretation, but I prefer the studio recording for its better ensemble balance and playing as well as the absolutely gorgeous sonics, notwithstanding a tad more inspiration in the live performance.  At any rate, the studio performance is already chock-full with so much spirit, elegance, power and gravitas that a little more surface excitement is rendered trivial.  What’s so special about this Schumann 4 is the massiveness of the whole conception, be it in terms of orchestral sonority (which is absolutely colossal), or the pacing and shaping of the entire symphony.  However, it is clear in Böhm’s performance that such massiveness does not preclude two things:  clarity and excitement.  Listen to the way the orchestra negotiates the scurrying rush to the finish (Presto):  taken at a slightly slower tempo than what we are accustomed to, such is the precision of the playing and clarity of texture that every single note in the strings can be discerned with absolutely no difficulty at all, yet the way they dig into their notes and tear their way through the finish line is a uniquely thrilling experience.  Undoubtedly a great Schumann Fourth.

The Strausses (CDs 17-18)

Stodgy though some of his Haydn and Mozart may be, it’s good to note that the late Böhm hadn’t lost touch with the Viennese bonbons of the J. Strauss family.  These may not be the most thrilling renditions out there, but it’s still performed with panache, color, daintiness, grace and charm.  The Vienna Philharmonic of course know these works backward, blindfolded and bound to a tree.  It’s simply lovely Strauss, idiomatically and authentically played.

With Richard it’s another story.  There exists a few early documents of Böhm’s R. Strauss, most notably the collection of orchestral works on Collectors’ Edition with the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Dresden.  Of those works Böhm only returned to Ein Heldenleben in his later years, and that’s the performance we get here, recorded in 1976 with the Vienna Philharmonic.  Böhm’s view of the music is quite clear after you hear the opening cello and horn melody:  unforced and lyrical instead of thrusting and angular, Böhm’s hero is a wizened, old hero rather than a hedonistic, adrenalin-pumping young one like we get with Reiner or Solti.  This general absence of overt physicality is also manifest in the less-than-impressive battle scene, an exciting affair under the two conductors previously mentioned.  Moreover, compared to Haitink/RCO, Maazel/Cleveland or even Böhm’s old Staatskapelle Dresden recording, the Viennese woodwinds lack sheer acerbity and character.  However, some slower sections (such as the Hero’s Companion and the Retreat from the World) are imbued with a sense of gentle, long-lined lyricism that is deeply fulfilling.  The violin solos are played with the utmost technical assuredness and flair by Gerhart Hetzel.  However this lack of visceral impact may be a detriment to most listeners, so if you want a Böhm Heldenleben may I suggest the 1973 BRSO live recording on Orfeo.  Böhm is in utmost inspired form here, and he is uncharacteristically unbuttoned in the battle scene while retaining that alluring melodiousness in the slower sections.

Dvorak and Tchaikovsky (CDs 15, 19-21)

With these discs we come to a subfusc corner of Böhm’s repertoire.  The Vienna Philharmonic has to date recorded Dvorak’s 9th at least eight times (chronologically Kubelik, Kertesz, Böhm, Kondrashin, Maazel, Karajan, Ozawa, Muti), but conception-wise none are as rough-hewn and granitic, nor as direct.  If you have heard Klemperer’s Philharmonia recording you will know what to expect here for it is a similarly terse, no-nonsense interpretation, low on sentimentality and high on solidity.  Böhm’s advantage, however, is the pellucid and distinctive timbre of the Vienna Philharmonic, and the sheer songfulness of the soli:  the celli at the very opening of the first movement is phrased with a lyrical communicativeness normally only heard in string quartets, while the (rather slow) second movement sports a mesmerisingly dignified cor anglais solo.  Elsewhere Böhm is suitably energised and he permits the orchestra to produce some surprisingly trenchant sonorities, a sonority that fits very well with Böhm’s rugged view.

Then we come to the Tchaikovsky with the London Symphony Orchestra.  The LSO obviously knows the music very well, having presented us with a spectacularly well-played cycle with Markevitch, and this spotless playing is also one of the good points in Böhm’s Tchaikovsky, if without that stunning hair-trigger precision with Markevitch.  Böhm, like in the Dvorak, gives us an admirably direct and honest approach to the music, never once succumbing to mere showmanship, overt displays of passion, or sugary sentimentality.  As you would probably have guessed, tempi are slow but not perversely so (unlike Celibidache or at times Klemperer).  This gives us two unpretentious, chaste and ultimately indistinctive performances in the 5th and 6th symphonies.  The 4th, however, is marginally more interesting since Böhm introduces various sudden (and unmarked) subito piano/sforzando-piano/forte-piano effects, effects that are gratuitous and cheesy in my opinion.  Otherwise this 4th is pretty standard, with a less than dazzling, if uncommonly clean and clear, finale.  In fact in 1971 Böhm performed this work with the Czech Philharmonic in Salzburg, and that performance (now on Orfeo in very good sound) is much more exciting and characterfully played, capturing Böhm in a surprisingly uninhibited mood.  (The silly effects, while detectable, are played much less obtrusively–the Czech wouldn’t have any of that.)

Wagner (CDs 22-23)

Böhm was of course a supreme Wagner conductor, and these two discs of orchestral snippets from various operas perfectly shows that affinity.  These are effortlessly noble and idiomatic performances, with their grandiose and lyrical elements particularly highlighted, probably due to the slower than usual tempo Böhm adopts.  The Isoldes Liebestod in particular is the slowest I’ve heard (slower than Celibidache!), and Böhm coaxes inhumanly beautiful playing from the orchestra while leading us, as if in a passionate dream, through every ebb and flow–it’s an immensely moving and cathartic experience.  Yet Böhm also does rise to the occasion during the more high-octane moments, such as in the Meistersinger Prelude, delivering a viscerally impactful performance with brass at full tilt.  Great Wagner by any measure.

Conclusion

These 23 discs may only consist of a fraction of Böhm’s large discography, but they are enough to show Böhm’s strengths and weaknesses as an interpreter, and indeed the strengths and weaknesses of any musician applying the same personal interpretative style on almost every piece of music they perform.  What I have established throughout my review is that Böhm was able to deliver performances of unparalleled gravity and visionary depth in the more serious music, while turning dull and pedantic during those works that cry out for freshness and spiritedness.  These unabashedly old-school interpretations have all but vanished from the modern world of music, and like I have said I don’t warm to all of them, but how you as a listener value them is of course down to the matter of taste.

A word on the presentation:  these 23 discs are housed in a sturdy, glossy box with a lift-off lid.  For once DG’s old-school yellow banner is back (possibly reflecting the old-schoolness of the performances) but I find it slightly incongruous with the rest of the presentation.  The cardboard sleeves of the discs and the booklet are awash of photos of Böhm, mostly unsmiling (there is a photo of him wearing a hideous grin).  I bought my copy for HKD$450 which is an extremely reasonable price.  Böhm fans will have obtained this set as a matter of course; listeners unfamiliar with his output should start with the Bruckner, Schubert, Wagner and Mozart Requiem included in this set, as well as his Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart symphony cycles.  In these performances Böhm’s distinctive and considerably valuable artistry is represented in the best light.

Details

  • Album name:  Karl Böhm:  Late Recordings
  • Performers:  Karl Böhm (conductor);  Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra;  London Symphony Orchestra;  Staatskapelle Dresden
  • Works included:
    • Beethoven:  Symphony No. 9;  Overtures;  Missa Solemnis
    • Bruckner:  Symphonies Nos. 7 & 8
    • Dvorak:  Symphony No. 9
    • Haydn:  Symphonies Nos. 88-92;  Sinfonia Concertante
    • Mozart:  Symphonies Nos. 29, 35, 38-41;  Maurerische Trauermusik;  Eine kleine Nachtmusik;  Sinfonia concertante;  Requiem
    • Schubert:  Symphonies Nos. 5, 8, 9
    • Schumann:  Symphony No. 4
    • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies Nos. 4-6
    • Wagner:  Overtures and Preludes from Rienzi, Tannhäuster, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde;  Isoldes Liebestod
  • Label:  DG 479 4371
  • No. of discs:  23
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD/DDD
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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