The 'Great Composers
of the 20th Century' series is a joint
project between IMG Artists and EMI
Classics. And most worthwhile it is
proving, since reassessments are being
made and new material entering the catalogue.
This 2CD set of recordings
conducted by Karl Böhm features
the work of another significant figure
in 20th century music. Böhm enjoyed
a long and distinguished career, and
was especially noted in the Viennese
repertory. It is that, of course, which
features in this interesting collection.
This recording of the
overture from Mozartís opera Cosí
fan tutte was recorded in London
by Walter Legge in the Kingsway Hall
in 1962. Böhm also made a celebrated
recording of the complete opera with
the same orchestra, but this performance
of the overture, originally released
on the Angel label, is marvellously
vibrant and distinctive.
Disc 1 is dominated,
inevitably, by what follows: Brucknerís
great Symphony No. 8. Böhm made
a fine recording of this for DG with
the Vienna Philharmonic, but this radio
recording from Cologne has real spontaneity
and holds together well as a performance.
The recorded sound is colourful and
rich, as we would expect from the vintage
of 1974, but the balancing can be odd.
Near the beginning, for example, the
clarinet and other woodwinds are far
too loud, leaping unnaturally out of
the texture when their solos arrive.
Things settle down after that, and tempi
and phrasing are always well judged.
Böhm was always
prepared to be unfussy in Bruckner,
to let the music unfold and speak for
itself. Some of his chosen tempi are
on the fast side (which is why the performance
can be accommodated on a single disc
with a fill-up), but there is more than
one way to perform a great symphony
and this way does carry conviction.
The outer movements come off best, particularly
the finale, which can sound very exciting.
The brass play heroically and the recorded
sound has plenty of bloom and depth,
both of which are essentials in this
music. The strings, too, have great
body of sound as well as beautifully
rounded sound and good intonation. This
is a compelling performance well worth
hearing. It may be a trifle short on
mystery, but it is direct and well structured.
As such, the greatness of the music
shines through on every page of the
score, not least in the epic sonorities
of the final bars.
Haydnís Symphony No.
91 is a wonderful example of his genius,
yet it remains little known in comparison
with the famous ĎParisí and ĎLondoní
Symphonies that surround it. Böhm
makes out a compelling case, and the
recording from the Musikverein in Vienna
gives his performance all the support
it needs. There is an overall symphonic
direction as well as close attention
to details of phrasing and texture.
A highlight is the quintessentially
Austrian trio section of the minuet,
wonderfully understated but hugely effective
as a result.
Schubertís Great C
major was always one of Böhmís
favourite pieces, and he recorded and
performed it as often as possible. This
performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle
was made in 1979, sixteen years after
his famous Berlin version for DGG. This
was towards the end of Böhmís career,
when he was 85 years old. However, there
is no lack of vitality or attention
to detail. The orchestra play well for
him, as we would expect, and he achieves
a real performance, giving everything
for the occasion. In truth this proves
something of a mixed blessing, particularly
in the first movement, which has some
odd instrumental balances and extremes
of tempo. The inner movements come across
well, and the finale has an urgent sweep
of intensity, recapturing the spirit
of the live performance.
With the interesting
documentation relating to the conductor
that this series has made one of its
priorities, this is a fascinating example
of the central achievements of a great
Conductors of the 20th Century