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Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Karl BÖHM
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Overture: Cosí fan tutte (1790)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Rec. September 1962, Kingsway Hall, London
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)

Symphony No. 8 (Nowak edition, 1890)
WDR Sinfonieorchester, Köln
Rec. 27 September 1974, Bismarksaal, Cologne
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Symphony No. 91 in E flat major (1788)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Rec. 22 September 1973, Musikverein, Vienna
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Symphony No. 9 in C major (1825)
Dresden Staatskapelle
Rec. 12 January 1979, Kulturpalast, Dresden
EMI CLASSICS/IMG ARTISTS 7243 5 75944 2 [2CDs: 78.50+77.44]

 

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 conductor.

Terry Barfoot

Great Conductors of the 20th Century



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