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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony no.35 in D, Haffner K.385 [19:01]
Symphony no.40 in G minor, K.550 [27:11]
Symphony no.41 in C, Jupiter K.551 [28:24]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. June 1980 (35), April 1976 (40-41), Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ENTRÉE 00289 477 5008 [74:52]

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Donít suppose youíre getting typical performances of the mid-20th century Ė for that you can go to Böhmís recordings from the 1940s and 1950s. Donít suppose, either, that youíre getting classic recordings from a conductor who, late in life, rose to a peak of high eminence Ė for that you can go to the versions of these works included in his complete Mozart cycle, recorded in Berlin during the 1960s. For this is late Böhm, very late Böhm.

For most of his career Karl Böhm (1894-1981) aroused no very great excitement but was much in demand as an extremely reliable practitioner of the old Kapellmeister school. And his performances did sometimes achieve greater inspiration than this implies, especially in the opera house. Then, in the 1960s, maturity seems to have increased his insight without, for the moment, impairing his vitality. He became one of the worldís top conductors and a convenient "traditionalist" to set in contrast to the Karajan phenomenon. But the years were taking their toll and his tempi began to slow down. People started to compare him with Klemperer, which was very convenient since all this happened at about the time Klemperer was bowing out. Every age needs its myth, but the Böhm myth was never very robust and was supplanted by the Wand myth almost before the dust had settled on his grave.

More than with Klemperer, I would compare these late Mozart performances with Giuliniís final phase, the work of an old man who has withdrawn to a private Mount Olympus of his own where, seemingly unmindful of the vital spark which caused him to be a conductor in the first place, he dwells upon certain eternal, if unexciting, truths.

Some enjoyment can still be found in the Schumannesque majesty of this Haffner Symphonyís first movement. It must be said, too, that he did not lose the art of the innocently flowing slow movement which was maybe his most individual contribution to Mozart interpretation. All three slow movements here are beautifully poised and not so very slow at all.

Unfortunately, the three minuets seem to represent a curious experiment in seeing how slowly these pieces can go without actually stopping entirely. Since the conductor was still able to extract an extremely graceful response from the orchestra you may feel that he just about proves his point, but the music has a very gaunt air. Surely Mozart would have provided a fuller texture if he really wanted the music to go so slowly. The Haffner concludes with a very staid finale.

The first movement of the G minor is such an extraordinarily great piece that any performance which tells us something we didnít know about it is worth hearing once. The tempo is about the same as Klempererís, but it chugs less since Böhm seeks grace and serenity in the music. It can by no stretch of the imagination be called "Molto allegro" but its Olympian calm is impressive, even sublime in its way. Once again the slow movement is very beautifully realized at a mobile tempo, but then comes that dreadful minuet. The final is robust here and there; elsewhere it sounds as if the conductor was too tired to do a proper job.

The Jupiter might be thought to respond best to this treatment and the opening movement has considerable majesty. The slow movement is once again very fine (and not slow) with some impressive pointing of the darker harmonic undercurrents. Yet another woefully slow minuet. The finale invests the final fugal denouement with almost Brucknerian splendour but itís been a weary slog along the way.

Incidentally, Böhm is pretty meagre over repeats. Normally Iíd be critical but in this context I thank the Lord for small mercies.

I find it reprehensible, indeed irresponsible, that these performances should appear on what is obviously intended as a cheap, popular label. This disc should only be heard by those with the knowledge and experience to glean what is good from it and set aside the rest. Personally, when I have other performances for comparison, I shall be pleased to take out these slow movements, and in certain moods I may enjoy the first movement of the G minor. I donít much care if I never hear the minuets and finales again. If this disc was anybodyís introduction to classical music, it might also be his farewell. DG are really doing themselves no favour by issuing a CD which could be prejudicial to future sales of classical music in general and, more specifically, to the more marketable areas of Karl Böhmís extensive discography.

Christopher Howell


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