Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony no. 9 in C major D944 “The Great” [51:00] (1)
Mass no. 6 in E flat major D950 [58:46] (2)
Peter Schreier, Werner Krenn (tenors)
(2), Walter Berry (bass) (2)
Wiener Sängerknaben (2), Herrenchor der Hofmusikkapelle (2), Hofmusikkapelle
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (1)/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 12-13 June 1973, Grosser Musikvereinssaal Vienna (1), 28-29 June 1976
Hofburgkapelle, Vienna (2) EUROARTS
I’ve never really made up my mind about Karl Böhm (1894-1981).
From my earliest years of record collecting he was always “there”.
He’d been “there”, for that matter, from the earliest days
of my father’s record collecting, and maybe a bit before
even that. Yet he never seemed quicken anyone’s pulse.
Known as a protégé of Richard Strauss, his recordings of
the latter’s operas were widely admired. Yet whenever there
was an alternative by Krauss or E. Kleiber earlier, or
Solti later, it was invariably found to be better. As for
the tone poems, he was never even asked to set them down
systematically. Those he did record failed to kindle the
imagination as did those under Krauss or, in the 1970s,
Kempe. And all this without considering the Karajan equation.
All the same, this was a conductor who commanded the admiration
of both the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics.
Around the later 1960s, as his older – and even younger – contemporaries
began to die off, Böhm was shunted into the position of
a great elder statesman conductor. He was hailed as the
Mozart conductor of our times. Little present in London
for most of his career, he happily filled, with the LSO,
the interregnum between the death of Otto Klemperer and
the invention of Günther Wand. In his last years he slowed
down, Klemperer-style, but he lingered on less and all
things considered a much smaller part of his recorded legacy
is compromised by human frailty than is the case with Klemperer.
The present two performances may seem dated dangerously
late, but even in the Mass I can detect no lessening of
control or flagging concentration.
His reputation plummeted after his death and has not so
far revived very much. Those who listen to his humourless “Nozze di
Figaro” and his sane and sensible “Così fan tutte” are
apt to find that several of his contemporaries or even
predecessors were producing Mozart performances that have
more appeal for us today. The present Schubert performances,
at any rate, still have a lot to offer.
Technically, Böhm is a type of conductor who arouses bewilderment
among today’s acrobats of the podium and their fans. The
few shots we get from back in the hall show that his gestures
were so directed towards the orchestra rather than the
audience – this is rarer than you’d think – that his by
no means capacious rear view practically hid them. This,
of course, could also be said of Reiner or Toscanini. I’d
say that Böhm’s audiences didn’t “watch” the conductor
the way Bernstein’s did. He was simply a reassuring presence,
a guarantee that all would be well.
Students of conductor footage will know that Reiner and
Toscanini had magnetic, flashing eyes. The extract of Reiner
Beethoven 7 and subjecting his poor players to looks of
utter disgust such are normally reserved for a cat that’s
brought home a dead bird has become something of a party
But Böhm’s secret isn’t there. His eyes are shielded by heavy glasses – and
seem to have been so from quite early on in his career.
No expression is discernable*. And his face is totally
impassive. Just once, at the dramatic climax of the Symphony’s
slow movement, he allows his mouth to open a fraction.
This is the only proof we have that the face we see is
a real one not a waxwork. In the Mass he is fractionally
more forthcoming. At climaxes he seems to be murmuring,
if hardly mouthing, the words. As the Agnus Dei swings
into a serenely flowing “Dona nobis pacem” a wisp of a
wintry smile briefly crosses his countenance.
It is, therefore, the baton and the left hand – when used – that do
the trick. The movements are miniscule but certain shots
from the back of the orchestra show that they are very
clear. His hand never rises above the level of his head,
though the baton itself does. His movements are generally
quick and transparent, not expansive or rhetorical. A curious
gesture is a sudden stooping down and lowering of his baton,
almost as if he is pulling a rug from under somebody’s
feet. It seems to serve its purpose of alerting the orchestra
to a change of mood. I take it that it was by these means
that he got from the orchestra a rather lean, Weingartner-like
sound, rather than a romantic one. And be it noted, at
the height of Karajan’s dominance, creating a much denser
sound from both the Berlin and the Vienna orchestras, they
seemed to provide Böhm automatically with the sound he
wanted. However, the part of the process we don’t know
is the rehearsals, at which I understand Böhm could be
exacting and temperamental.
By 1973 Harnoncourt et al were leaving the confines of
their period instrument bands and working their wicked
will on standard
orchestras. This performance of the symphony may have seemed
a blast from the past in a way it didn’t when Böhm set
down a similarly conceived reading with the Berlin PO ten
years earlier. The first movement themes alternate between
two completely different tempi in a way that began to be
frowned upon even then. The coda gradually lurches to a
halt. Leaving as a case apart the exceptional magic of
Furtwängler’s ramble through the Austrian woods, I find
this perhaps the most convincing of the “romantic” readings
I’ve heard, since Böhm’s control of the structure and his
way of slipping in and out of the different tempi almost
makes it seem “classical”.
The slow movement has a fine sense of inexorable looming
tragedy, with passing moments of assuaging beauty. Here,
deviates from his original tempi several times. The climax
is immensely powerful.
The scherzo seemed a little slow, but this is maybe the Viennese way.
It has a nice lilt without succumbing to schmaltz. The
finale has terrific spin.
Even more valuable is the Mass, which Böhm did not set down commercially
so far as I know. You will notice that no female soloists
are named. It may be a Viennese tradition rather than a
decision by Böhm to use all-male voices since ten years
earlier Ferdinand Grossman set down a version for Philips
that used treble and alto soloists from the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
Two of the soloists were also the same – Kmentt and Berry.
The alto has the hardest job to hold his own against his
mature colleagues but the team is an excellent one.
Böhm’s performance is essentially dramatic though tenderness is allowed
where appropriate. Particularly moving is the emergence
of an innocently pastoral “Dona nobis pacem” from the granitic “Agnus
Dei” that preceded it. The return to darkness is therefore
all the more powerful.
Altogether, this DVD makes a strong case for rediscovering
Christopher Howell Note
* Since writing this I read in John L. Holmes: “Conductors:
A Record Collector’s Guide”: “Like so many other great conductors,
it was his eyes that communicated most to his players”. I can
only report that it doesn’t look like that.
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