This bargain box gathers together the complete cycle
of Schubert symphonies which Böhm and the BPO recorded between
1963 and 1971.
Before discussing the recordings themselves, a word
of congratulation to DG on the presentation of this set. Nowadays reissues
at mid- or bargain price, especially by the big companies, are accompanied
by unacceptably skimpy documentation. However, this release has an informative
essay (in three languages) with well chosen illustrations, all of which
would be perfectly acceptable with a full price issue. The discs themselves
are in cardboard sleeves contained in a robust slimline box. Full marks
for presentation; other companies, please note.
Karl Böhm was, of course, steeped in the Austro-German
symphonic tradition and the depth of his experience and understanding
shows through clearly in these recordings. They are "traditional",
big band performances. However, just because we have become accustomed
to hearing the works of this period played by chamber orchestras, whether
on modern or period instruments, does not mean that Böhmís way
with Schubert should now be ignored or despised: far from it.
Let me say straight away that anyone buying this set
is unlikely to be disappointed. For the most part the performances are
very satisfying, the sound quality is pretty consistent (despite the
fact that the recordings were spread over eight years) and good. In
addition, the orchestral sound is well balanced Ė by the conductor as
well as by the engineers Ė and this allows us to enjoy the contribution
of the BPO to the full.
Throughout the cycle the orchestra plays sensitively
and with finesse. In particular, the work of the woodwind principals
is a consistent source of delight. The players were probably as familiar
with the music as was Böhm and it shows.
What of the performances themselves? Well, Böhm
has an homogeneous view of the cycle which, indeed, is mirrored in the
booklet essay, where the author presents the first six symphonies as
a preparation for the "Great" C Major. Comparisons with other
recordings generally showed the Böhm cycle in a good light.
In the earlier symphonies I felt occasionally that
Böhm was a touch po-faced. When I compared his versions of the
Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies with those which Beecham recorded
with the RPO in the 1950s I expected to find that Böhmís accounts
were less charming, less smiling. However, honours were just about even
and, indeed, in one or two places, such as the Menuetto of the Third
I preferred Böhm.
Comparison with Nicolaus Harnoncourtís 1992 Concertgebouw
cycle was an interesting experience. In general, I found Böhmís
approach to be heavier in the middle movements of the earlier symphonies
and I preferred Harnoncourtís more flowing tempi in the Andantes and
Minuets (though not in the Menuetto of Number 1 where he is surely too
fast). However, it should be stressed that if Böhmís performances
are heard in isolation they are, for the most part, enjoyable and satisfying
and, after all, there is usually more than one way to play a symphony.
The one disappointment in the cycle is the so-called
"Tragic". Here I found Böhm to be just plain dull; In
particular, his speed for the minuet is ponderous while the tempo for
the finale is flaccid. Harnoncourt is much better here. However, both
performances are put in the shade, I think, by Igor Markevitchís trenchant
and lively 1955 account, also with the BPO for DG. If collectors can
find a copy (coupled with fine accounts of Berwaldís Third and Fourth
Symphonies) they would be well advised to snap it up.
Understandably, for many collectors the acid test of
a Schubert cycle will be the last two of the canon. They can be assured
that Böhmís recordings are among the best available. In the ĎUnfinishedí
the first movement unfolds naturally and with appropriate gravitas.
Detail is observed, but never in an obtrusive way. The second movement
is serene and dignified. Throughout, Schubertís Elysian music is presented
with complete understanding. Perhaps, by comparison with Gunther Wandís
compelling Ďliveí account from 1995, also with the BPO (on RCA), Böhm
does not probe quite so deeply. However, many will prefer his objective
approach and he gives a performance which is deeply satisfying.
He is similarly authoritative in Number 9. There is
one quirk in that the opening horn call is played with each note detached.
I canít recall ever hearing another performance in which this melody
is not played legato and I must say, having listened to it a few times,
I donít care for Böhmís way with this passage. Thereafter, however,
all is well and Böhm is a wholly convincing guide to the symphony.
In summary, then, with the exception of Number 4, this
is a fine and consistent cycle. There are other recordings of individual
symphonies which, depending on oneís mood at the time, might be thought
preferable. However Böhmís performances are completely free from
any eccentricities and are cultivated, sensible and thoroughly musical.
A most attractive bargain.