Sir Adrian Boult always used to say, when interviewed about
Brahms interpretations, that one could gauge the calibre of a Brahms interpreter
by his or her ability to conduct the Tragic Overture. By this criterion
Böhm need fear no-one. His long experience with the Viennese classics
and with Brahms in particular makes this set most welcome, although there
are still a very few niggles.
When these recordings were originally released on vinyl
they also appeared as a four record set in a box. Since those days,
parts of the original set have been released on CD but this happens
to be the first time in the UK market that all four symphonies have
been made available in this format. These recordings of the first and
second symphonies had not been released before, although Böhmís
earlier performance of No. 1 with the Berlin Philharmonic has been in
circulation and strongly favoured by pundits.
This set is very welcome as the quality of the CD transfer
is vastly superior to the vinyl pressings, and we can appreciate the
tonal splendour of the Vienna Philharmonic in its home, captured beautifully
by the DG engineers, and enhanced by Böhmís very acute ear for
Elsewhere, this set has been criticised for being on
the slow side of interpretations of the symphonies but, upon comparison,
Böhm is about the same as the Virgin set by Christoph Eschenbach
with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The Houston set, lauded elsewhere,
does include the first movement repeats in the first movements of the
first, second and third symphonies, whereas Böhm does not. Otherwise
the two sets are completely different. The Böhm set is very much
alive, and sometimes I feel somewhat in the wilderness in finding the
Eschenbach performances downright dull.
The first symphony is rich and sustained but the earlier
Berlin Philharmonic version mentioned above is slightly more dynamic.
Even so, the Vienna Philharmonic, at full tilt, gives a very satisfying
performance. This is coupled with the Haydn Variations, a marvellous
Disc two contains a wonderfully warm interpretation
of the second symphony, and the coda has a tremendous build up of energy
and tension that is cumulative rather than developed with excessive
speed. The second symphony is coupled with the Alto Rhapsody and the
Christa Ludwig is the alto soloist and her command
of the work is first class. The only reservation would be that her tone
is at times a little strained. I would not put this performance at the
head of the list of competing versions of this relatively short work.
The final disc in the box couples the third and fourth
symphonies, and has been available in this format on the Australian
Eloquence label. It is very welcome here.
So, a warm welcome for very competent, enjoyable performances
of these favourite works, well recorded and presented and also inexpensive.
Buy and enjoy.