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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major op. 58 [33:03]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no. 2 in D major op. 73 [37:33]
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven); Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Brahms)/Karl Böhm
rec. 3-9 April 1967, Studio Rosenhügel, Vienna (Beethoven), 16-19 September 1970, live, Grosser Musikvereinssal, Vienna (Brahms)
EUROARTS 2072058 [c.73:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This review was written in tandem with that of the DVD in which Karl Böhm conducts Schubert. I gave a fairly detailed description there of Böhm’s conducting manner and would refer readers to that. The only thing which need be added is that though the present recordings are slightly earlier, the wholly economical conducting technique is exactly the same. One would like to see something from ten or twenty years earlier still, but the evidence is that the conductor’s encroaching old age was not a factor.
The particular interest here lies in an opportunity to see Wilhelm Backhaus in a late stage in his career. With Backhaus as with Böhm, economy of technique and gesture are paramount. Just occasionally, when leaving the keyboard, Backhaus will raise his left hand in an eloquent gesture. But he never falls onto the notes from above. Every note is beautifully and clearly articulated from the level of the key itself. The result, helped by his Bösendorfer piano – lighter-toned than a Steinway and very “Viennese” – is of great transparency and luminosity.
Compared with Böhm’s impassive face-mask, however, Backhaus’s gaze seems to rove around, as though finding inspiration in something beyond his immediate horizon. Combined with his tufts of white hair, we irresistibly feel in the presence of a musical philosopher.
As a lot of his recordings show, this benign philosopher image he gave in his live performances could conveniently conceal the fact that his performances were in reality rudely energetic, cavalier in their treatment of the composer’s dynamics. But here all is well. With the fail-safe support of a conductor with whom he had worked off and on for most of his career, the two of them don’t “do” anything to the music, they just let it unfold serenely and naturally, with a familiarity borne of years of experience yet no suggestion of routine. The result is simply sublime. A hint of the “cavalier” Backhaus appears only in the cadenza that he naughtily substitutes for Beethoven’s own in the finale.
Jeremy Siepmann’s notes draw attention to the inevitable fact that Backhaus had charisma, while Böhm did not. It is difficult to look the other way when Backhaus is on the screen. When the cameras are trained on Böhm, only those interested in studying conducting techniques per se are likely not to find their eyes wandering.
And yet… The Brahms performance is not exactly what one might expect.
To begin with the negative side, anyone basing himself only on this DVD would conclude that the Vienna Symphony Orchestra was a very fine band, the Vienna Philharmonic a merely provincial one. It is a curiously free-wheeling, raucously-tuned execution. One wonders if whatever was played in the first half of the concert ate up all the rehearsal time.
The credit side of this is that we hear, not a meticulously polished interpretation – which is usually the case with a Böhm studio performance – but slightly busked traversal in which longstanding friends let the music flow as the mood takes them. The first movement often surges ahead of the basic tempo, yet Böhm gets back to his original speed so subtly that you are never aware of any slackening. The slow movement is pretty slow, but moves forward strongly on several occasions. The third movement is pointed with a Mozartian delicacy that prevents it from becoming heavy. Most remarkable is the finale, where Böhm really lets fly. The tempo is fast, almost Toscanini-like, and there is real fire to the playing. But unlike many such performances, Böhm is able to relax along the way, yet without loss of tension. At this pace he can manage a grandstand finale with only the slightest further increase of pace. For what it is worth, Böhm’s timings are very fractionally faster than Toscanini’s in all but the second movement.
Not, then, very typical of a Böhm recording. I wonder how typical it is of a Böhm live performance. In the last resort I find it lacks Brahmsian amplitude. I enjoyed it as a volatile one-off but wouldn’t go back to it in preference to my preferred audio recordings. But this raises what you might call the “Celibidache conundrum”, namely that Böhm didn’t expect anyone to hear the performance twice. Is there, then, a more interesting Böhm hidden in the radio archives than the one we know on record?
Just possibly. In “Conductors: A Record Collector’s Guide” John L. Holmes says: “… in music that calls for a touch of demon or virtuosity, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the smoothness of his conducting lacked tension and the final incandescence was missing”. The funny thing is that I seem to remember a live broadcast from Austria in the late 1970s of Beethoven 7 which had precisely that tension and incandescence. Maybe I’m misremembering, but I wasn’t influenced by the name of the conductor either way since I turned on the radio after it had started and learnt who was performing only at the end. The Brahms finale here certainly shows that Böhm performances can exist that have tension and incandescence.
Christopher Howell

see also review by Colin Clarke


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