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
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
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
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
see also review by Colin Clarke