It is always fascinating to watch a conductor at work in rehearsal. The subject of this DVD, Karl Böhm (1894-1981), is no exception especially since he was the last conductor with a direct link to his mentor, the composer of Don Juan
, Richard Strauss. As Wolfgang Stähr says in his erudite notes to this album, “Conductors typically fall into two groups those who despise rehearsals [and dismiss them] … and those fanatics who are obsessed by every detail and who fit sounds together like a clockmaker, examining every bar, every note and every accent with microscopic care and meticulousness …” Böhm belonged to the latter group.
Just a reminder first about Don Juan
. This tone poem was premiered in Weimar to great enthusiasm in November 1889. Shortly afterwards it was performed in Vienna in the same hall as this performance, Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal, conducted, as in Weimar, by Richard Strauss himself. Although the critics were divided, the audience loved it and Don Juan
established the reputation of the 24-year old composer. Unlike Mozart's musical depiction, Strauss’s Don is based on the poet, Nikolaus Lenau’s viewpoint, a portrait of a roué’s promiscuity springing from his hopeless quest to find the ideal woman. Despairing of finding her and at length weary of life and filled with self-loathing, he wills only death and allows a much inferior swordsman to slay him. The music tells all.
Böhm’s rehearsals attracted many anecdotes; few were flattering. The Vienna Philharmonic players were well used to his pedantry and often told stories about his obsessive attention to detail. Strict, grumpy with a waspish humour, he was an authoritarian but respected by the orchestra. One is aware of all this as soon as the rehearsal begins when he insists on repeat after repeat after repeat of the exciting opening peroration and the following sexy love theme to obtain perfection following exactly the way Richard Strauss wanted his music played. Böhm is shown to be keen to ensure maximum balance and clarity; there is no concession to an understanding of the piece although that would probably not be necessary since the shape of Don Juan would be very familiar to most members of the Vienna Philharmonic. Böhm’s comments and directions are all technical - there is no imagination shown outside the notes.
As an aside and to compare conducting styles, I would just mention the working methods of another conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, shown rehearsing Berlioz’s Le Corsair
Overture with the Stuttgart Orchestra on ‘The Romantics’, a 2007 Hänssler DVD. There is something of a similarity between characters of the Corsair and Don Juan. Norrington graphically conveys the essential meaning of Berlioz’s music when he says “Think of a swashbuckling film starring Errol Flynn [and he imitates a sword fight] and you’ve got the personality of Le Corsair.”
Following the rehearsal you see Don Juan
in performance - Böhm on the podium with a strict baton technique and instructions conveyed with the snatch of the free hand or an expressive eye. The performance is certainly powerful showing a more rounded Don Juan
– more mischievous and witty and vulnerable perhaps than usual. If I were to choose my ideal Don Juan
it would have to be the thrilling and voluptuous reading given by Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and recorded by RCA Victor in December 1954.
The bonus material offers Marcel Prawy’s valuable insight into Böhm’s friendship with his mentor Richard Strauss and into the background of Lenau’s Juan and the Strauss symphonic poem.
A fascinating glimpse into a rehearsal by one of the 20th
century’s great conductors.
Masterwork Index: Don Juan