Lynn René Bayley
, June 2009
Karl Böhm—unsmiling, severe, businesslike, and media-shy—was, paradoxically, one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. In many ways he was like tenor Jon Vickers, a man completely dedicated to and subservient to his art, proud of his accomplishments but devoid of the need for media attention. He enjoyed good reviews and the fact that he was in demand, yet saw the music as the star of the show, not himself. He once said, “I’m glad that there is a place in the world where one must judge the conductor only by hearing him, and not by seeing him: that place is the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.”
There is a stupendous video performance of Strauss’s Salome conducted by Böhm that stands as a monument to his greatness. Equal to that are his audio recordings of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Strauss’s Daphne, the latter dedicated to him by the composer. No one yet has managed to surpass these achievements on disc, and were it not for the 1948 Toscanini broadcast of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, Böhm’s recording of it with Wilhelm Backhaus would stand as the finest of that work, too.
This DVD captures some of the very little footage that survives of Böhm in performance and what is possibly his only surviving filmed rehearsal. Watching him at work, one is reminded of such similar conductors as Igor Markevitch, Sir Adrian Boult, and Benjamin Britten. Like Britten, in fact, Böhm comes across as a Toscanini in repose, similarly fanatic about detail, correct rhythms, and orchestral balance, but without the Italian’s temper explosions. The difference is that in Romantic music, Böhm occasionally distended the tempo a little—he was Austrian, after all—though not to the extent one heard from Furtwängler. Like Markevitch and Toscanini, Böhm favored a lean orchestral sonority, stressing a perfect equipoise of sections. If his performances sometimes (as they did here) lacked a little in the way of inspiration, they were technically and musically of a very high order. I, for one, prefer this reading of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony to the often-overrated recording by Istvan Kertesz.
Perhaps surprisingly for one often viewed as austere, Böhm is not nearly as static on the podium as one might think. Emphatic arm thrusts, sometimes combined with knee bends and other body language, emphasize the rhythm or cue in a section more clearly. This is not to say that Böhm was a “busy” conductor—he was not, only to indicate that he wasn’t as inanimate as Strauss, Reiner, or Szell. Indeed, one of Böhm’s most endearing and, for posterity, remarkable qualities was his ability always to give a good performance. Some were more inspired than others; that’s true of every conductor who walked the earth, but in Böhm’s entire œuvre there is not a single performance that was stiff, sloppy, or boring. That in itself was quite an accomplishment.
Apparently these were performances in name only. No audience was present that I can tell other than the camera and lighting crews. I’m sure Böhm liked it that way, though he probably preferred that the camera not focus on him at all. Despite the lack of an audience, his music-making, as always, is direct, powerful, occasionally a little schmaltzy, but never affected. If you are a student of conducting, you really need to see this DVD. General viewers may find the Beethoven rehearsal segments either uninteresting or a bit too technical for them (all of Böhm’s corrections are of rhythm and dynamics, and always in their formal Italian terms), but they, too, should watch this video to see what a really fine musician Böhm was.