American Record Guide
, December 2008
This video was recorded in gorgeous color in 1970, with the conductor at age 76. His appearance and manner are of a man 20 years younger. Ten years later he was visibly frail, but even then his musical abilities were not seriously impaired. This is recorded in excellent stereo, two-channel or five-channel surround. The conductor’s spoken German is unhurried and clearly enunciated, easy to understand for anyone with a moderate competence in the language. And there are good subtitles in English, German, French, or Spanish. The picture format is 16:9 and the camera work is excellent, revealing all the activity of the rehearsal sequence in detail. The rehearsal lasts about 55 minutes and is followed by the concert performance, which adds 16:30 for a total running time of 74 minutes. It all takes place in Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal.
Karl Böhm (1894-1981) was obviously a great conductor, but he could be difficult, grumpy, hard-edged, and confrontational, particularly when he felt his artistic goals were endangered by lazy, inattentive, or lackluster orchestral players or singers. It is no secret that his relationships with the Prague National Theater orchestra and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Czech Philharmonic, were confrontational. This, despite the fact of his own Czech ancestry (obvious from his family’s name).
Böhm was one of a very few conductors who made original recordings in every possible medium—78s, LPs, open reel and cassette tapes, DDD CDs, laserdiscs, and video media. The only others I can recall would be Ormandy and Karajan. He left a rich legacy of fine recordings. This DVD is with the Vienna Philharmonic, which Böhm, over 48 years, conducted more than anyone else. It reveals his high musical standards and his renowned ear for inner details and mishaps—matters often difficult or impossible for even acute listeners to spot. There is nothing but cordiality and mutual understanding between Böhm and the orchestra. The conductor appears, sheds his tie and jacket, greets the orchestra with some brief repartee, and immediately goes to work. He is businesslike and does not waste rehearsal time. Still, and in spite of having often played this work with the VPO, he rarely allows them to proceed for as much as a minute without stopping to make corrections. Sometimes these stem from instructions received from the composer, one of his closest friends, and omitted in most printed editions of the score. The orchestra responds magnificently, with full volume and glowing tone.
The following concert performance is flawless, at 16:40 a little faster than most of Böhm’s later audio recordings. It is nevertheless excelled in a recent Audite audio CD recording with the Cologne Radio orchestra, which exhibits a vitality, freshness, spontaneity, and abandon a little more conspicuous than in Vienna.
Karl Böhm always insisted that his objective was not to distort the music, but simply to project the music exactly as written in the score. One must accept this with caution. You will find a subtle but impressive flexibility of tempo and a similar variability of dynamics, regardless of the score. His orchestral discipline, while firm, allows for a moderate flexibility that avoids the hard-driven, mechanical effect sometimes evident in recordings by Toscanini, Szell, and Reiner. He is in these respects closer to his friends and former associates Walter and Furtwängler.
I am known for my long-held admiration of Karl Böhm and an oft-expressed opinion that he excels Karajan in the freshness and spontaneity of his readings of standard Austro-German repertoire. This DVD offers a trailer where Karajan is shown dutifully going through Schumann 4 with his eyes tightly shut. A comparison of the modus operandi of both conductors in this release is useful in understanding my liking for Böhm. This release is in any event interesting, instructive, and very well produced, a fine portrait of Böhm and the VPO.