Böhm The SWR Recordings SWR Classic

Karl Böhm (conductor)
The SWR Recordings

Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Stuttgart
Original SWR tapes remastered 1951-1979
SWR Classic SWR19123CD [6 CDs: 391]

In the words of Rainer Peters, the long career of Austrian conductor Karl Böhm (1894-1979) was founded on “discipline and meticulousness when rehearsing compositions as well as his modesty, his willingness to take second place to work and composer. He never wanted to be a magician or philosopher of the conductor’s stand – he was a maestro lacking the urge to promote himself.” Born in Graz, whose denizens, as Böhm himself said, have a reputation for being ‘grumblers’, Böhm studied music and law in his hometown and as a student became a concertmaster at Graz Opera, making his debut with Viktor Nessler’s Der Trompeter von Säckingen in 1917. There, he caught the attention of Karl Muck, who recommended him to Bruno Walter, who took him to the Munich State Opera. This led to six years at Darmstadt, followed by a period at Hamburg until 1933 when he began conducting at Dresden and Vienna. His most important period was at the Staatskapelle Dresden, replacing Fritz Busch in 1934.

It was in Dresden that Böhm premiered Richard Strauss’s operas Die Schweigsame Frau and Daphne, establishing a fruitful relationship with Germany’s greatest living composer. Böhm made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1938 with Don Giovanni and became a permanent guest conductor there. In 1943, he was appointed director at the Vienna State Opera; this was short-lived as the building was bombed in 1945. By the time the Vienna State Opera re-opened in 1955, Böhm had embarked on an international career after being cleared of cooperation with the Nazis. His conducting of the central Austro-German repertoire was acclaimed at the Metropolitan, Salzburg and Bayreuth, and he toured Moscow, Tokyo and Buenos Aires. In the post-war period, Böhm was very active as a guest conductor in the radio broadcasting orchestras in Germany, especially in Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne, Berlin and Stuttgart. At the 1951 opening of the new studio at Villa Berg in Stuttgart, Bohm conducted Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Brahms’ First Symphony. Also on this set is the concert marking Schiller’s 200th birth anniversary of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. In the post-war era, Böhm’s repertoire was increasingly limited to the core repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, Strauss and Wagner. His recordings of these composers are reference works, and his interpretations of Bruckner’s symphonies are important. He never was able to appreciate Mahler, yet his championing of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and Lulu are vitally important in his legacy.

The recordings in this collection range from 1951 to 1979, and focused around four works by Beethoven, which reveal how important this composer was to him. Rainer Peters writes that Böhm was “an anti-metaphysician, who takes a close and objective look at the score as if he were using a magnifying glass, and who even presents the dance-like and pious symphonic ecstasies of Beethoven’s and Bruckner’s symphonies with restrained passion.’ Interestingly, the conductor himself stated: ‘The most difficult thing about Mozart is to be as simple as possible and, particularly, to find the right, the golden tempo.”

Unlike Harnoncourt, Böhm never diverted from using modern instruments. Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G minor follows his 1969 reading made as part of the complete cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on DG. The acoustics of the Liederhalle in Stuttgart are beautifully clear, with superb woodwind intonation and supple strings. The Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto has as soloist the Croatian pianist Branka Musulin (1917-1975), who also plays the Schumann Concerto (on disc 4). In this performance, the piano sounds out of balance with the orchestra, as if the microphones are too close to the keyboard, yet, it is clear Musulin is a fine pianist and she plays Clara Schumann’s cadenzas, forgoing those by the composer, Brahms, Busoni, d’Albert and Saint-Saëns. Böhm gives her great support with magnificent playing from the Süddeutschen Sinfonie Orchestra in the SDR Villa Berg studio in Stuttgart. The other works in the 1951 concert are Brahms First Symphony and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis (on discs 4 and 5).

Two more discs are devoted to Beethoven; Symphony No. 2 is given an authoritative performance, but it is the Seventh Symphony which emerges as one of the best recordings in this set, and perhaps it is the live event which allows the vivacity and driving power which make it so special; the degree of pace and the pure energy that Böhm generates from his players are quite extraordinary. Both performances come from a concert in April 1974, on this occasion with the Radio-Sinfonie Stuttgart in the Liederhalle. It is also the venue on the third disc of a live recording of the Choral Symphony from November 1959. Here, we have the forces of the Südfunk-Chor, and Philharmonischer Chor Stuttgart in a magnificent performance with several outstanding singers; I especially enjoyed the tenor of Walter Geisler, who brings both drama and authority to his singing. The contributions of Ruth-Margret Pütz and Sibylla Plate are lyrical and eloquent, as is the stirring bass intonation of Karl-Christian Kohn. The reading is similar to Böhm’s later recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG and is a highlight of this box set.

Branka Musulin is the soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto on disc 4, coupled with Brahms’s First Symphony from 1951. I was more impressed by Musulin’s playing here than in her Beethoven concerto; she brings out all the delightful Romanticism evincing the colour and musicality of the piece. I regret not hearing more by this fine pianist whose life was cut short early at 58 years old. She studied with Cortot, Lefébure, Casella and von Pauer and worked with such conductors as Mengelberg, Abendroth, Konwitschny and Celibidache. Her discography includes works by Chopin, Beethoven, Franck, Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Ravel on several diverse labels ranging from Eterna, DG, Nixa and Eurodisc. She was a professor at the Hochschule in Frankfurt. The Schumann Piano Concerto is an important addition to this collection.

Also on the fourth disc is a glorious Brahms First Symphony in which Böhm allows us to hear the full grandeur of the Stuttgart orchestra’s brass and woodwind section. The strings are supple and warm in their playing throughout. The rarity in the set is Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, which is from a superb 1951 performance, and brings out all the colours and jeu d’esprit of Hindemith’s masterpiece. Each of the four movements is impeccably performed, with vibrant woodwind evincing the work’s neo-classicism. Dvorak’s Ninth is given an exceptional performance with all the richly harmonious colours exhibited, and I was impressed how magnificently Böhm leads this opulently romantic music.

The final disc has a terrific account of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony; set at a brisk pace, it is profound and directed with emotion and feeling. There is another Bruckner Seven from 1977 on the Audite label in which Böhm is conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and which also uses the 1885 Novak score. I have not heard this performance, but in this Stuttgart reading, Böhm finds all the intensity of the score, and is the swiftest of all the fourteen recordings of the Seventh that Böhm recorded during his career – all with the 1885 score. This is an outstanding disc in this important collection of Karl Böhm’s work with the SWR Radio-Sinfonie Orchestra, and most significantly, the standards of performance are remarkably high, indicating the virtuosity of Germany’s regional broadcasting orchestras.

The boxset encloses a 40-page booklet with texts in English and German giving comprehensive information about the conductor, the soloist and the orchestra, with detailed notes on each of the works performed. Full details of the recordings and the technical personnel involved are provided. The impeccable remastering is by Gabriele Starke and Andrea Walz from original SWR tapes.

Gregor Tassie

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36, (1802)
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, (1813)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (1823-4)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1855)
Robert Schumann (1810-1854)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841)
Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (1893)
Paul Hindemith  (1895-1963)
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943)
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1884)