Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Böhm and Beethoven


Deutsche Gramophone 479 1949 (2013)
Beethoven: The Symphonies
Five Overtures
Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra 

What sheer, beautiful, divinely-sparked joy to have Karl Böhm's magnificent, classic Beethoven performances back in my collection again after far-too long an absence, all together in this handsomely packaged 6-disc box set.

Not that these recordings, made between 1970 and 1971, have ever been out of the catalog for very long (if at all) since their initial release; the integral 8-LP box set was available for many years under several different cover designs, including the ubiquitous introductory come-on from the International Preview Society (BMG Music Service) in its early days, as well as individual albums on LP, cassette, and CD. I've owned a number of them in addition to that much-treasured box set; an early full-price 2-LP pairing of the superb Eighth and Ninth (DG 2707 073 (1977)), a cassette of the Sixth coupled with the Egmont Overture (DG 3300 476), and a rather disappointing late-eighties or early nineties-era CD-re-issue of the Ninth. Much better was the delightful 1996 coupling of the Sixth with Schubert's Symphony #5 (DG (Originals) 447-443-2). The complete cycle was initially re-issued on CD as part of the DG Doubles series between 1994 and 1995, and again in a series of single and double-disc sets on DG Eloquence in 1999. As of this writing it's a pretty safe bet that most long-time collectors will have at least a few of these—in one iteration or another—already.

Why then plop down $30 for yet another re-issue of Böhm's Beethoven? Aside from the quality and convenience of this new packaging (individual discs in printed cardboard sleeves housed within a sturdy, laminated cardboard clamshell box with no excess "shake" room), improved sound is a major plus. Many of the earliest analog-to-digital transfers were less than adequate, certainly lacking the warmth and immediacy of vinyl without much gain in depth, detail, or fidelity. While DG was often ahead of the industry's technological curve, it too had its share of disappointing releases in the first years of the CD boom, when it was all some companies could do to keep up with the frenetic, ever-growing demand for more. (The muddy-sounding re-issue of Böhm's brilliant Ninth mentioned above is a case in point.) Then too, some engineers didn't quite know what to make of the new digital technology. As such, one was often subjected to shrill, shrieking trebles, raucous, loud, rock-n-roll-like basses, and murky, nebulous mid-levels that were virtually unlistenable. Sound levels were often set to extremes, sometimes barely turned up beyond a whisper (as in Eric Fenby’s otherwise magnificent recordings of Delius for Unicorn), other times, deafeningly wide open (as in a few of Chandos' early symphonic releases); discs on the BIS label at one point came with a warning label affixed to the jewel case. 

Although there is no reference to re-mastering in the documentation accompanying this present album—no dates or mention of processing other than 2013 as the year of compilation—my ears remark a greater clarity in the overall sound picture of these transfers, blessedly devoid of tape hiss without the concomitant loss of detail at either end of the spectrum; the trebles less harsh, the basses less rambunctious. These masterings do, naturally, retain some of the odd idiosyncrasies of the original. In the symphonies, most notably, the aural perspective seems to shift occasionally, from passages that sound fairly closely miced, to others that seem to have been recorded from a greater distance. Could there have been some creative splicing here and there in original post-production? These recording sessions predate DG's notorious practice of micing every individual instrument in an orchestra, which led to some very odd-sounding results indeed. 

Yet here the sweet sound of the Vienna Philharmonic woodwind section has never been more pleasantly apparent. The strings shimmer, and the sometimes rather mellow-sounding brass shines through with admirable grace and nobility. This effectively takes the bad taste of so many earlier ill-conceived re-issues from my perpetually skeptically-discriminating palate
Recording dates are listed in the documentation accompanying the album. Symphony #1, 4, 6, and 8 were recorded between May and September, 1971; Symphony #5 and #9 in April of 1970. The overtures that are also included in the set originate from several sessions between March of 1969 and September 1971. The recorded sound of the overtures is quite different from the symphonies. Perhaps the orchestra is a bit more closely miced? As noted above, no documentation is included pertinent to remastering, nor any dates listed beyond those for recording sessions and initial releases. Historically, DG has been rather cagey, and not always particularly fastidious about including precise information concerning remastering, except, rarely, when it seems to suit their marketing purposes. Apparently, this was not one of those occasions. 

Still, the best and most important reason to own this set is for these splendid benchmark performances, among the last of the great "old-school classical" interpretations, and definitely among the finest of their most-celebrated near-contemporaries, the 1958-1967 cycle by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony 88837 37152 (2013 re-issue)) and Herbert von Karajan’s 1963 traversal with the Berlin Philharmonic  (DG 00211 4502 (1999 re-issue)). Where Szell could seem obsessively rigid in his quest for technical precision, and Karajan almost flippant in his prettified, breezy, surface-skimming approach, Böhm emphasized drama without sacrificing lyricism or buoyancy, his lucid, well-paced performances striking a comfortable balance between dramatic heft and textural clarity. Beethoven's compositional technique often reminds me of one of those clear-glass clock cases, in which all the workings are plainly (and intentionally) visible solely for the sake of aesthetic delectation, and Böhm takes expert advantage of this artfully built-in transparency. Listen, for example, to the scherzo movements of the Second and Third symphonies, or to the wonderfully lithe first movements of the Fourth and Eighth.

While it wouldn't be exactly right to refer to Böhm as "self-effacing"—one is always aware of a strong hand at the helm—there is no conductorly self-indulgence here, no idiosyncratic excess. This is not the all-stops-pulled heaven-storming of Toscanini’s Eroica in which the conductor seemingly endeavors to channel Beethoven's tortured soul anew (BMG 82876 557022 (2003 box set)); nor Klemperer at war with his own demons (or, as in the case of his Ninth, with his own orchestra (EMI 4 04275 2 (2012 box set)); nor is it Karajan striking off in some radically new "modern" interpretive direction, largely involving playing the music faster than anyone before him. [I think Carlos Kleiber's interpretations are far superior to Karajan, eloquently demonstrating that brisk tempi don't necessarily equate lack of substance. Kleiber's
splendid Fifth (DG 2530 516 (1975 LP) and Seventh (DG 2530 706 (1976 LP), have both been re-issued on DG (Originals) 447-400-2)), a record worthy to stand next to Böhm's Beethoven.]

This set features what may be the finest versions of Beethoven's Fourth and Eighth ever recorded; a glorious, top-flight Eroica, a Ninth that comes as close to "perfection" as any one is ever likely to hear, with one of the most exquisitely synergistic vocal quartets ever assembled for the work, a brilliant Pastoral for the ages, and, overall, some of the most consistently satisfying readings of these iconic, eternally quintessential works made in modern times. 

Enthusiastically recommended. 



DG 2721 154 (8-LP box set) (1972)
Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies
Karl Böhm/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
DG 2530 958 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #1 in C major Op. 21
Leonore III Overture Op. 72a
Fidelio Overture Op. 72b 
DG 2530 448 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #2 in D major Op. 36
The Creatures of Prometheus Overture Op. 43 
DG 2530 437 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #3 in E-flat major Op. 55 ‘Eroica’ 
DG 2530 451 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #4 in B-flat major Op. 60 
DG 2530 062 (1970)
Beethoven: Symphony #5 in c minor Op. 67 
DG 2530 142 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #6 in F major Op. 68 ‘Pastorale’ 
DG 2530 421 (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony #7 in A major Op. 92 
DG 2707 073 (1974)
Beethoven: Symphony #8 in F major Op. 93
Symphony #9 in d minor Op. 125 ‘Choral’
Gwyneth Jones/Tatiana Troyanos/Jess Thomas/Karl Ridderbusch/

DG (Doubles) 439-681-2 (1994 re-issue)
Symphony #1
Symphony #2
Symphony #4
Symphony #5
DG (Doubles) 437-368-2 (1995 re-issue) 
Symphony #3
Symphony #9
DG (Doubles) 437-928-2 (1995 re-issue)
Symphony #6
Symphony #7
Symphony #8

DG (Originals) 447-443-2 (1996 re-issue)
Beethoven: Symphony #6
Schubert: Symphony #5
Böhm/VPO (Beethoven)/Berlin Philharmonic (Schubert) 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1942 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #1
Symphony #2
DG (Eloquence) 463-1962 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #3 

DG (Eloquence) 463-1952 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #4
Symphony #5 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1982 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #6
Leonore III Overture 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1992 (1999)
Beethoven: Symphony #7
Symphony #8 
DG (Eloquence) 463-1972 (1999 re-issue)
Beethoven: Symphony #9 
DG (Eloquence) 480 3794 (2011)
Beethoven: Symphony #8
Schubert Symphony #5; Symphony #8
Böhm/VPO (Beethoven)/BPO (Schubert)


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