Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Karl Böhm: Late Recordings and The Symphonies

DG 479 4371 (23-disc set) (2015)
Karl Böhm Late Recordings: Vienna, London, Dresden
Works by Beethoven, Bruckner, Haydn. Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Dvorak, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO)
Staatskapelle Dresden (SD)
London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)
Karl Böhm

DG 0289 480 7484 6 (22-disc set) (2013)
Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert: The Symphonies, Karl Böhm 
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) (Beethoven, Brahms)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) (Mozart, Schubert) 
Karl Böhm 

Karl Böhm Late Recordings will be of interest primarily to die-hard fans of the great Austrian maestro. Released in 2015 with superbly mastered sound, this 23-disc set includes recordings made for Deutsche Gramophone between 1970 and 1982 with the Vienna Philharmonic (VPO), Staatskappelle Dresden (SD) and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The set comes in a sturdy, elegantly lithographed two-piece "cube" (box and removable lid) with each disc in its own discretely illustrated cardboard sleeve. A glossy 60-page booklet contains a complete table of contents along with some limited discographical information, texts, translations, and a biographical essay by Christoph Schlüren.

This new box set makes an interesting, if not necessarily essential companion to DG's earlier Symphonies compilation from 2013. Together, the two collections offer a broad overview of Böhm's symphonic output for Deutsche Gramaphone between 1960 and 1982. An incomplete portrait of the artist as it turns out, since they do not also include the conductor's near-legendary readings of opera by Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Berg. (Might a third box be on the way?) There are a few instances of repertory overlap between the two sets (Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart), but not so many as to render either anthology redundant.

I would hasten to point out that there are no examples of a truly "bad" performance among the late recordings. On his worst, most unexceptional days, Böhm was serviceably adequate in the studio. And on his good days (a few of which are captured here) he was great, indeed. Highlights (for me) include the stunning, heart-stopping, effervescent readings of Wagner overtures and preludes (discs 22-23), a marvelously dark, lyrically mannered Schumann 4th (disc 14), a genuinely great performances of  the Mozart Requiem (disc 13), and a powerful and pleasingly idiomatic rendition of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben  (disc 18).  The last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky come as a pleasant surprise (discs 19-21), as do a thoughtful and probing pair of Bruckner symphonies (the 7th and 8th) with the VPO (discs 5-6). A handful of Haydn symphonies are lithe and lively (discs 7-8), as are the charming, full-bodied performances of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Sinfonia Concertante for winds K 297 (disc 12).

More problematic for me are the early digital recordings of Beethoven, The 9th Symphony (disc 1), though featuring some gorgeous ensemble singing, in no way surpasses Böhm's halcyon 1970 reading. Again, it's not "bad", but (to my ears) there is an indifferent feel to the phrasing in the first three movements. The recorded choral sound in the Missa Solemnis (discs 3-4) seems muddy and distant, though, again, Böhm's vocal quartet transcends the admirable. I was disappointed by the rather threadbare collection of Beethoven overtures on disc 2, nice as the performances may be; could DG not find additional filler material to extend the timing beyond a meager 41 minutes?

The later recordings of Mozart and Schubert, while not "terrible", do not stand up particularly well by comparison with the better-known readings from the 60s found in the Symphonies box. The more-recent digital Mozart with the VPO is generally well-paced and energetic, but there is a noticeable lack of subtlety in articulation, and one sorely misses the dramatic momentum and purposefulness of the older Berlin Philharmonic recordings. Likewise, the readings of Schubert from the late 70s and early 80s lack the magic, the lyric buoyancy and zest of  Böhm's "classic" cycle with Berlin. 

The Symphonies set from 2013 is wholeheartedly recommended, notwithstanding the disappointingly lackluster Brahms cycle. Perhaps a bit less focused and thus not quite as satisfying overall, Late Recordings is nonetheless recommended to all Böhm complete-ists.

Karl Böhm Late Recordings: Vienna, London, Dresden

Beethoven: Symphony #9 in d minor Op. 125 "Choral"
Jessye Norman (soprano); Birgitte Faessbender (alto)
Placido Domingo (tenor; Walter Berry (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
VPO (1981)

Beethoven: Overtures
Egmont Op. 84; Coriolon Op. 62
The Creatures of Prometheus Op. 43
VPO (1972)
Fidelio Op. 72b; Leonore III Op. 72a
SD (1969)

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis Op. 123
Margaret Price (soprano), Christa Ludwig (alto)
Wieslaw Ochman (tenor), Martii Talvela (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
VPO (1975)

Bruckner: Symphony #7 in E major
VPO (1977)

Bruckner: Symphony #8 in c minor
VPO (1977)

Haydn: Symphony #88 in G major Hob I:88
Symphony #89 in F major Hob I: 89
VPO (1973)
Symphony #90 in C major Hob I: 90
VPO (1974)

Haydn: Symphony #91 in E-flat major Hob I: 91
VPO (1975)
Symphony #92 in G major Hob I: 92
Sinfonia Concertante in B-flat major Hob I: 105
VPO (1974)

Mozart: Symphony #29 in A major K 201
Symphony #35 in D major "Haffner" K 385
Masonic Funeral Music K 477
VPO (1981)

Mozart: Symphony #38 in D major "Prague" K 504
Symphony #39 in E-flat major K 543
VPO (1979)

Mozart: Symphony #40 in g minor K 550
Symphony #41 in C major "Jupiter" K 551
VPO (1977)

Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in G major K 525
Sinfonia Concertante for Winds in E-flat major K 297b
VPO (1976)

Mozart: Requiem in d minor K 626
Edith Mathis (soprano), Julia Hamari (contralto)
Wieslaw Ochman (tenor), Karl Ridderbusch (bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus
VPO (1971)

Schumann: Symphony #4 in d minor Op. 120
Schubert: Symphony #5 in B-flat major D 485
VPO (1980)

Schubert: Symphony #8 in b minor "Unfinished" D 759
VPO (1982)
Dvorak: Symphony #9 in e minor Op. 95 "From the New World"
VPO (1979)

Schubert: Symphony #9 in C major "The Great" D 944
SD (1979)

Johann Strauss Jr.: Waltzes and Polkas
VPO (1973)

Richard Strauss: Ein Heldenleben Op. 40
VPO (1977)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in f minor Op. 36
LSO (1978)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #5 in e minor Op. 64
LSO (1981)

Tchaikovsky: Symphony #6 in b minor Op. 74 "Pathétique"
LSO (1979)

Wagner: Overtures and Preludes
(Rienzi; Tanhäuser; Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg; Parsifal)
VPO (1979)

Wagner: Overtures and Preludes
(Der fliegende Holländer; Lohengrin (Act I, Act III); Tristan und Isolde (Act I)
Isoldes Liebestod)
VPO (1981)

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