I was mildly surprised to learn from the booklet note that Emil Gilels (1916-1985), great pianist though he was, only made thirteen appearances with the Berliner Philharmoniker during his career. Those concerts were spread over a period of nineteen years, between 1966 and 1985. As the annotator, Helge Grünewald observes, Gilels’ career coincided with the period when West Berlin was on the Cold War front-line. So I suppose that arranging appearances in the city by Soviet artists was often a delicate matter. All bar one of Gilels’ concerts with the orchestra were given in Berlin. This concert, which was part of the fiftieth anniversary Salzburg Festival, was the exception.
If Gilels was an infrequent visitor to the Berliner Philharmoniker then Karl Böhm (1894-1981) certainly was not. He had been a pretty regular guest for many years and among a number of recording projects with them he had set down the complete Mozart symphonies during the 1960s. The Symphony No. 28 makes a fine opener to this programme. In the opening bars you may feel the sound is a trifle fierce and treble-dominated but I found my ears soon adjusted. The opening Allegro spiritoso
is crisp and precise. Böhm seems to strike an ideal pace and I admired the unanimity of the strings; their playing is tight and controlled, though not in an inflexible way. The Andante
is elegant and graceful while Böhm makes the Menuetto
stately but with a sprightly trio. In the quicksilver finale the orchestra’s precision is again admirable.
The orchestral introduction to the concerto promises much. Everything is beautifully proportioned and the playing is refined, the woodwind contributions a special delight. When Gilels begins to play he sounds somewhat forwardly balanced but not to such an extent that the balance is to the orchestra’s detriment. His playing is elegant from the outset and I sensed a perfect accord between soloist and accompaniment. The Larghetto
is unhurried and cultivated. This is a beautifully poised Mozart performance from all concerned. You get a real sense of a partnership, a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra. That’s perhaps unsurprising as we are hearing a master Mozart pianist at work with the orchestra under the guiding hand of one of the most distinguished Mozart conductors of the post-war era. This account of the slow movement is simply wonderful. The Rondo
is a delight from start to finish. The articulation of the playing is crisp and clean, as you’d expect, and the rhythms are perfectly sprung. This is a relaxed, elegant reading.
There’s mastery on display in this Mozart performance but it’s never showy mastery. The soloist and conductor have a deep understanding of Mozart style and this, added to their great experience, enables them to produce an account of the concerto that is consistently refined and elegant. Frankly, this performance alone would be worth the price of the discs.
There’s also an excellent Brahms performance to savour. At the start of the first movement the music really sings
but it’s not long before the performance becomes spirited and energetic. Sadly, Böhm elects to omit the exposition repeat. He makes the same decision on another live performance that I have: a 1977 performance with the LSO (BBC Legends BBCL 4104-2). The development is often fiery and urgent. Böhm’s reading, unerringly paced throughout, is a very fine one which conveys the music with sprit and faithfulness to the composer’s intentions.
Even though the recording is almost forty-five years old you can still get a fine sense of the firmness of the bass foundation of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s collective sound. This is readily apparent in the Adagio non troppo
. This is a spacious performance but there’s no dawdling; rather, the music has backbone under Böhm’s direction and he maintains a fine degree of tension. I like the tangy woodwind sound at the start of the third movement. The pacing is expertly judged throughout the movement; we are in the world of the Brahms Serenades. The finale is vigorous and rigorous. For most of the time, except when Brahms briefly relaxes, Böhm invests the music with drive and brio; this is indeed con spirito
. He leads an exciting performance which culminates in an exultant coda. The symphony is rightly accorded a huge ovation.
The stereo radio recording by Austrian Radio has come up very well under Paul Baily’s expert transfer skills. The microphones were placed rather close, I suspect, and in the symphony, where the orchestral forces are largest there is occasional strain, especially in the finale. However, I should stress that the sound is perfectly acceptable and won’t in any way hinder enjoyment of these excellent performances.
If you have the LSO Brahms 2 on BBC Legends there is more space around the sound of the orchestra there – it’s a BBC recording from the Royal Festival Hall. However, while both orchestras play very well indeed I have the sense that the Berliner Philharmoniker were perhaps a little more at ease with Böhm’s conducting than their British colleagues. That might not be surprising because Alan Sanders relates, in his excellent note accompanying the LSO performance, that the orchestra’s relationship with the German maestro had only begun in 1973 and by the time of the 1977 Brahms concert he had only conducted them a few times. Interpretatively there’s not a great deal of difference between the two Brahms performances but even if you have that BBC Legends disc I’d argue you should invest in this Testament set too. The duplication is fully justified on account of the sovereign Mozart concerto performance and it’s fascinating to hear Böhm at work with two leading orchestras.
Emil Gilels and Karl Böhm were great artists and this appetising Testament release of previously unpublished material is a welcome reminder of their mastery.