Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36 (1802) [34:24]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 34 in C major, K338 (1780) with Minuet in C, K409 (1782) [25:12]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird – Suite (1919) [20:23]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. 11 August 1968, Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
TESTAMENT SBT1510 [80:14]
My middle brother used to say that his idea of Hell was standing with my family's three children outside a now sadly closed second-hand record shop in Harrow whilst I bought another recording of the same piece by the same conductor. Many people empathise with his view. I recently met a lady member at Rotary who’d just acquired a recording of Mozart’s Requiem. “Who by?” I asked, with interest. “Mozart”, was the reply. The same question, raised by my colleague could with justification be applied to two of these three performances. I have the complete set of Böhm conducting Mozart and Beethoven symphonies in admirable recordings as part of The Symphonies: Karl Böhm; a 22 CD set on Deutsche Grammophon which also includes the Brahms and Schubert cycles. Böhm’s set of the symphonies dated from the early 1970s and was made with the Vienna Philharmonic. That said, there seems to be something special about the ones on this Testament disc. I recall the late John Steane in the context of Cosi fan Tutte referring to Böhm as not being a joy in the studio. In the case of these recordings, there is certainly a special frisson if not joy exactly.
Beethoven’s Second Symphony has done especially well on record and should not be regarded as simply owing a debt to his critical but benign teacher, Haydn. It also looks forward to the mighty Eroica. There is tremendous vitality in the first movement; indeed throughout this 1968 concert. The Berlin Philharmonic play like angels. Remember, this was over a decade into the Karajan era when they were at their peak. The moving slow movement is magical and the strings and distinguished winds (including Jimmy Galway and Gerd Seifert) are magnificent. There are those who dismiss such performances as “Old Fashioned”. Well, I like some modern recordings on historical instruments but love this more.
The same virtues apply to Böhm’s treatment of Mozart's Symphony 34, which I’ve always enjoyed, especially in the EMI Classics recording by Sir Thomas Beecham. However, Böhm scores over the conductor from St. Helens, by including, as he does on the studio version, the Minuet in D for the third movement. It’s quite delightful and must have been a Böhm favourite. It adds to a very distinguished rendition of this symphony. Sadly, Sir Colin Davis, in his otherwise magnificent set of the later symphonies on Philips, omits the Minuet.
The Firebird certainly seems an unusual choice for Karl Böhm and the BPO at Salzburg. However, it must be remembered that Böhm conducted a fair amount of "modern music" and here he and the BPO produce a commendable rendition of a masterpiece. It's beautifully realised by the ORF engineers and hard to believe that this is 1968. As in the previous two pieces, the BPO play their hearts out for Böhm.
Whether this CD is for you depends on your being prepared to accept having duplicate versions of pieces by the same conductor in an old style performance. In my view, these recordings demand to be heard by all who love supremely fine playing and sincere musicianship. It's not just for Böhm admirers.
David R Dunsmore
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf