LSO and Karl Böhm at Salzburg

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Symphony No.28 in C, K200
Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner)
Mozart (attrib.)
Violin Concerto in D, K271a
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

Emil Gilels (piano)

Henryk Szeryng (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Karl Böhm

All performances recorded live by Austrian Radio at the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg between 1973 and 1977

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: July 2002
(3 CDs plus bonus disc)
Duration: 4 hours 2 minutes

The LSO was the first British orchestra to be invited to the hallowed Salzburg Festival. It had never worked with Austrian-born Karl Böhm before. In 1973 when they first met he was just a fortnight short of his 79th birthday, a bastion of tradition and old-world values; the LSO – “the best American orchestra in London” – was appearing on TV with André Previn. Conductor and orchestra hit it off splendidly and played at Salzburg again in 1975 and ’77. This late-found relationship brought Böhm to London for several concerts – memorable Beethoven, Brahms, Dvoøák and Tchaikovsky. I recall too a superb Mozart ’Jupiter’ and a Schubert Second that was a well-oiled machine in its rhythmic point. During this time Böhm also made LSO recordings of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies 4-6 for DG.

In these Salzburg concert performances, unobtrusively recorded, one can hear a close rapport between musicians and maestro. Mozart 28 receives one of those readings of the classics that one hears all too infrequently these days – time-taken and articulate, the music made regal, given a sense of space and not subjugated to a raw-sounding romp. This is the opening item on the first CD. The ’Haffner’ symphony, similarly spacious and mellow, follows (the first music the LSO and Böhm played together in 1973, although the Brahms was the first rehearsed). This has a nice sense of grandeur and scamper in the first movement, trill and accent copiously attended to. Perhaps a little heavy, Böhm’s grip on the music is not in doubt, nor his control and the LSO’s response – that of respect for an old master.

Beethoven 7’s opening is hypnotically gently-rocking and also carved from stone in its monumentality, details touched in with the lightness of a water-colourist, the rhythmic dovetailing between this and the ensuing ’Vivace’ is a model of ingenuousness. What follows is not a whipped-up frenzy. Böhm knows where he’s going and will get there in his own time; both hands are on the wheel, the direction is straight; there’s a stop in the lay-by for a distended and lingered-further ’Trio’ before a trenchant ’Finale’.

Of the collaborations with soloists, it appears that Böhm expected Henryk Szeryng to arrive with Mozart’s well-known D major concerto, K218; instead, Szeryng brought along a concerto that Mozart didn’t write (it seems). Böhm accommodated his soloist and gives an excellent accompaniment. It’s a strange piece – Mozart-like for the most part but curiously embellished and cadenced, and with some tangy (gypsy-like) double-stopping. Szeryng is in top form and plays this likeable curio with panache and affection, not least the billing and cooing of the ’Andante’ which seems to make reference to concertos that Mozart did write.

I heard Emil Gilels play Schumann’s concerto in London (with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Muti, probably a few years after this 1975 account). I recall him sounding uncomfortable and he had an unfortunate memory lapse. No such misfortune here in this fascinating traversal, one in which Gilels seems fitfully engaged, or certainly inconsistent – somewhat doggedly joining in with the orchestra and when unaccompanied or in chamber dialoguing he appears to be away somewhere of his own. One doesn’t sense much rapport between Gilels and Böhm; it seems more that conductor and players are unanimous and doing their best to follow the soloist. There are certainly many poetic moments and Gilels is in pretty good nick technically; yet he sounds, what, self-conscious, uncertain, not quite on top of the piece? The first movement cadenza, of ruminative exploration, is a highlight, the ’Intermezzo’ darts and luxuriates, and the ’Finale’ is given with breadth. Not great but certainly individual – if one called it heroic, part of this would be due to Gilels’s own intellectual struggle with how the music should progress.

Of the more Romantic symphonic choices, Schumann 4 (the usually played revision of 1851) finds Böhm conducting music that he made an excellent recording of about this time for DG with the Vienna Philharmonic (there is also a live VPO account available on Orfeo). This reading is muscular, expressively moulded, perhaps a bit dour. Like everything here there is authority and wholeness – if not (specifically) the transitional flexibility of Furtwängler or (generally) the timbral clarity of Sawallisch or inner translucency of Celibidache.

Save the best to last. The Brahms is wonderful, just as it was at a London concert, flexible, mellifluous and passionate – the charting from (non-repeated) exposition to development an inexorable accelerando with a gradual return to the easy gait of the opening, the lengthy coda of pastoral fulfilment. Following an intense, ardent slow movement, the intermezzo is elegant and the ’Finale’ storms to triumph without bullying.

Death and Transfiguration has gone into Salzburg folklore. A (London) newspaper review at the time (1977) reported this as special and spoke of some players in tears during the interval. Jack Brymer, whose unmistakable clarinet tones fall on grateful ears during the performance, says the tears were at rehearsal. It’s a gripping reading that really comes into its own come the transfiguration with radiant string playing and a climax that avoids verbosity – the release is natural and organic. (A Böhm speciality, Death and Transfiguration also appears on an Andante release devoted to VPO concerts and reviewed on this site as part of our Andante collective.)

I’m left at the end of this listening session delighted to have heard the LSO/Böhm partnership in notable circumstances. Böhm’s exactness does not preclude softness or expressive malleability – dynamics are often taken below a ’normal’ pianissimo and the pulse-related grey-clouds that intercede Brahms’s joyous ’Finale’ sticks in the mind; the LSO responds with dedication and vibrancy. The focus and concentration that helps sustain tension when Böhm adopts thoughtful speeds are the very qualities that make these reading so satisfying and ones to return to.

Might a second “LSO at Salzburg” set follow? The orchestra also gave concerts with Previn, Rozhdestvensky and Ozawa during the 1970s, and have returned in recent years – one can imagine another attractive Salzburg-based collection.

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