A little less that three months ago, Deutsche Grammophon (DG) released another one of its major box set retrospectives. In large capital letters the box of 70 CDs declares its title to be Karl Böhm: The Operas. However, text in a smaller font gives a more accurate account of the contents: Complete Vocal Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. While Böhm’s strongest reputation may have been in opera, I, for one, appreciated that this collection offers a broader point of view.
Because much of Böhm’s career overlapped that of Herbert von Karajan, I feel it is necessary to begin with a few remarks about his relationship with the Nazi Party. Readers that followed my account of the remastering of Karajan’s EMI recordings may recall that his denazification process was completed on March 18, 1946, less than a year after the German unconditional surrender in World War II, which took place on May 8, 1945. Böhm’s denazification process, during which he was banned from performing, lasted much longer: for about two years.
The fact is that, while Böhm does not appear to have joined the Nazi party, he certainly had strong sympathies. This may well have been a matter of opportunism, but it still cast a dark shadow. Indeed, while the Salzburg Festival decided to name its refreshment lobby after Böhm, at the end of 2015 Festival management announced that they would mount a plaque in the lobby acknowledging the extent to which (in English translation) “Böhm was a beneficiary of the Third Reich and used its system to advance his career.”
Nevertheless, once Böhm emerged from denazification, the United States seemed to be willing to welcome him as a visitor (which was not the case for Wilhelm Furtwängler). At the invitation of Rudolf Bing, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1957 and would eventually conduct 262 performances there. These included the Met premieres of two operas by Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten (which was the first major success after the Met moved to Lincoln Center). He also conducted the Met premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
Now I would like to get a bit personal. During my senior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I registered for a seminar on the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On the very first day the faculty leader (whose name I would prefer to withhold) put on a record of Mozart’s instrumental music and then groaned, “Oh … another boooring Böhm performance!” I was contentious enough to take that remark with a grain of salt, but that was a time when I was more critical of those with a Nazi past. As a result, it was some time before I found myself listening to Böhm as seriously as I had come to listen to, for example, Furtwängler.
What turned me around was a PBS broadcast of Böhm conducting Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Bavarian State Opera. I was hooked from the first notes coming from the orchestra pit and remained hooked until the servant boy dashed off the stage at the end of the third act. Indeed, I was so hooked that I lost track of the members of the cast, except for Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin. From there I progressed to a box of vinyls of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, recorded at Bayreuth in 1966; and, once again, I was riveted from the very first measure. With such past experiences, I decided it was time to take a more systematic view of Böhm’s achievements as a conductor.
As always seems to be the case when I take on a large project, my first task is to try to break down the whole into a logical set of pieces. Fortunately, DG facilitated my doing this because all of the CDs are ordered alphabetically by composer. (The box they released of Sixties recordings of Karajan did not have this advantage!) In this case the strongest logic seemed to be historical. Thus, I chose to begin by dealing with the First Viennese School (Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven) as a single group, after which I would treat Wagner and Strauss as separate categories, concluding with an “everything else” category.
In terms of the number of CDs, this is not a particularly well-balanced partitioning. There are only five Wagner CDs, as opposed to 30 for the First Viennese School and 28 for Strauss. Furthermore, within the First Viennese School, there are 23 CDs for Mozart, five for Beethoven, and only two for Haydn! However, these distributions definitely represent Böhm’s priorities and should be honored as such.
One of the first things I realized was how many of my favorite vocalists from the past had participated in these Böhm recordings, including several that I knew more from art song than from opera. I was particularly struck by the ongoing presence of Peter Schreier, who was singing Don Ottavio in the earliest of the Mozart recordings, a Don Giovanni made in 1967, and was still going strong when that opera was recorded a second time in 1977. I also enjoyed the recurring appearances of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, versatile enough to take on both Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro and Papageno in The Magic Flute. (I also have to say that I did not at all mind that almost all of the spoken text was dropped from the Flute recording.)
Nevertheless, Böhm is still the “main attraction” in these recordings. What matters most is that he always seems to grasp the rhetorical stance that best suits the unfolding of an opera’s plot; and, where Mozart is concerned, he always knows how to differentiate the lighter moments from those in darker shadows, even when they both occur in the same opera. That rhetorical sensitivity serves both Böhm and the attentive listener equally well in the recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio, an opera that requires a fair amount of planning to avoid sounding overly clunky. Haydn is represented only by The Seasons. This is far from my favorite Haydn composition; but it is another opportunity to listen to Schreier, as well as Böhm’s rhetorical perceptiveness. Indeed, the only recording that did not come across as particularly convincing was his approach to the K. 626 setting of the Requiem text, which lacked the benefit of more recent Mozart scholarship, whose insights account for what Mozart was trying to do that do not always follow “old school” approaches.
Thus, while I have other recordings of all the First Viennese School selections that Böhm chose to record with DG, my guess is that I shall devote a fair amount to time returning to his approaches to those pieces.