As an aficionado of classical music, appreciating the distinctive
contributions of top-notch conductors — scrutinizing their comparative
recorded legacy with the world’s finest ensembles — is
an acquired passion.
Benchmark recordings of past masters of the podium — Carlos
Kleiber’s masterful rendition of Beethoven’s 5th symphony
with the Vienna Philharmonic and Joseph Keilberth’s Ring cycle
from the 1955 Bayreuth Festival come to mind — provide a renewed
appreciation of the challenges that conductors face in crafting an
orchestra’s sound quality, tempo, and tone. Refining the original
interpretation of a composer’s score in painstaking exactitude
during rehearsals is characteristic of what David Ewen once referred
to as “Dictators of the Baton.” A short list of modern
conductors whose recordings still stand the test of time includes Antal
Dorati, Eugen Jochum, Rudolf Kempe, Paul Paray, Fritz Reiner, and Karl
Böhm, the Austrian-born conductor and director of the Vienna
State Opera, is an underappreciated maestro among top-tier conductors
of the last half century. His Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Schubert
cycles from the 1960s and 1970s (Deutsche Grammophon) are considered
by many critics to be some of the finest recordings of these renowned
Throughout his distinguished career Bohm recorded with Europe’s
leading orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic,
the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra,
and the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne. He also served as a principal
conductor of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and as president
of the London Symphony Orchestra.
The vast catalog of Böhm’s recordings offers a treasure
trove of fine readings of Romantic-era classical music. The Orfeo label
has issued a number of live performances from the annual Salzburg Festival
(many in stereo), where Böhm conducted for 37 summers between
1938 and 1980. Among his 56 orchestral concerts at Salzburg are superb
performances of the Beethoven 4th and Schumann 4th with the Vienna
Philharmonic from 1969.
In 2002, Andante released a four-disk set of live stereo recordings
of performances with Böhm conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
(LSO) from the Salzburg Festival during the mid-1970s. One exceptional
performance in this series includes the LSO’s 1973 debut as the
first British orchestra to appear on the program at the legendary Salzburg
Festival. The program included Mozart’s Haffner symphony, Brahms
2nd symphony, and a sizzling recital of Mozart’s 7th violin concerto
by Polish virtuoso Henryk Szeryng.
The pinnacle of Böhm’s recorded repertoire is arguably
the recording of Bruckner’s 4th symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic
from November 1973 on the Decca label. It remains on critics’ short
list of the crème de la crème of performances of the
Bruckner 4th. Reviewers in American Record Guide, a leading publication
of reviews of classical music, generally refer to Böhm’s
1973 rendition as a benchmark recording to which other Bruckner 4th
recordings are compared.
Recently released live stereo recordings of Bruckner’s 7th and
8th symphonies under the Audite label reaffirm Böhm’s status
as a master of the baton. Critics have given both of these premiere
recordings top scores in terms of sound quality and performance. These
Bruckner recordings with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra have
been awarded several prizes. The Bruckner 8th was recently nominated
for the prestigious MIDEM classical award.
ArkivMusic.com lists some 312 recordings of Böhm’s that
are currently available on compact disk. Why do the recordings of second-tier
conductors, such as James Levine and Leonard Bernstein by comparison,
receive an exceptional amount of air time on classical music stations
when such a vast collection of beautiful classical selections is routinely
Some of this disregard is intentional and has nothing to do with Böhm’s
talent as a respected maestro. It has to do with Böhm’s
past as an Austrian conductor who was rumored to be ideologically sympathetic
with the National Socialist regime. Several accounts of the period,
including David Monod’s Settling Scores:
German Music, Denazification, and the Americans, 1945-1953 and Richard Strauss biographer Matthew
Boyden, have emphasized Böhm’s sympathetic support of the
Third Reich despite the fact that no record exists of Böhm’s
membership in the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP).
In his memoirs Karl Böhm: A Life Remembered, Böhm denied
being a Nazi Party member and condemned the National Socialist regime.
He admitted that he decided to continue to work and earn a modest living
in his chosen profession under the Third Reich rather than abandon
his conducting post, as did Herbert von Karajan and Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Considering the fact that Böhm’s post-war career established
his reputation as an exceptional conductor, should questionable allegations
of his pre-war years in Germany prompt classical music stations to
prohibit the airing of Böhm’s outstanding post-war recordings?
Should we apply the same standards to Soviet era conductors, composers,
and artists? Should classical music stations refrain from airing the
works of Dmitri Shostakovich or Sergei Prokofiev, or the recordings
of David Oistrakh, Svyatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan, or
recorded performances by Soviet-era conductors Kyrill Kondrashin, Evgeny
Svetlanov, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, or Yevgeny Mravinsky because of
these artists’ careers, regardless of their ideological leanings,
prospered under a tyrannical communist regime? As a recipient of the
Stalin Prize in 1941 and composer of numerous scores for Soviet propaganda
films, should station managers ban Shostakovich’s work from the
Audite issued a recent statement, “Discussion about Karl Böhm,” defending
the Austrian conductor and answering critics of the decision to issue
these previously unreleased recordings Böhm recordings. A 1960s
live performance of Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich with the Moscow
Philharmonic Orchestra under Kondrashin’s baton, issued by the
BBC Legends label, includes the playing of the USSR national anthem
on this exceptional recording. Should BBC Legends issue an apologetic
defense of this decision?
Artists deserve to be judged by a common set of standards, which should
be confined to evaluating the quality of their work. As a conductor
driven to perfection, Karl Böhm deserves recognition — and
additional airtime — for enhancing the performing arts with a
rich legacy of fine classical recordings. Western culture is much better
off as a result.
Back to Lamb Amongst
Lamb Amongst Wolves column by Kevin Lamb is copyright © 2008
by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfbooks.com.
All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint if credit is given to the
author and the Foundation.
Kevin Lamb is managing editor of The Social
Contract magazine. His
articles have appeared on VDARE.com and in National Review,
Human Events, Chronicles, Middle American News, and the Journal of Social,
Political, and Economic Studies.
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