FGF E-Package
Lamb Amongst Wolves
July 8, 2008

Karl Böhm: The Underappreciated Maestro
by Kevin Lamb

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.

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 symphonies.

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 ignored?

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 air waves?

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 Wolves archives

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.

To sponsor the FGF E-Package:
please send a tax-deductible donation to the
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
Vienna,VA 22183
or sponsor online.

© 2008 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation