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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Symphony #1
  • Symphony #2
  • Symphony #3 "Eroica"
  • Symphony #4
  • Symphony #5
  • Symphony #6 "Pastorale"
  • Symphony #7
  • Symphony #8
  • Symphony #9 "Choral" *
  • Overture "Fidelio"
  • Overture "Coriolan"
  • Overture "Leonore" #3
  • Overture "Egmont"
  • Overture "The Creatures of Prometheus"
* Gwyneth Jones, soprano
* Tatiana Troyanos, contralto
* Jess Thomas, tenor
* Karl Ridderbusch, bass
* Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
Deutsche Grammophon Collectors Edition 4791949 6CDs
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Except for the loss of the "King Stephan" Overture, this set is identical in terms of what it offers with Leonard Bernstein's set with the same orchestra on the same label. I honestly wouldn't want to be without either box. Though Böhm never enjoyed the same popularity as Bernstein or Karajan, he was far from the stodgy and stiff artist that his detractors portrayed him as. Where Bernstein accomplishes his magic by conjuring an earthy and almost rough sound from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Böhm combines his typically direct conducting with the naturally radiant sound of the ensemble.

Comparing the two sets (I have reviewed the Bernstein here as well) shows two master conductors largely sharing the same strengths and weaknesses. I marginally prefer Bernstein's earlier Sony versions of Symphonies #1 and #2, and Böhm's are well-played without being reference editions. With both men on Deutsche Grammophon, we can admire the foreshadowing of the later symphonic works, while also wishing for some more lighthearted playfulness. In the "Eroica", Böhm's very serious approach lacks the urgency and sheer thrill of Szell and Munch. Lacking too is the sense of struggle, which both of Bernstein's versions (Sony and Deutsche Grammophon) articulate very differently. However, Böhm's Symphony #4 is an exceptional account that finds both conductor and orchestra in peak form.

Neither Bernstein nor Böhm ever quite mastered the Symphony #5 in any of their recorded versions, but at least the latter conductor avoided the former's mannerisms. Still, Böhm's poker-faced approach will either prove refreshing or dull. I am somewhat inclined toward the first option, as Böhm simply plays the music without any sense of ego or personal goal. On the other hand, there are numerous versions that are more distinctive; whether you want this piece to be personalized is really up to you. Both men rebound for outstanding "Pastorale" Symphonies. It's hard to pick between the two versions, as they are both very special and easily outclass any of Karajan's three from Berlin. Highlights with Böhm are too numerous to mention, but if you respond to Otto Klemperer, you'll like this. Gorgeously focused playing from the Vienna Philharmonic is married to a broad but never dragging conception.

Moving on, Böhm's Symphony #7 is just a little too soggy in places to qualify as a top pick. The outer movements do crackle with energy, and Böhm of course shapes the music with great care. Still, Bernstein's version(s) have that much greater thrust and push the music (and this orchestra) harder. In the Symphony #8, this sunny and well-crafted take shares the same virtues as the earlier symphonies. While not a revelatory recording, Böhm's credentials as a Mozart and Schubert conductor are fully on display. And once again, the Vienna forces play handsomely.

Finally, a great "Choral" Symphony closes the set. Don't confuse this with the conductor's late, not-nearly-as-great version – any more than you'd want to confuse Bernstein's own concluding #9 with his labored "Ode to Freedom" recording – which has occasionally been available at mid-price. Despite a very measured choral finale, the overall achievement remains totally convincing. Five overtures are filler, and are all very good. For my money, the 1970's sound surpasses any of Karajan's three cycles, and Bernstein's as well. For Symphonies 1, 4, 6, and 9, this set's modest price is well worth paying. Consider everything else a bonus.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman