Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 7
Karl Böhm, cond; Friedrich Gulda (pn);
ORFEO 10081, mono (57:21) Live: Salzburg 8/25/1957
I still remember it as if it were yesterday: the mono Columbia LP jacket cover with a picture of a bowl of oranges: the recording, Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Rudolf Serkin, Eugene Ormandy, and the
Philadelphia Orchestra. What made the disc unusual was its filler, Richard Strauss’s unfamiliar
for piano and orchestra, a piece of which I eventually grew quite fond and ended up listening to more often than I did the Schumann. That studio recording, made in 1955, predates the current in-concert recording by two years. Friedrich Gulda was 27 when he made his 1957 appearance at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Karl Böhm, by then a world-famous conductor, was 63.
Böhm had already established his Strauss credentials, having led the premieres of
Die schweigsame Frau
in 1935 and
(which the composer dedicated to him) in 1938. Gulda, on the other hand, may not have seemed the most logical choice for this particular engagement, although he’d previously recorded
in 1954 with Anthony Collins and the London Symphony Orchestra, and therefore enjoyed a certain cachet for being a known proponent of the piece. But whether he’d played under Böhm before or not, by 1957 the pianist had already begun earning his reputation as an artist with some rather unorthodox musical ideas who came across as a bit of an eccentric.
is the work of a young, exuberant, and enormously talented composer barely out of his teens. The 22-year-old Strauss played and conducted the piece—originally titled Scherzo in D Minor for piano and orchestra—for the first time in a trial run-through with the Meiningen Orchestra in 1886. It did not go well, and for the next four years the score gathered dust until the pianist and composer Eugen D’Albert, a Liszt student and disciple, took an interest in it and offered to give the piece its official premiere. Strauss made some minor revisions, changed its title to
, and, true to his word, D’Albert introduced it to the public in 1890.
The work is not, as some have claimed, a piano concerto in all but name. A virtuosic vehicle it is indeed, but if anything, its style and content presages the series of grand orchestral tone poems Strauss would embark upon shortly after completing
There is also a strong hint of the stylized waltz music to come in
The mismatch of minds between Gulda and Böhm I expected never materialized. This turned out to be one of the more electrifying performances of the piece I’ve heard, all the more so for the discipline Böhm imposes on the orchestra and the control he exerts over Gulda, harnessing the pianist’s natural tendencies to revel in the score’s jazzy rhythms and virtuosic exhibitionism. Certainly there is nothing in this reading of the self-indulgence and willfulness of Glenn Gould in his recording with Vladimir Golschmann and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Had it been Böhm on the podium, either he or Gould would have ended up dead, and my money would have been on Böhm to be the one still standing. Serkin, in the aforementioned Ormandy collaboration, has been transferred to CD, and is still a formidable contender, as is Martha Argerich with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic on a DVD of the 1992 New Year’s Eve Concert. But this performance with Gulda and Böhm gets very high marks, and its 1957 mono sound is not the slightest drawback.
If I had to pick one word to describe Böhm’s Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, it would be muscular. Not for Böhm the terpsichorean rhythms that led Wagner to call Beethoven’s Seventh, “the apotheosis of the dance.” Böhm’s tempos are not exactly fleet of foot, and his shoes are clogs rather than ballet slippers. The result is a performance that’s commanding, but one that strikes me as rather too heavy, too rigidly controlled, and too militant. In short supply are the light and air that surround the delicate tracery of Beethoven’s wind-writing. And, while it comes as no surprise in a live performance of this vintage that the first-movement exposition repeat is omitted, it does come as a surprise that problems of intonation in the second movement should plague the wind section of this venerable orchestral institution.
Once again, the mono sound and the quality of the recording are exceptionally good; but Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was a staple of Böhm’s recorded legacy, and other performances with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics and the London and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras are testament to better times he had with this score.
Recommended as a historical document and, of course, to Karl Böhm and/or Friedrich Gulda fans.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria
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