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17 Mar 2010
Karl Böhm: In Rehearsal and Performance
For many, the fine recordings of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan by the late Karl Böhm seem to have emerged full-spring from the baton of Karl Böhm and the playing of the various orchestras he led.
As effortless as those performances may see, Böhm worked to achieve the results, and as much as his legacy points to the work he would do in rehearsal, it is not easy to find visual documentation of it. Yet a fine DVD exists to call attention to this aspect of the conductor’s career. Recorded on 17 September (rehearsal) and 18 September 1970 (performance), this recording offers a welcome focus on the final preparations of a single piece from start to finish. While some recordings offer selections of rehearsal footage as a bonus or among the “extras” included with a video, the premise behind this release is the rehearsal. In doing so, it affords a glimpse at Böhm in rehearsal, where the formal face known from stills and several recordings gives way to the conductor’s involvement with the details of the score.
With the orchestra in shirtsleeves, the tone is set to show the conductor working out the details that make a difference in Strauss’s finely detailed score. While some of the stops may seem for minutiae, when taken together those refinements make the core come to live in performance. The subtleties of dynamics emerge in the first part of the rehearsal, and Böhm was good not only in attending to the mistakes, but also to call attention to places where the performances succeeded. In the reality of this rehearsal, Böhm is not merely running through the score for the sake of neither the camera nor positing an image of a tyrannical director. Rather, he reviews the details to his satisfaction, even when some of the players seem from their facial expressions to tire of the continual interruptions the conductor brings to the playing. After all, this is where the work needs such dissection, and the comments Böhm makes to the performers is crucial to the results he would bring to the performance.
Just as he would stop rehearsal to describe certain markings (like the “non espressivo” marking before rehearsal letter G), Böhm’s remarks over the music also help to show how he wanted to shape the interpretation. It is unusual to see this kind of detail used on a piece which some orchestras perform with less preparation, but the concepts he brought to this work would have a bearing on style Böhm brought to Strauss’s orchestral music. It is not difficult to imagine how he could shape the other tone poems, since the details in the released performances bear out such fine attention.
This video is an excellent opportunity to see Böhm working with his musicians in one of the more familiar pieces of orchestral repertoire. As much as the score is well known, he brings out details that not only address the color of the orchestration, and thus, the effects important to the tone poem, but also the articulations and other elements essential to punctuating phrases and placing emphases. Lengths of notes, pauses, and silence come into play as this score takes shape from the fine rendering the Vienna Philharmonic would be expected to give this or any work, to the distinctive way they present a reading under the leadership of Karl Böhm. It is interesting to see the rehearsal’s duration of forty-five minutes - about three times the length of the actual performance of the piece.
Those familiar with the conductor’s work should find this recording of interest for the insights it gives to the score of this familiar tone poem. Böhm emerges as demanding, but not obsessive, with the demands taken as a whole demonstrating the standards he would expect of his players. Just as studies of sketches and drafts should point to an increased appreciation for the finished works, this recording resembles such source studies in preserving the process that takes the orchestra into a polished execution. (The concert performance is offered in a single track, framed by a brief introductory trailer and the final credits.) While it is difficult to generalize from a single video like this one, Böhm’s rehearsal for this specific 1970 rehearsal of Don Juan serves to document the efforts of this highly respected conductor. Moreover, it offers a sense of the Vienna Philharmonic in the latter part of the twentieth century.
This DVD is in color, with crisp, clear images that suggest a documentary film rather than a televised broadcast. This makes it possible to observe accurately the gestures, body language, and demeanor of Böhm and his performers. More than that, the sound is clear and resonant, giving a good sense of the quality associated with Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinssaal. Also, the navigation of this rehearsal documentary helps for those who would want to use the film in the classroom. Music students may gain an enhanced appreciation of this work when they see it in rehearsal and those unfamiliar with German benefit from the solid translations found in the subtitle track. All in all, the presentation and the content have much to recommend in this DVD, which documents the career of one of the outstanding conductors of the twentieth century. This is the first of several DVDs, which capture Böhm’s work, and we anticipate further releases under the label “Karl Böhm in Rehearsal and Performance.”