BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D Major; Symphony No. 7 in A Major – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Karl Bohm – Orfeo

 BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36; Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 – Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/ Karl BohmOrfeo C910 151B, 79:58 (10/12/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The appearance of Karl Bohm (1894-1981) in Salzburg, 17 August 1980, stands as his penultimate concert document, and the two Beethoven symphonies he leads reveal virtually nothing of the frailty of his health at the time. Conducting from a chair before his veteran Vienna Philharmonic players, Bohm delivers muscular, internally responsive performances of concentrated girth, especially in the D Major Symphony, which transcends anything like “early-period” Beethoven. The press at the time noted how Bohm’s feverish gestures literally raised him from his seat, given the driven momentum of the reading. Rhythmic precision and tonal accuracy mark the entire progression, once Bohm establishes his tempos, which tend to the moderato and marcato but evolve by roundly enunciated periods. It was Berlioz who first praised the Larghetto movement for its deathless song, and Bohm certainly invests the music with a sense of valediction. While the Scherzo for some tastes may exhibit stiffness in the joints that render it “distinguished,” Bohm throws caution away for the Allegro molto, for which the VPO woodwinds perform with an alert, crisp response that, in tandem with an aroused tympani, belie any sense of “the tortoise” and “Grand Chairman” caricatures in the Vienna press that predicted the aged, economical conductor would live to age 500!

Nothing effete characterizes Bohm’s Beethoven Seventh Symphony, in which the wind parts – especially the VPO flute – appear in heightened alertness. The opening Poco sostenuto alone evolves as a lesson unto itself in articulated pedal point and unconventional modulation, to C and F Major. The ensuing Vivace gallops, canters sings, threatens, and luxuriates in its own colossal, dotted-rhythm energies. The A Minor Allegretto – what Virgil Thomson called “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote” – maintains hints of exaltation, despite the lachrymose affect of the music. Bohm’s approach here in his old age may remind auditors of that of his departed colleague – another master of the deliberate tempo – Hans Knappertsbusch. The Presto, too, while urging a dance sensibility, exerts a degree of reticence, a leisurely noblesse that might be construed as a monumental languor.  But the da capo injects its Puckish spirit once more, that sense of Dionysiac irrepressible energy. For the finale, Bohm attempts to balance a wild frenzy with a deliberate sense of architecture, which to more urgent revelers may seem “academic.” But the commitment from the VPO brass, strings, and tympani certainly captures the whirlwind motion of the evolving movement, its ineluctable force of will. The appearance of the formerly “intrusive” keys of C and F have made their presence more than organic, raising the unity of effect to the level of a grand apotheosis. The Vienna audience verily shouts its wholehearted approbation of all principals.

—Gary Lemco

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