Program: BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73
Performers: Wilhelm Backhaus, piano/ Vienna Philharmonic/ Karl Boehm
Studio: EuroArts DVD 2072058
Video: 4:3, color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Length: 73 minutes
The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 was recorded for video format at Studio Rosenhuegel, Vienna 3-9 April 1967. The piece opens with Backhaus’ disembodied hands playing the opening chords the keyboard solo, then an overhead shot takes in Boehm and his players along with Backhaus in a chaste studio setting. The camera pans through strings and winds as Backhaus (1885-1969) listens patiently through the tutti, Boehm’s executing most of the orchestral part with baton hand only. Nice studies of Backhaus in rapt attention to the color detail, obviously musically ahead as his fingers touch the keyboard without sound. He reenters with only hands and wrists showing. Backhaus takes the long line, articulate, Italianate, light, securely polished. The diaphanous interchange between piano and orchestra, the sympathy of the antiphons communicates infinite degrees of nuance.
The development section at first shows Backhaus in profile, no hands; then, as the texture thickens, the camera pulls overhead as the oboe rings out the four-note motif that proves the Apollinian side of the Fifth Symphony. Backhaus shades his pianissimos, a lesson for any piano aspirant watching the Master. When he takes on the recapitulation statement of the theme, he is his own orchestra. Backhaus takes the cadenza at a rapid clip, those spatula-shaped fingers engulfing the filigree in one swallow. Camera angles move deftly left to right, above and behind him. The cellos wait for their entry after the lovely trill. The barest of left hand cues from Boehm as the soloist and orchestra combine for a ravishing coda.
Almost no separation to the Andante con moto, an abrupt, abbreviated march. The piano mediates, softening the orchestra’s restrained furor. The segue to the Rondo: Vivace is pure silk. The camera lingers over the cellos, then pans left across the stage at ankle height to Backhaus’ solo part and quicksilver runs back to the ritornello. Backhaus takes the tune with a slight ritard, a soft marcato to which Boehm responds with an athletically virile march. Brisk fioritura in the keyboard under pizzicato strings. Backhaus turns the piano into an Aeolian harp, a delicious sound juxtaposed against the fierce tympani. A spectacular overhead shot straight down on the entire ensemble, back to Boehm, then to the clarinets, oboes and strings. One nice shot of the concerto’s score at Boehm’s left elbow. Backhaus plays his own cadenza for the last movement – rather passionate, especially in light of Boehm’s undemonstrative conducting stance. A brisk coda concludes a richly etched, impressively sonorous performance.
Karl Boehm (1894-1981) makes his own points, given his self-effacing style, in the Brahms Second Symphony before a live audience from the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna (16-19 September 1970). The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, with its string luster and soft tympani, pours forth a creamy Brahms in his most pastoral, nostalgic temper. Rapid cross-cutting by the cameras among the various sections of the orchestra as the development section unfolds. Boehm becomes fairly animated at the podium, at least up to the extended flute part. The camera moves through French horn, flute, oboe, strings and then Boehm’s cues to the cellos and basses for the contrapuntal episodes, bassoons raised high. When the main melody returns prior to the brass paroxysms, it shimmers and resignedly dissipates like a bygone age. The camera pulls back for a long shot of the recapitulation, Boehm attentive to distinct colors, the French horns working and strings all eyes on Boehm’s miniscule beat. The French horn takes us down the primrose path to the tender close of a vividly bucolic Brahms Allegro non troppo.
The Adagio begins from behind Boehm’s baton elbow, a darkly sober statement of the magisterial theme: all cellos, low strings, and piping woodwinds. Again, our French horn principal leads us into forest shadows and sylvan glades. The interchange among the winds becomes an arcadian serenade of rich power. Quick cutting from pizzicato strings to winds back to arco strings. The lighting, courtesy of Yngve Mansvik, adds to the autumnal luster of the movement, visually complemented by the burnished wood of the stringed instruments. For the brass peroration at the late development of the movement, Boehm throws a fitful arm and head gesture, uncharacteristically passionate.
The oboe takes us into the dainty Quasi Andantino, answered by flutes, bassoons, and French horn over pizzicato strings, con delicatezza. Rapid camera cutting as the tempo accelerates, the strings sawing away under a tight-lipped Boehm. The transition to the darker color of the trio goes to the cello principal; then back to the strings and bassoons for the tripping figures. Only fingerboards for the da capo and leisurely, waltz-like evocation of pastoral bliss. Arms high above his head, Boehm nods in sylvan repose. Bass fiddle leads us into the Allegro con spirito, a sudden romp when Boehm makes the downbeat, and the chugging pace goes full throttle. The camera has pulled back in respect of Boehm’s objective stance, the music having become well-organized clockwork articulated with virile clarity. Boehm bends and leans into the development section, a bit of Leonard Bernstein enthusiasm. The electricity becomes contagious, the strings and woodwinds competing for hegemony, and the music rushes forward, sputters in the winds, then pizzicato strings, then winds up the brew with a terrific, graduated crescendo to the full statement of the theme, tympani and brass punctuations, the dip into the brass and the big, final tutti, the brass finally unbuttoned with machine-gun kettledrum, Boehm’s subdividing the last chord for an added thud that gets the audience off its feet.
— Gary Lemco