Karl Böhm’s Alpine Symphony Revisited

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 6

Although the modern collector won’t necessarily be inclined to see it quite that way, Karl Böhm was the go-to conductor of “authentic” Strauss performances in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the one who was in intimate contact with the composer, knew his wishes, and was respected by him. Yet by the late 1980s Deutsche Grammophon’s Böhm/Strauss collection was allowed to go out of print. Through their recordings, Rudolf Kempe, Herbert von Karajan, maybe Giuseppe Sinopoli, possibly Georg Solti—even with no such direct link to the composer—had established themselves as the foremost Straussians of the LP and CD (so-perceived) golden age and beyond. Never mind that the real golden age is now, of course, with new recordings of the Alpine Symphony (many of them in the Super Audio format) pouring forth every year, like candy from a piñata.

But for all his links to the composer, let’s turn to Böhm, who has two interpretations of this work on disc: the staple on Deutsche Grammophon with the Staatskapelle Dresden (to whom the work is dedicated) from 1957, and a more recently released one from Audite featuring one of Böhm’s first Strauss recordings after the war, made with Ferenc Fricsay’s RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin in 1952. The latter is a stringent, transparent performance, further accentuated by the good (even very good, for 1952 standards), slightly bright sound. Audite uses the original RIAS high-speed magnetic tapes from which they have a way of getting the best possible results. The climaxes, though shrill, manage to pass without distortion, although direct comparison to modern recordings obviously isn’t flattering. After initial hesitancy, it’s easy to more and more get into this lean (to the very limited extent an Alpine Symphony performance can ever be lean) reading.

The DG recording has cleaner sound (also mono), is more detailed (as if ‘zoomed’ in) during the smaller scored passages, but contains an overall sense of reticence that is wholly inappropriate because it undermines a work that is all about extremes. The normally resonant Kreuzkirche appears to have been dampened down too darn successfully. Since even the climaxes don’t get us to the limits of our comfort zone and because there is neither a cinematic feeling nor any sensation of the “grand” (but instead only a sense of reserve), Böhm’s interpretation doesn’t at all inspire to mirror-conduct along, which is a shame because the Alpine Symphony is a prime candidate for good mirror-conducting. (It’s been a favorite of mine for that purpose ever since I could wield my mother’s knitting needles.)

All that makes the recording with the RIAS orchestra the better bet for anyone interested in Böhm conducting the Alpine Symphony, but in truth, both can be safely passed on. Even if Böhm/RIAS was the most amazing, titillating  account, the benefits of spectacular sound specifically in this work are greater than any differences in the best conducting 60 years ago and the best conducting now could be.

Böhm’s Till Eulenspiegel—the coupling on the DG Originals disc—is a bright-eyed and crisp but slightly humorless account in mono, sounding similarly dated and not actually much better than Fricsay’s lively 1951 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Any Karajan or the superb Honeck recording from Pittsburgh is going to be a more gratifying choice here.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Safely: Blomstdedt/San Francisco (Decca); Surprisingly: Solti/BRSO (Decca); Contentionally: Haitink/LSO (LSO Live)

    Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm

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