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Conductor Karl Bohm: honesty, vitality, simplicity

The late Dr. Karl Bohm was the last of an era of German conductors who dominated music for nearly 40 years. Bohm was mentioned in the same breath as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Clemens Krauss, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Bruno Walter.

A pioneer in recorded performances, Bohm leaves an incredible spread of performances on disk, from early electricals with the Dresden Staatskappelle, which he headed for years, through to his recent recordings with his beloved Vienna Philharmonic in state-of-the-art stereo sound, and even digital recordings with the London Symphomy Orchestra.

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In Germany, EMI Electrola recently re-issued all of Bohm's Dresden records in several volumes -- concertos, symphonies, operatic selections -- some of them pioneer ventures, such as his Bruckner Fourth, the first Bruckner Symphony ever commercially recorded. Bohm has a complete Beethoven and Schubert cycles with the Berlin Philharmonic on DG, as well as a superb Brahms cycle on the same label with the Vienna Philharmonic.

But it is for his Strauss, Mozart, and much of his Wagner that he will be remembered. US operagoers have been thrilled by his Wagner, Mozart, Strauss, and even Verdi. He had one of his most sensational triumphs in the Met premiere production of Strauss's "Die Frau Ohne Schatten," last revived in 1978 with a frailer but still incredibly vital Bohm at the helm.

Bohm's last appearances as a conductor were for a recording-soundtrack for a filming of Strauss's "Elektra," with Rysanek in the title role. It is an oddly fitting finale for the man who knew and championed Strauss, who led two world- premieres, and was dedicatee for one of them -- "Daphne."

Bohm will be remembered for a complete Bayreuth Ring cycle from the golden ' 60s, boasting Rysanek, Nilsson, Theo Adam, James King, Wolfgang Windgassen. Another classic Bohm opera recording is the 1966 Bayreuth "Tristan und Isolde" on DG with Nilsson. His Angel recording of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" is one of the legendary performances in the history of recorded opera. His "Ariadne auf Naxos" with the Vienna State Opera at the Kennedy Carter in Washington in 1978 was an unabashed triumph -- and Bohm's last appearances on these shores. To the end, as was evidenced then, he was a hero with the American public and with all his publics around the world -- often receiving larger ovations than the singers.

His conducting style was always lean, and though later it often became little more than a pointing with the baton, orchestras responded vividly to his clean, unfussy, vibrant style. His latest recordings -- Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Mozart -- are the work of a man in dynamic, youthful form, not an octogenarian.

For the standards he set, for the vitality, honesty, and simplicity of his performances, for the excellence he sought in casting and performance (even if too often record companies dictated casting that clearly he would have changed). Bohm received the adulation of music lover and performing artist alike, and has ensured his name on the list of greatest musicians.

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