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PERFORMING ARTS : COMMENTARY : Karl Bohm, a Solid Straussian : A series of historic opera recordings documents the artistic heritage of Richard Strauss' last disciple.

October 09, 1994|Martin Bernheimer | Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic.

Karl Bohm, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday in August, was hardly the most flamboyant conductor of his time.

He wasn't a glamorous podium magnet like Herbert von Karajan, or a saintly romanticist like Bruno Walter. He wasn't a prickly perfectionist like Arturo Toscanini, or a poetic hero like Wilhelm Furtwangler. He wasn't a sensitive humanist like Fritz Busch.

He didn't command the spacious repose of Hans Knappertsbusch. He inspired no cult following in the manner of Erich Kleiber, and he didn't appear to be a high-powered autocrat like Clemens Krauss.

Bohm was, above all, a solid musician--quiet in matters of demeanor, strong in matters of technique, fussy in matters of style. He was informed, intelligent and, above all, reliable.

During his long career, he assumed several personalities. In the shadow of gigantic colleagues, he seemed somewhat pedantic, perhaps more a Kapellmeister (in the best sense of the much-misused term) than an inspired individualist. Then, gradually, as his illustrious colleagues began to die off, he assimilated their status of giganticism.

Survival means a lot in the arts. So does innocence by association.

Bohm, who died in 1981, was one of the last of his breed. When he approached his dotage--a most active and amazingly productive dotage--he served as a symbol of an old world and an exponent of the best in an expiring Germanic culture.

He paid high artistic dues from the start. After all, he had been a follower of Carl Muck, a friend of Alban Berg, a champion of both Ernst Krenek and Paul Hindemith and a faithful disciple of Richard Strauss.

The Strauss connection may have been the most important one. The composer repaid the conductor's unwavering constancy in numerous ways. Bohm conducted the world premiere of two Strauss operas--"Die Schweigsame Frau" in 1935 and "Daphne" in 1938. The latter was actually dedicated to him.

It can't be too surprising that the master appreciated the servant. Bohm was relatively self-effacing. He never imposed a false perspective on the work at hand. He savored clarity and economy. He valued the ideals of Mozartean restraint, which, believe it or not, are helpful in the delineation of decaying romanticism.

Bohm was only 55 when Strauss died in 1949. With the passage of time, the music world eventually came to regard the conductor as the composer's alter ego. It wasn't that no one else conducted Strauss well. It was, simply, that increasingly few rivals could claim to have conducted Strauss with Strauss' blessing.

The cumulative impact of Bohm as a Strauss conductor is being documented these days by Deutsche Grammophon in a fascinating series of historic opera recordings. Some of the CD sets are merely reissues of entries available in the commercial catalogue long ago. Others, more important, are taken from the broadcast archives of the Salzburg Festival.

Most interesting, perhaps, is a performance of "Arabella" from the summer of 1947. The Austrian city lay in postwar ruin. Bohm, whose cooperation with the Nazi regime had cast a long shadow, had just been granted permission to resume his career. Food was scarce, and morale was obviously low. The time didn't seem ideal for a lighthearted performance of Strauss' nostalgic demi-masterpiece.

But here it is--always elegant, sometimes charming, ultimately poignant (DGG 445 342-2). The proceedings, astonishingly well-recorded, are dominated--authoritatively despite a few moments of distress--by veteran soprano Maria Reining. She is nobly seconded by the very young Lisa della Casa (herself an incipient Arabella) as the radiant Zdenka. Hans Hotter introduces an unusually powerful yet sensitive Mandryka, and Georg Hann is a splendidly hearty Waldner. In those days they had ensembles.

A performance of "Ariadne auf Naxos" from 1954 finds Bohm bridging the contradictory intimacy and grandeur with exemplary poise. Attempting the title role for the first time, Della Casa offers a rather pale preview of future achievements, and Irmgard Seefried's classic Composer is better preserved elsewhere. Still, Hilde Guden is an irresistibly daring Zerbinetta, and the teamwork is marvelous.

Bohm did not conduct "Rosenkavalier" very often. He preferred to concentrate on less popular challenges. His Salzburg performance in 1969, however, testifies to uncommon refinement and gentle wit (DGG 445 338-2). Christa Ludwig is the warm and wise Marschallin, well matched by Tatiana Troyanos' dignified Octavian and Edith Mathis' silvery Sophie. Theo Adam is cast against type as wily, slender-sounding Baron Ochs--certainly more baron than ox. The Vienna Philharmonic is, well, the Vienna Philharmonic. Enough said.

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