Karl Böhm, interviewed by Alan Blyth (Gramophone, December 1972)
When I was in Salzburg for the festival during the summer, I took the opportunity of searching out Karl Böhm, more cherished in his own land than perhaps he is in ours. He was kind enough to give me some of his time in spite of the fact that, at the age of almost 78, he was conducting no less than 12 opera performances at Salzburg, plus concerts there and more opera at Munich. The very morning we met he was due to rehearse Theo Adam who was sharing the role of Wozzeck with Walter Berry after Geraint Evans had to withdraw following an accident filming in Wales. The performance of the Berg opera was that night and it turned out to be a thrilling one, Böhm's activity in the pit belying his somewhat frail appearance away from it.
He has for some years stayed during the festival at a charming little cottage behind one of the less well-known hotels, where for the most part he enjoys absolute peace. Unfortunately this year some building work was taking place nearby and, as we sat in the garden, Böhm did not hesitate to inveigh against how long it all seemed to be taking. The evidence is certainly there on the tape of our conversation, but luckily it did not blot out what Böhm said to me in his good English (which he constantly declared was inadequate), spoken – as is his German – with an attractive Viennese accent. In fact his home town is not Vienna but Graz, where he first studied at the Conservatory. It was at Graz too that he got his first job – as a repetiteur and assistant conductor. 'Karl Muck by chance heard me direct Lohengrin there, and he invited me to study all Wagner's scores with him. He was the first and greatest influence on me.
Then in 1920, I conducted a new production of Fidelio – the first time I had done the work – and it was a success. I had the chance of becoming the musical director there the following year, but just at the same time I received a telegram from Bruno Walter inviting me to conduct Freischützand Butterfly in Munich. He said that there was an opening for a fourth conductor there and advised me to take that post, rather than the one in Graz, as it would give me a better chance to learn the repertory. I accepted, and stayed six years in Munich. For the first year I worked with Walter. Then in 1922 Knappertsbusch became musical director of the Munich company. From both I learned all I needed to know. Walter really taught me my Mozart. You see my father had been a Wagnerian, out and out, so until I got to know Walter, I had not regarded Mozart as highly as I should have done. My first Mozart opera at Munich was Entführung at the Festival in 1921 – with a marvellous cast: Maria Ivögun, Tauber and Paul Bender. I'd love to have that cast today for my new recording of the work. Two years later I did my first Tristan at the theatre.
'In 1927 I went to Darmstadt. Ebert was administrator during my time there – and Rudolf Bing was his assistant. That's a bit of operatic history for you. About this time I conducted my first Wozzeck in the presence of the composer, who wrote a dedication in my score. You can't imagine how difficult the work then was for everyone. I recall that my first rehearsals were just with the wind and percussion, the strings coming in only later. In all, we had 40 orchestral rehearsals for the production. Even today the work is still rhythmically very difficult to manage. Each musician must know what his colleagues are playing because it is impossible to give everyone a lead.
'Then in 1931 I went to Hamburg where I was to be musical director for four years, followed by nine years in Dresden. I met Strauss for the first time when I was in Hamburg, where we did a new production of Elektra. After that we were close friends for the rest of his life. Of course he was a musical genius as a composer, but he was also a very good conductor and taught me a great deal. I remember once after he had rehearsed the first scene of Elektra, he said to the orchestra, 'Play it very softly, it's too loud composed'. He always told me that one must conduct only with one hand; the other should be in one's pocket. But I recall one occasion when he was doing Die Frau ohne Schatten at Dresden, he followed his own advice for most of the evening until he got to the final quartet. There, in the fortissimo C major he brought out his other hand and got really excited. After the performance he asked me, 'Böhmel' – he always called me that – 'how was it?'. I said that it was fine except that you used your left hand. Three days later I was sitting in my box when he conducted the same work again. When he reached that passage, he used only his right hand – and with the other, waved to me'.
Having had so many excellent ensembles where he conducted before and after the war, did he miss that aspect of performances today? 'Well, we can still achieve the same thing – but only at festivals. Here, for Cosìthis time, I have had four weeks of rehearsal with my wonderful cast. In the normal opera-house routine today, I know it's impossible. A singer flies in the morning before a performance. He doesn't want to rehearse – he wants to rest for the following night'.
Böhm very much likes recording live performances, but he says that it does depend on circumstances. For Tristan, one of his favourite sets, he told me that they did one act at a time with an audience present. 'If Windgassen had had to do all three acts at once, he would naturally have had to reserve himself a little in Act 1; for Nilsson, of course, it makes no difference. She could sing the whole work every day without tiring herself. In the studio, you can of course correct everything, but you sometimes lose the line of a performance, or at least it's very hard to retain it'.
He was greatly looking forward to recording Entführung, in which Arleen Auger will be Constanze, Peter Schreier, Belmonte, and Kurt Moll, Osmin. He would also like to makeIdomeneo. Next summer he will conduct a new production of the opera at the Salzburg Festival. 'In the past I've used the Baumgartner edition but next summer I will go back to the original. Of course, it's impossible to say exactly what that is. In Munich he cut this, in Vienna he cut that. There are difficult decisions to make'.
In Così at Salzburg this summer Böhm cut two arias – 'Tradito, schernito' and 'E amore un ladroncello' - that are included in his recording of the work for EMI. Why was that? 'On stage, they make the work too long. I spoke many times with Strauss about this, and with his and my experience of numerous performances, I'm sure these cuts are right, and made with devotion to Mozart'.
Next summer Böhm will – at last – conduct a British orchestra again, not in this country but also at Salzburg when the LSO appears there for the first time. 'I would love to conduct at Covent Garden again. I have happy memories of being there in 1947 with the Vienna State Opera. I remember the excellent acoustics'.
When considering orchestras and their characteristics, he feels that he is spoilt by his close connection (over forty years) with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. 'For records, I must use these orchestras because I know them so well. I have to have a close contact with the players before I start, and that's difficult with an orchestra I don't know'.
For Wagner, Böhm thought that he had learnt most from Karl Muck. 'He had the tradition from Cosima who presumably knew Richard's own ideas. Muck told me where the orchestra should be more prominent, how to handle the Bayreuth acoustics, and so on. My own view of Wagner is to avoid sentimentality and bombast as far as possible. When I first did the Ring at Bayreuth, with Wieland in his last production, the critics said my Rheingold and Walküre were so transparent. I replied that in the old days I conducted Wagner before I knew Mozart and Bach; now I conduct his works, that is Wagner's, purified by the other composers. That's my opinion'.
Where Mozart himself is concerned, he believes that his understanding comes merely through love. 'And I hope that is transferred from me to the orchestra and from them to the audience. Strauss used to say that in every piece there are one or two bars that tell you the right tempo. My example for this is the quintet in the second act of Zauberflöte. You see there alla breve and Allegro, so you're tempted to begin too quickly, because when the Three Ladies get to the phrase 'Man zisehelt viel sich in die Ohren' they won't be able to fit it in, so the speed of that phrase must govern that for the whole piece. Strauss also said that Mozart was the inventor of unending melody – and took for his example Cherubino's 'Voi che sapete'. The melody begins with the first bar and ends wilh last'.
For conducting Strauss, Böhm went back to that dictum of the composer himself. 'Not too loud'. He added; 'I conducted the premieres of Schweigsame Frau and Daphne. Strauss was always present during rehearsals and he repeatedly said, 'too loud, Böhmel'. In the former opera, he once said he couldn't hear the words, so he took the score back to his hotel and reduced the clarinets and bassoons from four to two, with red ink'. Then the thought ran through Böhm's mind that the work had never been recorded, and he made a mental note to put right that neglect.
Although known as a specialist in the German repertory, Böhm loves conducting Italian opera. Two years ago he directed a new production of Macbeth in Vienna, and last year Otello at the Met. 'I did all the repertory pieces in the old days and I also remember a wonderful Otellowith Max Lorenz – he's here in Salzburg, you know, this summer. I think I've done about 160 operas in my life'.
With that, Böhm had to leave to rehearse Wozzeck, one of the 160 that will surely long remain in the memory of those who have heard him conduct it.