BEETHOVEN Symphony No 9 (Böhm)
None of the six occasions on which the Ninth has been given at Bayreuth have lacked cultural or political significance. Seven, if you count Wagner’s own performance of his chosen Bühnenweihfestsinfonie down the hill at the Margrave’s opera house on the afternoon of May 22, 1872, having laid the new theatre’s foundation stone. The year 1962 had marked an attempt by his grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang to reboot the slippery ideals of ‘New Bayreuth’ (‘Here art is our only goal’) which had been proclaimed both on posters at the theatre’s reopening in 1951 and in sound by Furtwängler’s act of reconsecration, after the depredations of jazz and Puccini visited upon the place by wartime American soldiers.
The 69-year-old Karl Böhm made a belated festival debut that year with Wieland’s new staging of Tristan. His springy, unsentimental Mozart (in, say, the EMI Così from 1955) had been key to the hire but a fertile imagination would be required to hear it at work in the slightly tentative violin entry (shades of Furtwängler!) and then monolithically established pulse of the opening movement. The booklet implies that Böhm used Wagner’s orchestral retouchings especially for the occasion but in fact only in the last of his six extant performances of the symphony on record (a spacious swansong from Vienna in 1980 – 11/81) did the conductor abandon them.
The most salient Wagnerian element of this Ninth may rather be found in the finale’s cello recitatives, taken almost as much in tempo as Böhm’s powerful Dresden recording from 1944, irresistibly bringing to mind in this context Sachs pondering the folly of the world as the curtain rises on the last act of Die Meistersinger. Otherwise, in the firm momentum, sleek moulding and Classically wind-heavy balancing of the inner movements may be detected the ghostly hand of Richard Strauss upon his friend’s shoulder. In the second theme of the Adagio there is playing of great and joyful communion, between winds and strings, between Böhm and his men.
A plywood baffle, visible in the booklet photos, was specially constructed to project the sound of the chorus from the stage of the Festspielhaus; it appears to have worked no better than one expects of such devices. While a distinct improvement on previous exhumations which have done the rounds, Orfeo’s excellent new transfer from a Bavarian radio source only serves to clarify how much Janowitz dominated her colleagues on this occasion, though they were all more seasoned Bayreuth performers. More as a historical than a musical document, the release is significant, but who will fill in the most intriguing pieces of the jigsaw history of the Ninth at Bayreuth, and bring back to us the accounts of Strauss (1933) and Hindemith (1952)?