Wednesday 9 December 2020

Mozart's Haffner Symphony (no. 35) - Karl Bohm, Berlin Philharmonic, 1959


Regular readers will know that I like to share astoundingly good musical performances here from time to time - this is one. 

I mention it not only as a great performance by a great conductor of a great orchestra of a Mozart masterwork - but because this symphony is only about 18 minutes long. 

So, if you have never sat down and really listened with concentration all through a symphony (which is a daunting prospect, outside the concert hall) - then this might be an ideal start; not least because it is such an immediately likeable piece of music.


I have always appreciated Karl Bohm as a conductor of Mozart, which was why I sought out one of his recordings. Initially I intended having this music as 'background' while I was writing - I know the Haffner Symphony pretty well. But as soon as this particular performance began, it grabbed my attention - gripped and held it. I was entranced. 


There is a lot here that deserves comment. Above all - because it is most important - is the phrasing of the melodic components. For example, the way the first violins carry the main melody throughout is so sinuous, so wonderfully-shaped, it seems to draw me from one note to another. 

And this is also happening all through the orchestra (if you switch attention to some of the inner lines, or the bass), while being held together in chords that have a delicate and beautiful musical-colouration from the various combinations of instruments (especially the winds) - which Bohm and the great Berlin band balance so delicately. 

Delicately yes, always - yet this is a symphony of wide dynamic contrasts, swelling and subsiding from loud to soft - extremely, and often. These volume changes are, like the melody, done in a smooth and always-connected way; so that when there is a sudden loud chord it feels as if it is an extremely rapid volume increase (instead of being a sudden and disconnected blast). All of which helps to hold the piece of music together - horizontally (through-time) as well as vertically (between simultaneous notes). 


Just a brief aside: this symphony and performance shows how important the bassoons are to an orchestra. They are nearly-always present, doing a vital job in articulating the bass line, giving it 'corners', in a fashion of which the double bass alone is incapable - but here we are more aware of the bassoons than usual!


One thing about a truly great performance, is that it combines what are usually regarded as opposites. Consider the rhythm. This is a very 'rhythmic' performance, with a strong forward movement; but this is not achieved by hammering out a strong beat - instead it is done by a bouncing, springing rhythm. Much as with the melodies; there is an ebb and flow of the rhythms, that shape-into and out-from what went before; rather like a heart-beat that accelerates and decelerates as needed. 


As with any great conductor; Bohm is showing us (teaching us) things about Mozart that we didn't know before, and could not be expressed otherwise than in performance. As I say, I have heard this symphony many times; but I was all through, again and again, being surprised (in a delightful way!) by what was happening, what Bohm was doing. 

The ensemble, the playing-together, is outstanding. Even a top-notch orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic in 1959 plays better on particular days, for particular conductors. This gives a clarity to the loudest or fastest passages - which can so easily degenrate into fuzzy, indistinguishable blocks. 

The individual instruments (or sections) are distinguishable, at the same time as they blend, the individual notes are separated even as they flow...  this is another of those 'impossible' opposites which a great performance achieves. 


You may wonder why such a fuss is made of conductors. This performance shows why. A great conductor (and these are as rare as other kinds of greatness) plays the orchestra much as a great concert pianist plays his instrument. But the instrument of a symphony orchestra is far more complex than a piano; which means that a good band is even more important, and even harder to achieve, than a good Steinway. 

Furthermore; the potential complexity of the best symphonic music itself, and thus the number of factors at work in performing such music on that most complex instrument which is an orchestra; raises the musical difficulty to a very high level indeed. 

So, the great conductor needs to be a great musician - a master of musical understanding and execution - to a degree that is only exceeded by the great composer.   


One final thing - if you do listen. The thing that makes a symphony 'a symphony' is the 'development' of themes. So a symphony is not just a series of tunes - one after the other (like many overtures); but (often) just a couple of tunes, which are 'played-with', varied and combined. 

This is especially evident in the first (Allegro) movement. What to look-out-for is the way that the simple themes are 'stated' then transformed - fragments of melody are taken and recombined, overlapped, passed around the orchestra etc. 

Elements of the original tune may be used as countermelodies (counterpoint) to other elements. There are changes of key (up and up, or down and down); new chords generated; and the general effect is of increasing musical richness and sophistication as the movement proceeds. 

In some symphonies this development process may go on a long time and become rather hard to understand; but in this short and concentrated work there is just enough to make the point. 


a_probst said...

You may like this:

Or not.

Seriously, yes, Böhm was one of the great Mozart conductors. I also have his Beethoven Symphony No. 6. He conducted a well-mounted (in my opinion) Die Fledermaus for television.

Oddly he seemed off his game with the Romantic Also Sprach Zarathustra. Back in the early 80s I wanted to buy his recording thinking that the introduction was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (it was Karajan's). But the young record store clerk warned me that it wasn't good. I took it home, played it, and tried to exchange it for Zubin Mehta's, hoping the same clerk wouldn't be there but he was. "Aha! Told you!" he said, and gave me the exchange.

Bruce Charlton said...

I was keen on PDQ Bach back when I was a student, very much a 'college humor' thing!

Even the greatest musician has a limited range of sympathy and capacity, including conductors - and Strauss and Mozart are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum of great music.

(Although a great performer is usually worth listening to - at least once! - whatever they play - because something of value can be learned from a bad performance by a deep musical thinker.)

I like both Mozart and Strauss; Strauss was, in my book, the very last of the great composers. But I would ideally go to someone like Klemperer for Strauss, but avoid his Mozart - and the opposite for Bohm.

a_probst said...

PDQ Bach actually originated as college humor by Peter Schickele and Jorge Mester at Julliard. The parody concerts became an annual event there.

In addition to Spike Jonesian buffoonery his works contain many esoteric references that listeners like me with no musical training either would never get or not get right away but discover years later. My late sister, who played viola with student and local amateur orchestras, used to explain some of the jokes to me beginning from the time she brought home the first album when I was ten. (She also attended religiously the New Year's PDQ Bach concerts Schickele performed at the Los Angeles Music Center.) At the time it reminded me of daytime concerts in which the conductor gives a short lecture before each piece.

A couple of examples of getting the reference or joke later--

In the Quodlibet Schikele inserts "Tea for Two" and then follows it with a refrain I didn't recognize. Years later I recognized it in a recording of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. OK, ha-ha. But a few more years later I bought a recording, Shostakovich: From the Manuscripts of Different Years (Melodya 1979). It included an arrangement of "Tahiti Trot, or Tea for Two" as a two-step.

The Royal Firewater Music a drunken-sounding parody of Handel's Water Music. Once again, ha-ha, Handel played drunkenly, big deal. But it turns out Schickele lifted the 'drunken' sound from Handel too, from the less-heard Grand Entrée from Alceste:

Now that's funny.

In the years since, some ensembles have programmed PDQ works without Schickele present. Some students of the bassoon have incorporated the Abassoonata in their recitals and posted themm on YouTube. (The bassoon was Schickele's instrument and I saw him perform the piece live back in '85.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@a_p - I got a very amusing book by Schickele which was a spoof history of how the PDQ manuscripts were discovered, and of PDQ himself. I actually enjoyed it more than the spoof music - which I found a bit 'broad' in their humour.

Talking of musical parody - do you know the of Dudley Moore parody's from Beyond the Fringe revue? - of a Benjamin Britton version of Little Miss Tuffet (sung in a strangulated Peter Pears tenor), and a Beethoven 'sonata' which parodies the endless dominant-tonic cadences of the end of the 8th Symphony. You can find them on YouTube.