Karl Böhm was one of the great Strauss conductors of the middle years of the twentieth century. His conducting was clear and precise, but also wildly colorful, intensely dramatic, and ecstatically lyrical, all the qualities one looks for in a Strauss conductor. This 1963 recording of Strauss' Tod und Verklärung with the Vienna Philharmonic is Böhm at his best. From the syncopated sound of the dying man's faltering heartbeat through his nostalgic memories of his life and his striving toward the highest ideals to the quiet climax at the moment of his death and his glorious transfiguration, Böhm and the Vienna give the work a once-in-a-lifetime performance. The beauty of the winds, the sweetness of the strings, the power of the brass, the exquisite delicacy of the harps, and the overwhelming power of the tympani is unbelievably effective and Böhm holds it all and binds it all and makes of it all one cogent and compelling work of art.
But does being a great Strauss conductor also mean that Böhm will be a great Schoenberg conductor? Perhaps not in all Schoenberg, but at least in his early tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, Böhm is right at home. Although Pelleas und Melisande is a much darker and more pessimistic work than any Strauss would ever compose, it is still a work recognizably in the Strauss style and Böhm and the Vienna give it a performance of terrific magnificence and tremendous strength. If ultimately their Schoenberg is less convincing than their Strauss, this may say more about the music than it does about the performers. Deutsche Grammophon's sound -- mono in the Strauss, stereo in the Schoenberg -- is a bit gray and clear and clean.