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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Complete Symphonies

CD1: Symphony in F minor (No. 00) (1863); Overture in G minor (1863) [47.59]
Recorded March 2001
CD2: Symphony in D minor (No. 0) (1869); Adagio from String Quintet [60.56]
Recorded March 1999
CD3: Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Linz version 1866) [46.01]
Recorded June 1995
CD4: Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1872, revised 1877) [59.02]
Recorded October 1999
CD5: Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889 version) [55.20]
Recorded October 1996
CD6: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1881 version) [70.32]
Recorded October 1998
CD7: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1876) [73.23]
Recorded October 1996
CD8: Symphony No. 6 in A major (1880) [56.53]
Recorded March 1997
CD9: Symphony No. 7 in E major (1883) [68.45]
Recorded September 1991
CDs10 and 11: Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version) [60.03 + 22.19]
Recorded October 1993
CD12: Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896) [61.21]
Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Recorded January 2001
All recordings made in the Kongresshalle, Saarbrücken DDD
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 207 [12 CDs: [47.59 + 60.56 + 46.01 + 59.02 + 55.20 + 70.32 + 73.23 + 56.53 + 68.45 + 60.03 + 22.19 + 61.21. total time 682:34]

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This review is in two sections: (1) artistic considerations (2) a consumer perspective. Their conclusions are rather different.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski is an under-recorded Polish conductor who spent much of his early career in the USA before moving back to Europe. I am not sure how much Bruckner he programmed in Minnesota but I can recall hearing him with the Hallé in the Third Symphony when he was principal conductor of that orchestra during the 1980s. These readings certainly seem to be the product of much experience and thought.

Skrowaczewski has a consistent approach to Bruckner which is forthright but unforced and sounds natural. Tempi are almost invariably well-judged and kept constant unless Bruckner explicitly marks a change. Relative to others, fast movements tend to be slightly quicker (e.g. the first movement of the Ninth) and slow movements slightly slower (e.g. the great adagios of the last three symphonies). Skrowaczewski perhaps underplays elements of mystery and religious fervour but the architectural strength of the readings is compelling.

Following Terry Barfoot’s detailed review (see link below), there seems to be no need to go through the symphonies individually. The hallmark of this cycle is consistency and there is a not single work that I found disappointing. Equally well, none would probably be a top choice but there is a lot of competition in these works. I listened to the symphonies in numerical order and had a clear sense of progression - Skrowaczewski convincingly presents the composer's development and leaves no doubt about the greatness of the later works.

The playing of the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra is very fine throughout. They are accorded decent, presumably studio, sound except in the Seventh which was the first to be recorded and for which an audience is occasionally audible, although not seriously obtrusive and no applause remains.

In terms of editions, Skrowaczewski generally opts for Bruckner's last thoughts, except in the First Symphony, for which he chooses the first (Linz) version. Detailed information relating to the precise editions used is lacking but will probably only matter to seasoned Brucknerians. Overall, the textual choices are reasonable and coherent in terms of the whole cycle.

In addition to the symphonies numbered 1-9 there are four extra works to be mentioned, making this the most complete Bruckner box available. The early symphonies, now usually known as 00 and 0, have been recorded a few times and the latter is part of some complete cycles (e.g. Haitink's). Their inclusion here is useful and Skrowaczewski almost convinces one that the earlier work, in F minor, is more than a mere student exercise ... which is what Bruckner considered it to be - he was 39 when he wrote it! Slightly later but in similar vein came the G minor overture. No 0 is certainly a fine work, parts of which date from after the First Symphony. Finally there is an arrangement for string orchestra of the great adagio from the String Quintet, Bruckner's only mature chamber composition. Much as I love this movement and, despite its almost symphonic vision, I am a bit dubious about it in this form because of a loss in intimacy and the lack of context provided by the other movements. Undoubtedly though, given its rarity on record, this is of interest.

To sum up the artistic considerations - this is a thoroughly recommendable cycle, well played and in decent sound. Its particular strength lies in Skrowaczewski's consistent and unmannered approach.

From a consumer perspective, the first consideration is how this measures up in terms of performance and sound to other currently available complete cycles. The short answer is pretty well. If allowed just one cycle I would prefer it to the Barenboim I reviewed a couple of months ago (see link below). Only in the Fifth Symphony would I clearly feel a preference for Barenboim and that is more of a reflection of his excellence there than any shortcoming on the part of Skrowaczewski. This cycle is also, in my view, preferable to Tintner's. Although his readings of the first versions of Nos. 2, 3 and 8 are essential individual purchases, Tintner's is a more individual, less consistent approach. Haitink's Amsterdam cycle from the 1960s and 1970s has just been reissued and I would find it hard to choose between it and the Skrowaczewski on performance considerations - though I do prefer the modern Saarbrücken sound.

The main sting in the tail for this set is its current cost for this is upper mid-price bracket at over £90 and is probably the most expensive Bruckner cycle on the market. Originally, most of the discs were issued singly on Arte Nova at super-bargain price. A few years ago you could have picked up one of these discs to sample Skrowaczewski's approach or plug a gap in the collection for £5. Lacking a version of the 1889 version of the Third on CD, I did just that and was impressed. Effectively the price has been hiked up 50% for this bulk re-issue. Relatively, this now costs about four times as much as Barenboim and over twice as much as Haitink with Tintner in between.

I doubt that this set would be worth the extra money for most collectors even if it were handsomely packaged. In that respect it also falls down significantly. Barenboim's set is not ideally presented but has something of a luxury feel to it. This one has a minimalistic tone. The booklet is thin, essay on the works superficial and there are no track-listing or timings. The discs come in thin sealed envelopes which are opened like letters - and thereafter look like opened letters. Like UK tax returns they have windows and you have to put the disc in the right way if you want it to be identifiable before removing it. Compared to the feel and utility of many boxed sets - for example EMI’s bargain boxes - this is poor.

The only positive thing I can say about presentation is that it is potentially remediable. So too, of course, is the price. Although artistically and sonically recommendable, this is not currently competitive. My advice to potential buyers is to wait and see. Hopefully Oehms will see the light and reissue the set - and perhaps even the single discs - in a more attractive way.

Patrick C Waller

Link to my review of Barenboim’s set

Link to Terry Barfoot’s review of this set

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