What are the features that make this performance
a fairly superficial level, anyone can hear – and revel in –
Karajan’s exceptional control of textures, from the rarefied
mountain heights of his pianissimos to the heaven-shaking splendour
of his resounding brass climaxes. Equally clear is his masterly
control of dynamics, so that crescendos grow and grow till they
get where they are heading. Fortissimo is not reached before
time, nor does he hold back to let fly at the last moment. As
this is the Haas edition there is no cymbal clash in the slow
movement, but with Karajan we need no such cheap device to tell
us where the climax of the movement is.
this would be remarkable in itself, but I think there is something
else which differentiates Karajan’s Bruckner from that of other
basic approaches to Bruckner are several, and they all derive
from the fact that the works are very long and can seem unduly
sprawling. First, there is the classical method, that of Horenstein
– though he did not record this particular symphony – and, though
less systematically than you might expect, Klemperer. With this
method, the listener is somehow aware of an all-pervasive, regular
beat, holding the music back when it seems to want to run ahead,
keeping it firm when it apparently cries out for romantic reflection.
Thus a sort of rhythmic scaffolding is erected which isn’t really
in the score and it props the music up in spite of itself. Of
course the best exponents of this method also take care of phrasing
and textures, and it remains the most likely way for a conductor
who is a good craftsman unblessed with genius.
the opposite extreme these is the romantic approach of Furtwängler
and his disciple Jochum. These conductors characterized each
moment to the full, regardless of the tempo changes this involved,
and relied on their sense of drama to hold the symphony together.
The former conductor was invariably successful, the latter certainly
was in this symphony. Incidentally, the Furtwängler recording
– a live performance – is to be regarded with caution in view
of the strange edition used. The scherzo is made to finish pianissimo!
So far as I am aware, nobody conducts Bruckner like this today
and probably nobody could.
more pragmatically, conductors such as Walter, Schuricht, Böhm
and Wand seem to have felt that, if you make it all as beautiful
as possible, people won’t notice the length.
might amuse themselves by placing the many conductors I haven’t
mentioned in one category or another, but Karajan doesn’t really
belong in any of them. Superficially, he might seem to belong
in the first, since he does not rely on tempo manipulation for
his effects, but straight away we find that he doesn’t belong
here at all since we don’t get that impression of a steady,
all-pervasive beat. In fact, it is all so smooth and seamless
that we don’t really feel any beat, the music is suspended
in time, or borne on air. Perhaps this latter phrase gives us
a clue, since one of Karajan’s extra-musical passions was flying
aircraft and Bruckner’s Alpine world, viewed from a height of
several thousand feet, stretches out motionless, sublime in
its peaks and troughs, while the aeroplane moves across it as
imperceptibly as Karajan seem to traverse the score.
is a phenomenal conception, with the downside that under Karajan,
Bruckner’s mountains seem completely shorn of any human population.
Here is nature pure and raw. The brass in the scherzo ricochet
off the mountain sides rather as Tennyson’s “long light shakes
across the lakes/And the wild cataract leaps in glory”. But
if you want flesh and blood huntsmen, or if you want rustic
peasants in the dance sections, you must look elsewhere.
it amounts to is that, if this particular view of Bruckner appeals
to you, and in certain moods it appeals to me very much indeed,
it would be impossible to imagine it better done. Even if you
prefer more human drama, or a leisurely stroll round old-world
Austria, you should try to hear Karajan too. General critical
consensus has always placed Klemperer (EMI) and Böhm (Decca)
at the summit of the Bruckner 4 discography. The Kempe volume
in the “Great Conductors of the 20th Century” series
contained a performance of this symphony which, I suggested
in my review, might in time come to join them. But I couldn’t
place Karajan below these three.