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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
CD1
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major Romantic (1881 version, ed. Haas) [70:28]
CD2
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak) [75:33]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (4), London Philharmonic Orchestra (8)/Klaus Tennstedt
rec. 13, 15, 16 December 1981, Philharmonie, Berlin (4); 24-26 September 1982, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (8). DDD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3817612 [70:28 + 75:33]



The last Tennstedt Gemini release I reviewed - an all Beethoven affair - was very good. So is this brace of Bruckner symphonies.
 
The first disc contains a strong, passionate performance of Bruckner's popular Fourth. Tennstedt is free in his tempo fluctuations, but his view of the score, or rather his journey through it, is compelling. Throughout, he makes much of the contrasting major and minor passages and contrasting dynamics in a reading that, more than most, communicates the drama of a life touched by darkness and light. There is a noble breadth to the first movement and martial pride in the scherzo. The andante is gorgeously spun, but with power and grandeur in the climaxes, where Tennstedt unleashes the brass to magnificent effect. The finale erupts from quiet beginnings in a reading of high drama that crowns his performance. Even though he uses the Haas edition of the 1881 score, Tennstedt slips in the cymbal clash from the 1888 score to cap the wave of music that begins the finale. This will bother some listeners, but hopefully not enough to preclude their enjoyment of this genuinely felt performance.
 
The Berliners produce a beautiful sound, but this is to be expected. After all, they were still Karajan's Berliners back then, and they played this score beautifully for Karajan too on both EMI and Deutsche Grammophon. Tennstedt gets more from the brass and timpani, though. For the record (no pun intended), they play this symphony best of all as Abbado's Berliners in their 1998 recording under Günter Wand. In any case, while they give Tennstedt the benefit of their estimable sound, I am not convinced that the orchestra – with the exception of the brass – genuinely enjoys playing for him.
 
As good as this Tennstedt recording is, there are others that better it, including at least three from Wand – the Berlin account referred to above, his performance with the Munich Philharmonic recently released on Profil, and his final recording made in 2001 with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. There is also Klemperer's gritty EMI traversal which is fabulous; avoid his Vox recording. I will return to this Tennstedt recording, though, for its drama and the catharsis of its finale.
 
I should note that there is another Tennstedt Bruckner 4 available on the London Philharmonic Orchestra's own label (LPO 0014). While I have not heard it, I cannot help but wonder whether the combination of Tennstedt with the orchestra that loved him and the frisson of live music-making would make that performance preferable.
 
Certainly the pairing of Tennstedt and LPO pays hefty dividends on the second disc of this Gemini set. This recording of Bruckner's Eighth is one of the great ones.
 
I compared it first with another great Bruckner 8 from the EMI stable, Lorin Maazel's with the Berlin Philharmonic. Maazel's is a performance of long arcs that just squeezes onto a single disc. The orchestral playing is simply stunning, and Maazel's mastery of the score is everywhere in evidence. And that is perhaps the key to the difference between these two readings. For Tennstedt, this is not music to be mastered, but a journey to be shared, in all of its pain, wistfulness and ultimate defiant triumph. Where Maazel is intellectually gripping, Tennstedt reaches for the stars.
 
The first movement has a defiant impetus, the drama highlighted by dynamic contrasts and urgent tempi. The moods of the scherzo slip by like banks of threatening cloud on a windy day. The growling of the double-basses is menacing here, but when the light breaks through it is rapturous.
 
The adagio is intense. There is more rapture and beauty to be found in this movement, as Giulini, Karajan and Wand can demonstrate, but for Tennstedt the adagio is music of the soul's night time which mingles hope with despair. It may not be gentle, but in its shifting moods it builds naturally into the most fitting rendition of the finale on disc. In Tennstedt's hands, this is a movement of hard fought and grim victory, with the fanfares from the brass and the pounding of the timpani acting as a call to battle from the depths of despair. He takes Bruckner at his word in relation to the “Feierlich” instruction, but heeds the following words “nicht schnell” less. No matter. He is not over quick and does drop his pace for the second subject. There are some moments of real magic: the grand brass chorale at about 14:40, underpinned by a simply glorious shimmer of the strings, is but one example. Tennstedt may not plumb the depths of this score as much as Giulini or bring out its details as consistently as Karajan, but Tennstedt's performance has a visceral excitement that is unique.
 
The recorded sound is excellent, and the frisson of the performance makes you believe it was caught live, though the ambience of Abbey Road Studio No.1 is infinitely preferable to the diffuse Royal Albert Hall or the dry-sounding Royal Festival Hall. Tennstedt's LPO may not sound as plush as the Berlin Philharmonic is for Karajan, Maazel or Wand, but their passion and intensity are never in doubt. As always, they give 110% for Tennstedt.
 
EMI is to be commended on restoring these fine recordings to circulation. There are plenty more Tennstedt riches in their cupboard. A warm and long-breathed Dvořák 9, an exciting Pictures at an Exhibition and a charming Hary Janos all await reissue. I am also hopeful that recent LPO and BBC Legends releases indicate that there are more live performances in the archives. Tennstedt's art was not flawless – his turgid German Requiem proves that – but he was a true heir of the conducting tradition of Klemperer and Furtwängler. In my humble opinion, he was an artist of similar stature.
 
Tim Perry
 



 


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