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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
The Symphonies and Te Deum
Symphony No. 0 in D major (1869 version) [47:34]
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1877 "Linz" version with revisions - Nowak edn [1953]) [54:16]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1877 First Critical Edition - Second printing. Nowak edn [1965]) [58:02]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1889 Version (aka 1888/89) Nowak edn [1959]) [56:33]
Symphony No. 4 in E flat (1886 (aka 1878/80) - Nowak edn [1953]) [67:12]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat (1878 Version Ed. Robert Haas) [78:14]
Symphony No. 6 in A (1881 Version. Nowak edn [1952]) [59:26]
Symphony No. 7 in E (1885 Version. Nowak edn [1954]) [63:13]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 Version by Bruckner and Josef Schalk. Nowak edn [1955]) [85:32]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894 Original Version. Nowak edn [1951]) [62:11] Te Deum* (c.1862) [25:13] *Philharmonia Chor Stuttgart
Württemberg Philharmonie Reutlingen/Roberto Paternostro
rec. Basilika, Weingarten, 1997-2006
ANTES EDITION SCH.3112 [11 CDs: 657:26]
Experience Classicsonline


Recorded at live concerts over almost a decade, all of these performances took place in the vast acoustic of the Basilika in Weingarten. I admit to a weak spot for Bruckner played in large spaces, and one of my favourite live recordings, Günter Wand with the Sinfonieorchester des Norddeutschen Rundfunks in 1987 on RCA, took place in the similarly huge acoustic of Lübeck Cathedral. Listeners who abhor such sonic wallowing may prefer to look elsewhere, but initial impressions show the engineers to have done a good job for this set given the circumstances.
 
Readers may not know much about the conductor of this new set of Bruckner symphonies. Viennese-born and of Venetian descent, Roberto Paternostro was a student of Hans Swarowsky, György Ligeti, Christoph von Dohnányi, and later assisted the late Herbert von Karajan in Berlin. His career break came in 1985, when he appeared on the podium to conduct the Opera for Africa” gala at the Arena di Verona, and consequently was invited to conduct at pre-eminent theatres all over Europe, and as far as Tokyo. Since 1997, Roberto Paternostro has held the post of General Music Director of the Staatstheaters Kassel, and has conducted numerous operatic productions since, including a complete Ring des Nibelungen. An important component of Paternostro’s career has been an active television presence, and in October 1999 he made his Weimar debut conducting a gala concert entitled “Echo of the Stars”, recorded live by ZDF. He is also artistic director of the Gustav Mahler Festival in Kassel, and has flexed his symphonic conducting powers on Mahler, Sibelius and others in the late-romantic sphere.
 
Not wanting to skim over the earlier symphonies, but all of the points which need to be made about this set are made later on in the comments on the better known and compositionally more substantial later works. In fact the first and second symphonies are rather good, the second having a slightly more euphonic balance in the upper brass for some reason, another point which will crop up later. There’s a nice little moment when one of the Basilika bells sounds through 6:30 into the second movement. Basically, the orchestra makes a grand noise, but where things become quieter and some of the orchestral sections become more exposed, then we hit on some perennial problems. For instance, if I point out the split horn note at 3:16 in the first movement of the Symphony No.3, followed by some ragged strings in the subsequent descending motifs, then you won’t wonder much at my conclusion that, no matter how good some of the other playing may be, the experience is more likely to be fraught with doubts and twitchy suspicion than with a relaxed expression of bliss on your normally friendly reviewer’s face.
 
The Symphony No.4 is deservedly popular. The performance in this set opens with a good deal of atmosphere and warmth, but a nastily tentative horn entry at 5:20 into the first movement nearly had me put the whole box in the bin on the spot. There is evidence of editing here and there in this set, so heaven knows why this couldn’t have been repaired. That special moment in the centre of this movement, in this case at around 9:00 is done very well however, and with capable winds and brass elsewhere a pattern is being set for this release which is one of moments of sheer gorgeousness cut with glitchy moments of weakness and confusion. The Schubertian character of the opening of the second Andante movement is brought with some poignant expressiveness, and I found myself being carried along in the musical narrative relatively unfazed by one or two moments of ‘live’ intonation. The continuation of the slow ‘march’ feel builds nicely after around 11:00, and the pacing of the subsequent climax is very effective, if marred a little by the rather over-present balance of the trumpets. There is some refreshing brusqueness in the opening of the Scherzo, and the whole thing has a good sense of forward momentum. The remaining movements are well played for the main part, although the huge acoustic is damaging to some of the detail, making the ears strain to work out what is going on at some stages. This is not such a problem with headphones, but my speakers somehow seemed to emphasise the resonance problem, though I do admit my headphones are better than my speakers. Either way, the Württembergische brass do seem more happy when allowed full cry, although their articulation matches that if the woodwinds in those tricky triplets in the Scherzo. I was certainly impressed by the drama of that remarkable Finale, although the prominence of the trumpets in the tutti sections does become wearing quite soon.
 
Having been spoilt by the 1970s Berlin Philharmonic Herbert von Karajan Symphony No.5 over the years, I was glad to find Paternostro and his band on confident ground and keeping my attention. He does well in the startling contrasts of the first movement, and other than a nasty glitch with the tuning of horns at 17:51 in the first movement turns this into a stately and grand-gestured opening. The gorgeous second movement Adagio has slow triplet pizzicatos which blur the otherwise four in a bar opening, and the musicians manage this deceptively easy sounding section well. Less convincing is the tuning of the horns and spiccato strings about 4:30 in. Such exposed moments might be considered small beer when up against the grand sounds later on, but you don’t really want to be clenching your teeth every time you listen to a recording – knowing that there are awkward moments coming up, or having them distract you even if you had forgotten they were there. The Adagio opening of the Finale couples nicely in tempo with that of the opening, and the wind solos are well done, with some Mahlerian wit in the clarinet. I wasn’t too sure about the rather laboured sounding fugue section after figure A, and aside from the rich acoustic masking some of the dynamic variety, I think blame has to go to a lack of differentiation between accented and non-accented notes here, plus too much weight where staccato is indicated. Talking about strings, the descending scales later on leave a little to be desired. I do feel bad about being picky with these kinds of details, but when there are weaknesses which are better handled in other versions one has to be honest. As a live 5 this has a number of stunning moments, but the awkwardness in between will always make this into an also-ran.
 
The Symphony No.7 from this set was released as a single disc in 2001, and comment on this and the final box has been muted and mixed. ‘Standard middle of the road interpretations’ said one observer, and another noted the recessed low brass in the recorded balance, which should in fact be interpreted as overly emphasised upper brass – those trumpets cut though the balance like a dentist’s drill sometimes. It is interesting to note that the recordings of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th symphonies were all made previous to this one, and I can see why it might have been deemed suitable for solo release. Aside from testing the waters as regards critical comment, this performance is relatively free of some of the nasties in the earlier recordings. There is still some lack of unity in intonation among the strings at places, and the inevitable weaker ‘live’ moments here and there, but there are plenty of lovely passages, lots of energy, and Paternostro knows how to cash in on Bruckner’s ‘money moments’ effectively every time.
 
The Symphony No. 8 is spread over two discs. I have already declared my admiration for the 1987 live Wand recording in Lubeck Cathedral on RCA, but another massive version is that of Giulini with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG. It is interesting to compare two quite spacious versions of this, and see how, even with slower tempi, Giulini somehow generates more tension and excitement. The unstoppable machine of the Scherzo has massive power with the Viennese forces, and while Paternostro seems to be urging ever more forward momentum this driving on is not always rewarded with greater sense of energy. As ever, it is the bits in between the tutti passages where there are some moments which seem on the brink of dissolution. The strings are never quite as refined when quiet and exposed – something which I am sure would have been perfectly good in the live concert, but which is mercilessly captured by microphones suspended over the musicians. I’m not claiming it’s all bad, but the collective energy of the whole is often being undermined by little details here and there, and the sheen of string sound so sought after in this music is sometimes dulled by all those little internal struggles going on. The Adagio third movement is however very good indeed on the whole, giving us plenty of that ecstatic sense of wonder we look for from this piece. The Finale is also very well done, with plenty of fire in the belly of those optimistic brass sequences, and a subsequent sense of organic flow which seems entirely natural. With a fine hold on the architecture of these long movements and a penetrating, blazing conclusion, Paternostro makes of the 8 one of the best performances in this set.
 
My first recorded encounter with Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 was on a 1977 EMI LP of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. The sheer energy on that record is still hard to beat, and I’m afraid the rather sad sounding descending string figures within the first minute or two didn’t bode too well for this new version. As ever, this performance throws up a frustrating mix of gorgeous expressiveness and marvellous playing, and some weaker spots which just bring the whole thing down. Paternostro clearly feels the tidal rise and fall of the music in the first movement’s Feierlich and misterioso, but while this is communicated well for the most part, there are enough patches of sponginess and worry to take the golden aura off the thing as a whole. The drama of the Scherzo is again well intentioned and largely effective, but in places only just seems to hang together – those trumpets having a lapse at 3:35 are just part of the problem. I do like the light touch of the following section, with the brushstrokes of the strings placed with sensitivity – the conductor humming along as he does when things seem to be going well. The valedictory third movement of this incomplete symphony I’m afraid remained determinedly uninspiring for me, with some sour tuning in winds and brass from around 2:45 in and onwards. I know these are hard horn parts to get right, as my real live horn-playing mate Graham of Leeds has testified on many an occasion, but these days such things need to be of merchantable quality as a minimum – I’m afraid my nerves were rather frayed by the end, so this 9 is ultimately also an also-ran.
 
Moving on to the Te Deum, and my principal reference has been from that excellent Hyperion edition of Bruckner’s Masses with the Croydon Singers and orchestra conducted by Matthew Best. Paternostro’s operatic experience may or may not have been to advantage when preparing this performance, but while this is certainly no opera his dramatic pacing is very good indeed. The Philharmonia Chor Stuttgart is pretty good as well, but the recorded perspective puts them rather more forward than with the Hyperion recording, so that every blemish is spot-lit, and unless the brass is going at full pelt their relationship with the orchestra is rather overbearing. Not that there are that many blemishes, but with a heavier general dose of vibrato from the Stuttgart choir they seem to mix just that little less well than the Croydon singers, the overall sound of whose recording is admittedly also helped by the whopping Westminster Cathedral organ. The soloists are OK as well, though a bit wobbly in general when it comes to extremes of register. For a live performance and a substantial filler this has some nice things in it, but didn’t particularly set my pulse racing.
 
The disc on which the Te Deum appears couples it with the Sinfonie in d-moll (‘Nullte’). Paternostro makes a convincing enough argument for this unnumbered work, though there are a few places where more static areas of transition aren’t helped by some seemingly absent-minded lingering, especially when the weaknesses in the strings are being exposed. The orchestra sounds especially warm and welcoming when expressing the gentler moments, such as the opening of the second Andante movement, the flute solo pushing just a little too hard when the dynamic rises later on. It’s also to hear a nicely classical sense of bounce in the Scherzo, the gaps being richly filled by the vast resonance in the acoustic. A slightly greater sense of urgency in general might well have been prevented by this same acoustic, but some ‘difficult’ sounding string passages in the Finale aside, this isn’t a work by which the standard of the whole should stand or fall. I’m sure it would have made for an excellent concert performance: as a recording it is good, but falls short of ideal, with just a few too many edgy moments of ensemble and a bit too much stodge where cream and fizz are what’s wanted.
 
The booklet notes have an extensive essay by Robert Maschka entitled ‘Anton Bruckner’s symphonic writing: coping with life’, which goes into the circumstances around his creative career, and referencing milestones in his output including the symphonies and beyond. If I have any criticism of the presentation for this set, then it is only to note that there is no lettering on the spine of the box. I doubt this will be a problem for many people, but it’s easy to ‘loose’ such items in a large archive, so I suspect ugly paper stickers will be being applied up and down the libraries of the world. I suspect that the leading powers at Musicweb-International would query me if I were to title this review with a translation like ‘The Sinfonies’ – the title as it appears proudly on the box lid and booklet cover, but we’ll let that pass. I also once again have to air my passionate dislike of those stuck-down paper CD envelopes whose pristine seals immediately show up how many discs have languished untouched when periodically inspecting this kind of box after it has been given as a gift. Such things turn nosy visitors like myself into instant Sherlock Holmses: ‘So, Aunt X, you have been neglecting your Bruckner …’
 
While this set of Bruckner symphonies has many admirable qualities, I’m afraid the edge-of - the-seat feeling one gets at times are not quite the sensations which would have me recommend this as a first choice, even for the sake of relative economy. I’m a fan of live recordings in general, and enjoy the sense of excitement and even danger which can result. In the end my problem was that I found myself listening on just in case I might have missed something atrocious to report, which ain’t good. I don’t want to be unfair to these recordings, and I am a big fan on the Antes Edition label, which does a huge amount to promote little known Estonian composers among others. In the end it was always something nagging among the ensemble or intonation of the strings or those horns, usually not a massive problem, but adding up to maybe 5 or 6% grot per symphony on average, which, when put up against maybe the 1 or 2% you might expect in these days of post production patching and editing, has to be weighed against the thrill of the performances, which is there, but not so stunningly that I would be able to overlook the squiffy bits. This is all highly frustrating, as there are indeed many fine moments, even whole movements, and your standard of what’s grot and what’s not may be less stringent than mine – grot is, after all, invariably and literally in the ear of the beholder. The recording is also rich and deep, certainly knocking my box of the Staatskapelle Dresden with Eugen Jochum - on EMI and now available on Brilliant Classics - into cocked hat when it comes to sound quality. I had hoped it would replace it in most other regards as well, but alas alack.
 
These recordings do contain applause. This is sometimes placed on a separate track, which can be a useful feature, but which seems to have been applied arbitrarily in this case. One or two coughs creep in, but in general these are well-behaved audiences. If you are looking for an economical, newish box with which to enrich or supplement your shelves, I would suggest maybe the Berlin Philharmonic with Barenboim, the Saarbrücken RSO with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski or maybe seek out the Naxos recordings with Georg Tintner. As something of a postscript to this review I can at least say that listening to these new recordings revived my interest sufficiently to go on a hunt for the set with Bernard Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 1960s and 70s analogue Philips recordings. These are currently rather expensively available on four ‘twofers’, whose sum total would probably set you back more than the original box, but the collection of which has the advantage of Haitink’s 1979 Seventh rather than the more dodgy 1966 recording which is part of the box set, which I was lucky enough to find second-hand. Reputedly brisker than many more recent recordings, this is true in part, but not invariably so, and I can’t say I ever feel the music in any way rushes beyond comfort – I certainly appreciate the relative lack of wallowing from Haitink. With the minor disadvantage of some tape hiss but the distinct advantages of cracking brass and woodwinds – many of whom were members of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble at their height – this is a set which wears its years very well indeed.
 
I can also direct you to the nice index which lists all the reviews of Bruckner symphonies on these pages (or at least it will when completed), and the other Bruckner resources on this site (see below). In the end, these are performances which may supplement any versions you may already have, giving the ‘live’ kick in some instances, and certainly providing Bruckner in a cathedral-like acoustic which may or may not be to your taste. They are however unlikely to replace any of the many fine complete sets around at the moment.
 
Dominy Clements
 
General survey of Bruckner’s symphonies
 


 


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