Bruckner Symphonies: An Introduction
and Review of Selected Recordings
(Updated version of April 2009)
by Patrick Waller
and John Quinn
This article was
originally published in 2005. We have now updated it to include
the recordings we have heard for the first time over the past
four years and to add links to all the relevant reviews on MusicWeb
International published by the Spring of 2009. As further Bruckner
symphony reviews are published they will be added to the links
which are provided in the Masterwork index here.
As one would expect,
in some cases our views and recommendations have changed a little
over time. We would like to thank readers who contacted us about
the article or posted on the Bulletin board for their comments.
Further feedback and discussion via MusicWeb
International’s forum would, of course, be welcomed.
The Austrian composer
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) struggled to gain recognition in
his lifetime but is now universally acknowledged as a major
symphonist. His music is quite original and has a characteristic
style, which led to the suggestion that "he did not compose
nine symphonies but one symphony nine times". In fact,
he wrote eleven symphonies in all and each has much individuality.
Together they represent a series of increasing power and profundity
akin to a great journey.
Our purposes here
are three-fold. First, to provide a brief introduction to each
of the works; secondly, to consider the merits of the recordings
which either or both of us have heard and finally to make some
recommendations for collectors who are coming afresh to the
music of this composer. It should be borne in mind that our
combined experience of Bruckner recordings is far from exhaustive
and that the choices made are necessarily personal ones.
is that of listeners rather than musicologists (which we are
not) but it is impossible to write about these symphonies without
addressing in some way the question of editions. During his
lifetime Bruckner’s symphonies were living creations and were
influenced by (a) his desire for them be heard, even if cut,
and (b) the suggestions and tamperings of others, notably the
Schalk brothers. This led to numerous revisions and the existence
of various editions. During the century after his death a lot
of dust settled, some editions were discredited and definitive
editions were published under the auspices of the International
Bruckner Society. There remain five symphonies (Nos. 1-4 and
8) for which there is effectively more than one version and
for which a listener will have good reason to question which
edition is being played. We will deal with major issues in relation
to the versions of each work as we go along, although there
are many points of detail that are beyond the scope defined
above. We will make no attempt to argue which editions are "best".
It is perfectly possible to regard each separate version as
a valid work in its own right and, indeed, admirers of this
composer will surely want to hear all of them.
In addition to the
nine numbered symphonies there are two forerunners, which are
now usually known as Nos. 00 and 0. The latter was mostly composed
between the 1st and 2nd symphonies but, in view of its number,
we shall consider it before the first symphony. All Bruckner’s
symphonies have four movements but the 9th was left complete
only as far as the end of the third movement. There are extensive
sketches for the finale and realizations exist which have been
recorded but these are not considered below. With the exception
of the (relatively rarely recorded) first version of the 2nd,
as far as the 7th symphony, the slow movement is placed second
and scherzo third. In the 8th and 9th this order is reversed.
In compiling this
article, we have found John F. Berky's online
discography invaluable. Disc numbers, dates of recordings,
timings for individual movements and detailed information about
editions can all be accessed on or through this site, regardless
of whether or not a disc is currently available.
00 (Study Symphony)
This work dates
from 1863 when Bruckner was aged 39 and is also known as the
Studiensymphonie since it was written whilst he was taking
lessons in orchestral composition from Otto Kitzler. In F minor,
it takes about 40-45 minutes to perform if the exposition repeats
in the first and last movements are included (they are omitted
by Tintner – see below). Classical in structure and perhaps
most influenced by Schumann (whereas Schubert was a bigger influence
on later works), this is the least individual of the symphonies
but it is possible to hear some things that foreshadow his later
style. Bruckner never intended it to be more than an exercise
and, given the problem he had getting his works performed, would
doubtless have been amazed if he knew that anyone would be interested
in it 140 years later. Since it does not provide the kind of
powerful and uplifting experience that is the hallmark of this
composer, it is primarily something to listen to for interest
but it could also be a useful teaser for friends who think they
are good at identifying composers.
the Study Symphony
No need to detain
ourselves for long here. The discography lists only a few recordings
to date and one should suffice. Georg Tintner’s is the most
obvious choice since it is well played and recorded, and at
bargain price on Naxos. This also has a useful coupling that
is otherwise going to be hard to find – the 1878 Volksfest
finale from the 4th Symphony - an interim version between the
original of 1874 and the final version now normally played (see
This symphony is
in D minor, a key shared by his third and ninth symphonies,
and could be looked upon as a precursor of those later works.
It was started in late 1863 (i.e. shortly after No 00) but then
set aside until after the Symphony No 1 had been composed and
performed. Bruckner revised the score (mainly, it seems, in
the middle movements) in 1869 and the original version does
not seem to have survived. Subsequently the score was shown
to the conductor Otto Dessof in the hope of a performance, he
is reputed to have looked at the opening and said "but
where is the main theme?" Bruckner was devastated and effectively
withdrew the symphony but fortunately he did not destroy the
score. This is an attractive work of some substance (even if
the main theme of the first movement is presented very tentatively)
and the slow movement is particularly fine.
Quite a few recordings
of the Nullte have been made but it is never going to
be a money-spinner for a record company, and they come and go
quickly. Tintner is again the most obvious choice in a double-disc
bargain price coupling with the (rarely recorded) first version
of the 8th Symphony on Naxos (see review).
with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Decca) and Haitink’s
generally swifter reading on Philips are also recommendable.
numbered Symphony is in C minor. It was composed in Linz in
1865-6 but extensively revised in Vienna in 1890-1, i.e. after
the composition of the 8th symphony. The first performance was
conducted by Bruckner in 1868 and did not make much impact.
However, it is a highly original work, often more forthright
than most of his later symphonies. The earlier version is much
more frequently played than the revision, most conductors perhaps
feeling that the changes to the scoring (there are few important
structural revisions) made in Bruckner’s old age do not fit
with the work of a much younger man.
of Haas’s edition of the First Symphony with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw
Orchestra is taut and brings out the originality of this music.
Now available in a Philips Duo set, the reissue has the benefit
of being coupled not only with Haitink’s earlier (1965) reading
of the Ninth, with the Concertgebouw, but also with a blazing
account of the Te Deum, set down with the Vienna Philharmonic
However, to hear
what are truly Bruckner’s first thoughts one should turn to
Tintner’s recording of the edition recently prepared by William
Carragan on Naxos. Most of the differences are in the finale
and have much less impact than the revisions made in Vienna
The extensive revision
of this symphony, which Bruckner made in Vienna, has been recorded
quite rarely. Both Chailly and Wand
have set down decent performances in acceptable sound. Chailly’s
version is slower in all four movements and lasts for 54 minutes
– six minutes longer than Wand.
Symphony is in the same key as the first (C minor) but is less
dark in feeling and represents a big step towards his later
style. The use of pauses between some paragraphs was very unusual
at the time of the first performance in 1873 (under Bruckner)
and led to the nickname Pausensinfonie. This doesn’t
seem to have stuck, presumably because it could equally be applied
to later works. There are several editions of this work, which
was originally completed in 1872. In the first version the scherzo
was placed second but Bruckner revised the work in 1876-7, reversing
this order and making various changes and cuts, particularly
to the finale. In 1892 he made some further revisions but, to
date, that edition has not been recorded. In practical terms,
most recordings are of the 1877 version, of which there are
Haas and Nowak editions. In this respect, the situation is similar
to that pertaining to the Eighth Symphony: Haas reinserted some
cut passages from the original back into the revision whereas
Nowak omits them.
In 2005 we said
that choice was easy here, partly because there are so few recordings
and partly because Tintner’s Naxos reading with the National
Symphony Orchestra of Ireland is wonderful in every way (see
remain impressed by Tintner’s performance, however, in 2008
Simone Young’s reading with the Philharmoniker Hamburger was
issued (see review),
and JQ marginally prefers the new recording although it is more
(Haas) from 1969 is one of the highlights of his complete set
and it is perverse that it seems to be the only one of the numbered
nine in this series not to have been reissued as part of the
Philips Duo series.
Wand’s 1981 reading
with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra is also of the Haas
edition but is marginally less convincing.
Providing you are
not wedded to Haas, Giulini’s reading of the Nowak edition with
the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1974 (on Testament) is a
clear first choice amongst 1877 editions. The sound is satisfactory
and Giulini’s affinity with this composer shines brightly throughout
the work. Indeed he seems to have had a particular feeling for
this symphony, it being the only one of the early works that
he recorded. There are various recorded versions of numbers
7-9 but we can find no evidence that he set down any of the
of the Third Symphony perhaps caused Bruckner more grief than
any other. In particular the first performance, conducted by
the composer in 1873 was a complete disaster and the beginning
of the serious criticism he received in the press from Eduard
Hanslick. On the plus side, however, Wagner accepted the dedication
of the work and it is sometimes known as the ‘Wagner Symphony’.
Although some musicologists regard this work as rather weak,
from a listener’s perspective it is splendid and probably the
first of this composer’s symphonies than can be regarded as
standard repertoire. Amongst many marvellous moments (including,
for example, the mysterious opening and trumpet theme), the
juxtaposition of polka and chorale as the second theme of the
finale is unforgettable. Apparently Bruckner once explained
that the idea for this came from passing a music hall whilst
the coffin containing a famous architect was laid out in a nearby
In terms of versions,
there were two major revisions to the original and in each case
the work became shorter in an attempt to solve structural problems.
The final version is most often played and recorded despite
there being little doubt of the influence of the Schalk brothers.
is well played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and
an obvious choice at bargain price although some may feel that
his tempi are too slow, particularly in a first movement which
lasts just over half an hour. The whole symphony here takes
nearly 78 minutes in comparison to Inbal’s 65 minutes for the
same edition - this is an alternative to Tintner but we have
not heard it.
Amsterdam recording dates from 1963 and was the first of his
complete series. It is a very convincing interpretation, which
is slightly tauter than his 1988 remake with the Vienna Philharmonic
Orchestra. There are some slight differences in the editions
used by Haitink – the later version uses Nowak’s 1981 edition
which includes a brief coda to the scherzo. The sound provided
for Haitink was more than acceptable in 1963 and quite spectacular
in 1988 (see review).
A live recording
by Jascha Horenstein appeared on BBC Legends in 2007. This is
a performance given at the Cheltenham Festival in 1963 when
he conducted the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (nowadays the
BBC Philharmonic). As with several other BBC Legends releases
featuring this conductor, one is impressed by the integrity
and dignity of the music making. It may not be a completely
flawless performance but it’s very persuasive, although the
scherzo is, perhaps, a trifle steady in tempo.
performance is somewhat hobbled by the recorded sound which
conveys little, if any, atmosphere and is constricted and rather
shrill at climaxes. In the first movement Barbirolli doesn’t
really give the music enough time to breathe. Happily, matters
improve thereafter but overall this is somewhat disappointing
the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra in a very forthright
and well-played reading from 1996. This perhaps misses some
of the grandeur that Haitink brings to the outer movements and
there is an odd tempo for the second theme of the finale. This
is taken substantially more slowly than usual and doesn’t really
come off. The sound is excellent and, if it can still be found
at budget price, this would be a good choice for the final version.
Third (see review) is very broad in the opening movement but not otherwise
particularly controversial and the playing is wonderful.
Finally, it is worth
mentioning a recording of the version for piano duet, mostly
arranged by a very youthful Mahler (see review).
If you are sceptical just have a listen to the scherzo and you
might be surprised!
The first symphony
Bruckner wrote in a major key (E flat) was subtitled the Romantic
and it was then followed by three more in major keys. Although
its genesis was almost as problematic as the third and, despite
arguments that he never quite solved the structure of the finale,
this has become his most popular work. The opening tremolando
and horn calls are particularly striking, as is the "hunting"
scherzo. The original version contained a completely different
scherzo and the finale went through two major revisions before
reaching the form in which is it now almost invariably heard
in 1881. Differences between the Haas and Nowak editions of
this version are minimal. There are also later editions dating
from around 1888 but the revisions were probably not Bruckner’s
work. Newcomers to this composer would do well to start here
by acquiring a recording of the 1881 version of this symphony
or, better still, hearing it live.
Tintner did not
record the first version of the Fourth Symphony but Inbal’s
Frankfurt reading of 1982 is very well played and recorded.
At bargain price it is an obvious choice. This is a disc which
will surprise those who do not know the first version and it
is well worth hearing. As with the Second, Simone Young opts
for Bruckner’s first thoughts and JQ continues to be impressed
although this is at full-price.
There is a huge
choice of recordings of this version of the Fourth Symphony.
During the 1960s and 1970s Walter, Klemperer, Jochum, Haitink,
Böhm and Karajan all made recordings in sound which is at least
acceptable. Klemperer’s is the most idiosyncratic (see review).
His is also the least "romantic", adopting fast tempi
for each movement except the scherzo (which is slower than normal).
Jochum’s is also a very personal approach but his 1965 reading
with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is more successful than
his Dresden remake and conveys a great feeling of mystery when
needed. Bruno Walter was undoubtedly a great Bruckner conductor
(but under-recorded as such) and his 1960 recording with the
Columbia Symphony Orchestra has fine sound for the period. Haitink’s
Amsterdam version, which dates from 1965, is perfectly satisfactory
but eclipsed in every respect by his Vienna reading of 1985
Karajan’s DG recording
of 1975 has excellent playing from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
but sound is not ideally clear. Preferable in almost every respect,
and a plausible first choice, is Karl Böhm’s 1973 Vienna recording
for Decca – this has a rightness about it which shines throughout.
For a different
experience to any other version, Celibidache’s 1988 live reading
from Munich is well worth hearing. It is very slow, particularly
in the finale (at 79 minutes in total it only just squeezes
on a single disc – 65 minutes is about par), but the concentration
is extraordinary and there is a real sense of occasion.
recorded the symphony for EMI with the Berlin Philharmonic in
1981 (see review).
So far as we know this, and the Eighth, were the only commercial
recordings he made of Bruckner, which is a shame. In the Fourth,
aided by superbly rich and sonorous playing from the BPO, he
conveys the majesty and, where appropriate, the mystery of the
work very convincingly. While this may not displace Böhm or
Wand, this is still an impressive version.
Günter Wand’s 1998
recording is also with the BPO. It’s a superb achievement, an
exalted performance that is majestic and unhurried. The Berlin
orchestra plays magnificently. This is one of the finest readings
of this symphony ever committed to disc (see review).
There’s a later recording by Wand in which he conducts the NDR-Sinfonieorchester.
This is taken from live performances in Hamburg in October 2001
and comes in a two-disc set from BMG-RCA, coupled with Schubert’s
Fifth symphony. It possesses all the integrity of Wand’s Berlin
account but does not surpass it.
Bruckner recordings are surprisingly objective given his generally
interventional approach to music. His Fourth is extremely well
played (see review)
but the approach probably suits this work less well than in
the Fifth symphony (see below).
Simon Rattle’s recording
with the Berlin Philharmonic has many good things but also some
lapses and JQ regards this as “work in progress” (see review).
Of historical interest
is a recording made in The Hague by Willem van Otterloo in 1953 (see review).
This is a pretty impressive traversal but it only seems to be
available in a 13CD box, which also contains Bruckner’s early
Overture and works by many other composers.
musicologists may have about the preceding works, no one seems
to doubt that from the Fifth onwards Bruckner’s symphonies are
masterpieces. One could even argue that the Fifth is the finest
and it seems very sad that Bruckner never heard it (the first
performance was given in 1894 in Graz but Bruckner was too ill
to attend). The opening movement is both massive and bold. The
adagio begins with a memorable theme for the oboe playing two
against three for the string accompaniment, and also contains
a striking second subject for the cellos and basses. At the
beginning of the finale Bruckner briefly recapitulates the preceding
movements à la Beethoven’s Ninth and, later in this movement,
the entry and integration of a magnificent brass chorale is
one of his most stunning achievements. Although there are Haas
and Nowak editions of the Fifth they are essentially identical.
There is just one real issue of editions here and that is the
existence of a now discredited version made by Franz Schalk
in which the magnificent finale is cut and re-orchestrated.
This version has been recorded a few times notably by Knappertsbusch
and quite recently by Leon Botstein. Our tolerance of different
versions does not extend this far and, unless you want to hear
them for interest, we suggest that these recordings should be
reading with the New Philharmonia Orchestra is slightly disappointing.
He takes a massive approach but, overall, it doesn’t quite hang
together and this is not as fine as his Sixth (see below).
Haitink’s 1971 reading
from Amsterdam is excellent but, as for the Fourth Symphony,
it is not as fine as the Vienna remake from 1988. Haitink’s
later versions of these two symphonies are available coupled
together at bargain price (see review).
Amongst more recent
recordings, Giuseppe Sinopoli’s rendition from Dresden in 1999
stands out. Stated to be a live recording, and with excellent
sound, there is no evidence of an audience but this reading
is superbly concentrated and lacking in idiosyncrasy (perhaps
unusually for Sinopoli).
an epic, live reading, captured at the Henry Wood Promenade
concerts in 1971. It’s now available on BBC Legends (though
we have not heard that particular transfer). The Fifth is, arguably,
the most intellectually rigorous of the canon and a successful
performance needs a seasoned Brucknerian at the helm. Horenstein
is just the man for the job. He plays the second movement at
a nice flowing tempo and his command and control of the vast
finale compels admiration. This is a very fine recording indeed
and, in the opinion of JQ (who has not heard the Sinopoli version),
a first choice (see reviews by John Phillips
Wand’s Cologne version
from 1974 is, it seems, his very first Bruckner recording (see
He displays a mastery of the score, especially in handling transitions.
Enjoyment of the performance is limited slightly by a rather
enthusiastic brass section, whose playing is somewhat shrill
at times. Wand’s control is especially evident in the massive
finale. This is a good performance but his 1989 account with
the NDR Sinfonieorchester is even finer, not least because the
playing is better. There’s not a great deal to choose between
the versions in interpretative terms but the later performance
also benefits from a warmer, more pleasing recording (see reviews
Quinn and Terry
Barfoot). There are also Wand performances with the Munich
Philharmonic Orchestra from 1995 (see Terry Barfoot’s positive
and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra from 1996. PW has downloaded
the latter from AmazonUK (for a little over £3) and greatly
admires this performance.
As so often in his
Naxos cycle, Tintner is courageous in the breadth of some of
his tempi. His 1996 version takes some 4 minutes longer than
Horenstein’s. The studio-made recording doesn’t have quite the
same electricity as Horenstein’s but, like the rest of his cycle,
the reading is deeply considered and completely idiomatic. It
is excellent value and unlikely to disappoint (see review).
The Sixth is the
shortest and lightest of the later works and Bruckner thought
it was his finest. Sadly, today is probably heard and recorded
less often than the others. The composer did hear the middle
movements (the adagio is marvellous) but the whole work was
not performed until 1899, when Mahler conducted. There are no
important issues relating to editions here – Haas and Nowak
are essentially the same.
reading is generally highly thought of, a view we share. It
has a rugged quality but is less idiosyncratic than some of
his other Bruckner recordings. The sound is pretty decent.
recording is underrated and, in our view on a par with Klemperer
He also made an excellent recording in Dresden in 2003 (see
which is an ideal choice for those looking for modern sound
at less than full price.
To Günter Wand’s
1976 reading with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra we can
only give a qualified recommendation. The first movement seems
rushed - see review
for more details. His 1996 NDR Sinfonieorchester version recorded
in Lübeck cathedral and issued on DVD is much more compelling
Sixth (see review) is very well played and recorded and his tempi are not
particularly slow except in the slow movement.
Sir Colin Davis
has recorded the work live with the London Symphony Orchestra.
We have rather differing views of this recording. For PW, in
terms of performance this is generally excellent, only a scherzo
which drags preventing this from being a potential bargain choice.
JQ, however, finds the rather suffocating, close acoustic of
the Barbican Centre (often an issue in the LSO Live series)
results in the brass being too dominant. Certainly neither of
us would rank it ahead of either Klemperer’s rather gaunt reading
or Haitink’s warmer vision.
is, uniquely in his cycle, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
It was the first to be recorded and dates from 1995. The outer
movements of this work are very hard to pace. Tintner seems
to judge both movements very well. He also conveys nobility
in the adagio and his tempo for the scherzo is infinitely preferable
to Colin Davis’s trudge. The New Zealand orchestra may not be
quite in the LSO league but they play very well and are recorded
in a much more sympathetic acoustic. This seems to be a clear
The Seventh Symphony
gave Bruckner his first taste of success when it was first performed
under Nikisch in 1884, although his critic Hanslick was not
appeased. It is a marvellous work with many contrasts, containing
some of the sunniest and darkest of the composer’s music in
the opening two movements followed by a fantastic scherzo. The
last movement lacks the massive proportions of the Eighth but
nevertheless brings a satisfying conclusion. The biggest issue
relating to editions seems to relate to the inclusion of a cymbal
clash at the climax of the adagio. This was originally suggested
by Nikisch and added to the score but Bruckner seems to have
been uncertain about it (although there is no doubt about the
inclusion of the clash at the analogous point of the Eighth
symphony). The Haas edition does not include the cymbal clash
(whereas Nowak does) but some conductors, such as Karajan, have
used Haas and then added the clash. It is a momentary event
in a symphony lasting between 60 and 70 minutes and, for us,
is not a major consideration in choosing a recording.
Jochum’s 1939 performance
with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra turns out to be something
of a curate’s egg. Its particular distinction lies in an extremely
spacious reading of the great Adagio. Sadly, the rest of the
symphony does not come off so well and the recorded sound, from
Telefunken originals, requires some tolerance (see review).
Recently a live
recording by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic has
appeared on Testament. This preserves a concert performance
given in Carnegie Hall in December 1954. The pacing of this
performance is surprisingly urgent: it lasts a mere 55:48. It
has to be said that there are times when one wishes the music
had been given a little more space but set against that is the
electricity of the performance and, whilst it would not be a
library choice, this recording is well worth hearing.
Haitink made two
recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. His 1966 reading
(which was included in the complete set) is generally quicker
than in 1978, especially in the first movement. Only the earlier
version seems to be currently available (on a Philips Duo –
but this is a pity since the 1978 traversal is preferable and
one of the finest versions we have heard. Fortunately Haitink
has also recorded the work quite recently with Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, a performance which has comparable stature (see review)
and the sound is excellent.
Karajan’s 1989 reading
with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was his last recording.
There are many splendid things, including the recorded sound,
but there is also something a bit detached about the performance
and the very end does not quite hang together. This is not really
on a par with his last recording of the Eighth and his Berlin
reading from 1970-1 on EMI is preferable as a performance (see
1997 version with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is amongst
the best available and an obvious bargain choice.
Carlo Maria Giulini
recorded the Seventh in 1986 for DG with the Vienna Philharmonic.
We haven’t heard that account but there is a 1982 reading with
the Philharmonia on BBC Legends (see review).
This is described as being of the Haas edition but this may
be incorrect since Giulini apparently used Nowak editions for
his DG recordings of all the three last symphonies. The warm
lyricism of this symphony suits Giulini very well. A sense of
line is always a hallmark of his conducting and this is very
apparent here, making us regret there is no recording by him
of the Fourth, so far as we know. The adagio is profound with
a grave nobility that is impressive. The climax, with cymbal
clash, is finely achieved after which the coda glows nobly.
There is an appealing freshness in Giulini’s handling of the
finale though a touch more breadth would have been welcome in
the concluding peroration where there are also a few small brass
No such blemishes
are heard in Günter Wand’s 1999 reading, which was taken from
concert performances with the peerless Berlin Philharmonic.
This is a most impressive recording, characterized by long phrases,
each one given just the right amount of time to breathe. The
adagio is patrician and elevated. The climax of that movement,
in which the cymbal is eschewed, is marvellously built after
which the coda is profoundly satisfying. Wand plays the finale
splendidly, pacing it with wisdom. The movement is crowned by
a peroration of golden splendour. With excellent recorded sound
this seems to be a clear first choice. Günter Wand’s reading
1980 from Cologne is well played and a very authoritative interpretation,
which can be recommended confidently. The re-mastered sound
is very good (see review).
Aarhus recording of 2005 is a bit plain spun and not recommendable
in the face of the competition from Wand and Haitink.
Finally, for the
adventurous, there is a very well-recorded reading of the chamber
version of this work, made by Hanns Eisler, Erwin Stein and
Karl Rankl in 1921, in an attractive performance given by Thomas
Christian ensemble on MDG (see review).
The Eighth Symphony
is in C minor with the adagio in D flat placed third. The first
two movements both last about 15 minutes, the adagio is immensely
long-breathed and takes about 25 minutes and the finale takes
at least 20 minutes. This is the only symphony in which he used
a harp, to great effect, notably in the trio of the scherzo
and in the adagio. The work was first performed in Vienna under
Richter in 1892 and was an immediate success.
work on the 8th in 1884 and it was complete in 1887. He sent
the score to one of his admirers, the conductor Hermann Levi
and was distraught at his less than enthusiastic response. Nevertheless
he then spent three years revising the symphony in many ways.
Most importantly, he omitted his traditional "blaze up"
coda of the first movement and introduced a quiet ending. He
also completely replaced the trio in the second movement. The
second version of 1890 is almost invariably played in preference
to the first version but there is a complicating factor of editions.
In 1939 Robert Haas
produced a new edition of the 8th symphony. He believed that
a few of the revisions made between 1887 and 1890 were disadvantageous
to the structure and/or were the specific suggestions of others,
notably Joseph Schalk. He therefore added some passages from
the first edition, which had been excised back into the second
version. In 1955 Leopold Nowak published the second version
of the 8th as Bruckner left it. In 1972, Nowak also published
the first version of the score. Haas’s edition is probably still
the most widely played and certainly the most recorded version
of the work.
See also Patrick
Waller's more detailed article
on this symphony, which was updated in December 2008.
1st version of
is one of only a few that have yet been made using Nowak’s edition
of the first version of 1887. Tintner adopts rather slow tempi
throughout and the adagio lasts for over half an hour. The playing
of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and recorded sound
are fine (see review).
This is clearly preferable to Fedoseyev’s episodic approach
in a recording from Moscow dating from 1999 (see review).
first recording of the 8th was made in 1969 and is, at just
under 74 minutes, the fastest reading we have heard. It has
both vigour and structural coherence, and is very well played
and recorded. His later recording with the Vienna Philharmonic
runs for over 83 minutes and is a grander conception in particularly
good sound (see review).
More recently, there are excellent live Haitink recordings available
from Dresden in 2002 (see review)
and Amsterdam in 2005 (see review),
the latter available on SACD.
Karajan made three
studio versions of the 8th (in 1957, 1975 and 1988) plus a version
made in 1944 in amazingly good sound, of which the first movement
has not survived. The best way to acquire the 1944 torso is
as a download from Amazon UK where is can be found for a little
over £2. There is also a live version recorded in Vienna in
1957 (see review)
but the studio version of that year is probably the better bet
Comparison of the timings of his two 1957 recordings suggests
that Karajan exhibited more urgency when performing live. Each
movement was slower in the studio recording and overall the
difference amounted to more than six and a half minutes. Otherwise,
Karajan’s conception did not vary dramatically over the years.
The 1988 reading with Vienna Philharmonic is clearly the most
desirable. It was one of Karajan’s last recordings and was first
issued around the time of his death in 1989. The music making
has the quality of affecting you in a way that can’t easily
be described. In places there is an "earthiness" that
is not normally part of Karajan’s make-up; he had a special
affection for the work and surely knew that this would be his
last statement about it. The playing and sound are marvellous
throughout. There is also a Sony DVD made at the same time,
which is not an identical performance but certainly on the same
level – this is at bargain price and coupled with an earlier
performance of the Ninth (see below).
Boulez made his
recording with the Vienna Philharmonic live at St. Florian (where
the young Bruckner was a chorister, later returned as organist
and is buried) on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1996.
It seems that he had not previously recorded any Bruckner nor
conducted this symphony. He brings surprising freshness and
great coherence to the work, and his reading is highly recommendable
Günter Wand’s 1993
account with the NDR Sinfonieorchester is a live performance
and it is very fine. Wand’s final Bruckner recording was made
live with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2001. It was
one of his last recordings and a fitting memorial. Wand and
Karajan had little in common but their last readings are not
dramatically dissimilar in overall approach. Wand’s tempi are
slightly broader and he brings rather more humility and humanity
No one buying the earlier version would be disappointed but
his exceptional Berlin reading is finer in terms of playing
and recording quality, and that is the Wand version to go for.
Sir Reginald Goodall’s
reading comes from a 1969 Henry Wood Promenade concert and is
issued by BBC Legends (see review).
The first movement is extremely broad. Indeed, at 18’15"
it is the longest we know, apart from Celibidache in Munich
- he breaks the twenty minute barrier! Unfortunately, in this
case the breadth is just too great and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
doesn’t sound wholly comfortable. The adagio is intense and
concentrated and here Goodall’s basic tempo is more "conventional".
The finale is also taken broadly but the pacing is rather more
convincing than was the case in the first movement. It’s interesting
to hear a great Wagnerian in Bruckner but the reading of the
first movement prevents a general recommendation.
No such reservations
about Jascha Horenstein’s 1970 recording, which also comes from
the Proms (see review).
It’s also on BBC Legends (by our reckoning that label has issued
at least four recordings of this symphony). This performance
displays similar virtues to those that distinguish Horenstein’s
Fifth (see above). Above all, structural command and blazing
commitment are evident. The adagio is particularly searching
and the finale majestic. This is a rather special performance
and an attractive proposition for collectors, especially as
it’s coupled in a 2 CD set with a fine account of the Ninth
is also a bit special. Yet again it’s on BBC Legends (see review).
This is a concert performance from May 1970. This was to be
Barbirolli’s last London concert, for he died just a few weeks
later. It’s a reading of astonishing intensity and passion.
It lasts a "mere" 74 minutes but the music never sounds
unduly rushed, despite the urgency of Barbirolli’s vision. The
Hallé Orchestra plays with tremendous conviction and the few
slips can be readily forgiven. This is red-blooded Bruckner
and certainly not a "safe" library choice but it’s
a performance that demands attention and respect.
An historical recording
worth mentioning – and listening to – is the one made in Amsterdam
by Eduard van Beinum in 1955 which can be downloaded cheaply
A live performance from the same forces and period exists courtesy
of the acetates having been rescued from a flea market (see
Unfortunately, Carl Schuricht’s Stuttgart reading on Hänssler
from the previous year is a fine interpretation let down by
recording was made for Vox with the Pro Musica Orchestra in
1955. The sound is mediocre for the period and the orchestra
not in the same class as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics.
And yet there is no doubt that this is a great interpretation.
Horenstein’s conception of the work is seamless and tempi are
perfectly judged. Although he does not linger in the first movement,
an essential sense of mystery is retained. His adagio is perfectly
poised, simply ethereal at the close, and the finale is very
Otto Klemperer is
notorious for having made quite major cuts to the finale in
the EMI recording he made late in his career. However, a live
1957 recording from Cologne is uncontroversial and worth an
airing (see review).
Karl Böhm’s Vienna
1976 recording of the 8th is quite middle-of-the-road in terms
of tempi. The playing is wonderful and the phrasing has the
same natural eloquence that marks out his classic version of
the 4th symphony. This performance squeezes onto a single mid-price
CD and would be a good mid-price choice for anyone wanting just
one version of this work.
Giulini’s 1983 live
version with the Philharmonia Orchestra is a wholly dedicated
and masterly performance by a great conductor at the height
of his powers (see review).
A year later Giulini made a glowing studio version with the
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra which has been generally well-received
At the moment it is available as a CD-R reprint from ArkivMusic
or can be downloaded from Universal
Classics & Jazz. Giulini also conducted the Eighth for
the inaugural concert of the World Philharmonic Orchestra in
Stockholm in 1985. This has been issued on DVD (see review)
but the sound quality is not great and this is probably not
the best way to experience Giulini’s Bruckner.
A live 1981 performance
in which Klaus Tennstedt conducts the LPO has recently been
issued on the orchestra’s own LPO live label. It has been very
well received in other quarters. We have yet to hear it but
hope to comment on it at our next revision.
Of specialist interest
only is a 1972 live version made by the Boston Symphony Orchestra
under William Steinberg during the third and last season of
his brief tenure (1969-72) as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor.
The edition used is stated in the documentation to be Nowak
but with some (unspecified) amendments by Steinberg. We note,
however, that the discography cited above lists it as being
the 1892 Lienau edition. This is a good, well paced and powerful
reading, well played by the Bostonians, and as this under-rated
conductor didn’t record the Eighth commercially it is good to
have this available. Unfortunately, however, it’s only very
expensively available at present in the BSO’s Symphony Hall
Centennial Celebration boxed set, available direct from the
1892 (Ed. Lienau)
1955 Munich recording is so quick (only just over 70 minutes
in total) that he rushes the symphony off its feet (see review).
The playing is scrappy and untidy and this is a version that
ill serves the generally high reputation of the conductor. The
only thing that seems to be going for it is the potential interest
value of the edition used, i.e. the one was used in the very
first performance of the symphony, although it should be recognized
that has now been essentially superseded by those of Haas and
Rogg has made and recorded on BIS a transcription
for his instrument. This is a swift reading coming in
at under 70 minutes but the fast tempi seem to suit the instrument.
This is a curiosity but it might appeal to those who like different
perspectives on great music.
his Ninth Symphony to God and worked on it for several years
before his death in 1896. Unfortunately he was initially distracted
by what seem to be unnecessary revisions of earlier symphonies,
in particular the First. The Ninth is complete as far the end
of the third movement adagio. Although it is clear that Bruckner
intended a finale on the scale of the Eighth Symphony, sketches
show that it was a long way from complete. As for Schubert’s
Unfinished Symphony, a performance as far as the end of the
slow movement somehow seems complete and it is apposite that
the composer’s work should end with an adagio. Realizing that
he wasn’t going to complete the finale, Bruckner contemplated
the use of his Te Deum as the finale. This would certainly have
involved some transposition; its key is C whereas the symphony
is in D minor (a key it shares with the Nullte and third symphonies).
The opening movement is a massive inspiration which unfolds
naturally in long paragraphs. The scherzo is full of demons
but has a greatly contrasting trio. The adagio is hard to describe
and seems to be not from this world. It opens with a huge and
impassioned upward leap on the strings and ends with a soft
brass chorale, which brings a great feeling of repose. There
are no important issues relating to editions used in recordings.
In recent years
there have been various completions of finale, notably by William
Carragan. There are several recordings of them but no front
rank Bruckner conductor has yet recorded a four-movement version.
If you are interested in hearing a completion, it would make
logical sense just to download the last movement (see section
on Downloading below).
Bruno Walter’s 1959
recording is very fine in every way and a possible top choice
despite its age.
Haitink made two
recordings in Amsterdam, in 1965 and 1981. The former is taut
and logical, the latter more ethereal with generally slightly
slower tempi and top-notch sound.
Karajan’s 1975 reading
from Berlin is amongst his finest Bruckner recordings but, as
with the Fourth Symphony, the sound lacks a bit of impact, even
in comparison to Walter’s recording. Preferable is a 1985 live
recording from Berlin which is available cheaply on a Sony DVD
and come in harness with an Eighth from Vienna made at the same
time as his last, and greatest, studio recording of the work
Günter Wand’s finest
reading of this work was also made in Berlin and dates from
1998. This is excellent but perhaps not as fine as his last
version of the Eighth (see reviews by John
Quinn and Patrick
Waller). Wand’s 1993 version is a live performance made
with the NDR Sinfonieorchester. The orchestra plays well for
him though, unsurprisingly, they can’t quite match the Berlin
Philharmonic’s tonal lustre. This version has all the command
of structure and balance that one has come to expect from this
very fine Brucknerian. Once again, Wand’s final, Berlin thoughts
are preferable but this NDR version is certainly not a second
best; it’s a useful alternative.
captured live at the Henry Wood Promenade concerts in 1966 is
on BBC Legends, yoked with his reading of Mahler’s Seventh (see
Like his reading of the Eighth (see above) this has great urgency.
However, the performance is not of quite the same stature. In
particular there is a worrying tendency to accelerate into climaxes
in the first movement. It must be said that the recording quality
leaves something to be desired. The strings sound rather thin
and the brass tend to be too dominant. Also, at least as captured
by the microphones, the internal balance of the orchestra is
not always ideal. Barbirolli’s approach to the adagio has typical
nobility and sincerity but realistically the appeal of this
performance is limited.
By contrast, Horenstein’s
1970 Proms performance is a reading of undoubted stature (see
The orchestra (the BBC Symphony) plays much better for him than
do the Hallé for Barbirolli. It’s noteworthy too that Horenstein
takes 61 minutes for the work against Barbirolli’s 53 minutes.
The first movement is grand and spacious while the adagio glows.
This latter movement is put across with total conviction by
Horenstein and his players. This is a masterly reading by a
great Brucknerian and the coupling of this Ninth and the Eighth
discussed above is a mandatory purchase for Bruckner collectors.
Giulini’s 1976 EMI
recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is currently available
only in a highly recommendable box of 4 CDs of his recordings
with that orchestra. This is a most impressive reading, distinguished
above all by Giulini’s care for the musical line. The concluding
adagio has all the spiritual elevation that one would expect
from this great conductor. He is supported by fabulous playing
from the CSO and this is a most desirable version. Giulini’s
1988 studio recording with Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is
also wonderful and there is a live Giulini recording with the
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1996, which is available
on DVD and highly recommendable (see review).
is a fitting culmination to his cycle (though it was not actually the
last of the symphonies that he recorded). There's a massive
integrity to Tintner's Bruckner in general and this Ninth is
no exception. His performance, which is well played by the Royal
Scottish National Orchestra, is perhaps a bit more
rugged than the visions of, say, Horenstein or Giulini but it
is wholly convincing.
hardly recorded any Bruckner at all and a priori it might
be difficult to see this as a likely combination. However, a
performance he gave in the last year of his life in Vienna is
very rewarding and is available on DVD (see review).
BBC Legends has
complemented its recordings by Reginald Goodall of the Seventh
and Eighth with a 1974 traversal of the Ninth. We have yet to
hear this version but hope to comment on it at our next revision.
complete and partial cycles
A complete cycle
potentially has advantages in terms of cost and consistency
of approach but is also likely to have "ups and downs".
Interpretatively, Bruckner’s music can be approached in many
different ways and that is without even considering questions
relating to the different versions of the works. For these reasons,
one complete cycle will not be enough for serious admirers of
this composer and some supplementation is likely to be required.
Even the definition of "complete" is debatable in
Bruckner! But we will take a conservative view that inclusion
of at least Nos. 1-9 represents a complete cycle.
Eugen Jochum’s Dresden
cycle for EMI was made between 1975 and 1980 and includes Nos.
1-9, each on a single disc and in each case representing Bruckner’s
final thoughts on the works. Packaged in a slimline box, this
is one of the cheapest ways of acquiring the works and Jochum
has a considerable reputation as a Brucknerian. There is also
an earlier Jochum cycle on DG of
which we have yet heard little, although it is in JQ’s
pending tray. The EMI sound is not ideal, being balanced rather
forwardly and Jochum’s interpretations are interventionist.
Whilst there are many wonderful moments, his free approach to
tempi will put this out of court for some listeners. In particular,
crescendo and accelerando frequently go hand-in-hand, adding
excitement but ultimately being counterintuitive to the flow
of the music. Perhaps the worst example is on the approach to
the climax of the adagio of the 8th Symphony. This is a cycle
that many will want to hear but it is not recommendable as a
cycle also includes Symphonies 00 and 0 and is very economical
of the whole set). In each case Tintner goes for Bruckner’s
first thoughts, except in the Fourth Symphony (and No. 0 for
which they are no longer extant) where he uses the final version
of 1881. Between us we have heard all these readings individually
and this is a most recommendable cycle. Some of Tintner’s tempi
are rather slow (for example the first movement of the Third
and the adagio of the Eighth) but there are many insights and
marvellous control of structures. Tintner’s reading of the Second
Symphony is particularly special. Various orchestras and locations
are involved but the playing and sound are generally excellent.
A cycle which does not include the 1890 version of the Eighth
will surely require supplementation and it is slightly odd to
have all the first versions except the Fourth. Adding Inbal’s
recording of the 1874 edition of that symphony plus Haitink’s
Philips Duo of the Third and Eighth would be a relatively inexpensive
way of covering all of the essential ground in terms of editions
(again there are major differences between the 1877 version
of the Third used by Haitink and the original score). With these
supplements, this would be our recommendation for a starter
collection of Bruckner symphonies and (including the supplements)
it should currently cost no more than £50.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw recordings were made between 1963 and
1972. He subsequently successfully re-made the Seventh and Ninth
with the same orchestra and then re-recorded Nos. 3, 4, 5 and
8 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The complete cycle
of the first recordings has been issued more than once on CD.
The VPO recordings and some of the Amsterdam recordings are
available as Philips Duos (sadly, Haitink’s version of No. 2
is not included). The original cycle is a major achievement
with straightforward interpretations and good sound. Haitink’s
readings of Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 6 are particularly impressive
and, re-listening to the 1963 recording of the Third, PW was
surprised to find himself wondering if it wasn’t just as fine
as the marvellous 1988 recording with the VPO. Tempi are often
relatively fast but it could be argued that the general tendency
to play Bruckner more slowly nowadays is not necessarily beneficial.
No. 0 is included and Haitink uses the Haas editions. This remains
a good general recommendation for a complete cycle.
has recorded all the symphonies (including Nos. 00 and 0) with
the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra. The individual symphonies
were initially issued on Arte Nova at super-budget price but
unfortunately they have become more expensive when collected
together. This set has been reviewed by Terry
Barfoot and PW.
In general Skrowaczewski opts for Bruckner’s last thoughts and
his performances are cogent indeed. We hope that this box will
be reissued more economically and with better presentation,
in which case it would clearly merit a positive recommendation.
has recorded two complete cycles – in Chicago and Berlin. The
former seems to have been completely superseded whilst the latter
has many positive features (see review).
His reading of the Second is the one significant disappointment.
This set can usually be found for about £20 or less and is certainly
very good value.
Two other great
Bruckner conductors have also made complete cycles which are
currently available – Wand and Karajan. JQ has recently reviewed
the Karajan set (see review)
when it appeared in a budget slimline box. In both cases these
include Nos. 1-9 only and are largely based on the Haas editions.
Other similarities are that neither conductor had much, if any,
concert experience of the first three symphonies and that they
subsequently made some finer recordings of the later symphonies.
Some of the recordings by both these conductors are amongst
the finest ever made but Wand’s complete cycle might well be
passed over and PW is less enthusiastic about the Karajan cycle
than JQ, having some reservations about the general clarity
of the sound based on hearing the original LPs, and the Fourth
and Ninth on CD.
There are other
complete cycles by Chailly and Solti. Except for Chailly’s readings
of Nos. 0 and 1, we have not heard these but reviews we have
seen suggest that they are unlikely to be superior to those
One partial set
which is historically important consists of Symphonies Nos.
4-9 minus the first movement of the Sixth in live performances
given between 1942 and 1951 under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler
This set is also available more cheaply but with inferior sound
on Andromeda (see review).
Furtwängler’s only studio recording of this composer dated from
1942 and consisted merely of the slow movement of the Seventh
In general, these live performances with the Vienna (Nos. 4
& 8) or Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras (Nos. 5, 6, 7 &
9) are high-voltage Bruckner, both interventional and inspirational.
Everyone interested in the composer should hear them but they
are hardly mainstream recommendations.
set which demands attention – although it could hardly be more
different from Furtwängler’s – is Celibidache’s Munich recordings
of Nos. 3-9 (see review).
As well as the fairly expensive 12 CD set, it is possible to
obtain the individual works one way or another if one is prepared
to download (from AmazonUK
or Passionato) or order an
CD-R reprint. Celibidache was averse to making recordings but
there are also extant readings of Nos. 7-9 from Stuttgart (see
which are less extreme. If you want to experience Celibidache’s
Bruckner it seems more logical to go for the “Full Monty” from
Munich. The 104 minute Eighth is the broadest of them all and
it is surprising how one can and does adapt to such stasis.
Individual reactions will vary enormously but the playing, concentration
and sound is magnificent. The Fourth is perhaps the most recommendable
and the place to start but once you have, you’ll surely want
to hear the rest. Applause before and after the music and audience
noise between movements is generally left in to enhance the
It seems appropriate
to add here a short section considering some issues about downloading
Bruckner symphonies, based on PW’s experience to date. Beyond
saying that he doesn’t believe that it should be a major deterrent,
the controversial issue of sound quality will be ignored but,
whatever one’s views on that, there are pros and cons. The length
of Bruckner’s symphonies means that it can take a while a download
one and at the higher end of mp3 bit rates (which seems to be
the norm) up to about 150 Megabytes of storage space per symphony
will be needed. On the plus side, pricing structures are generally
favourable to long tracks. If you subscribe on the basis of
x tracks per month, a Bruckner symphony is much more cost-effective
than, say, a Schubert song. Indeed, for 35 tracks you can have
a complete set. Outside such subscriptions, whilst most prices
reflect track length this is not invariably the case. Thus there
are quite a few Bruckner recordings that can be downloaded for
69 or 79 pence per track – say £3 per symphony. These include
for example, some of Wand’s Berlin recordings on Amazon
UK and, in particular, the Eighth, which is one of our highest
Another point in
favour of downloading is that it is potentially possible to
extract a single work from a complete set, although this is
often rather expensive. For example, some of Haitink’s first
recordings have been issued on Philips Duos but not the Second.
This is a fine performance that on disc can only be obtained
as part of a set. If downloaded it costs £9.16 from Universal Classics
and Jazz whereas the Duos, which contain two symphonies
each, are priced at £9.99.
We should add the
caveat that prices and availability may change but, generally,
our expectation would be that such changes will be for the better.
It is also worth mentioning that there are significant “freebies”
around – the abruckner.com site
which is mainly a [superb] discography offers a free download
each month, usually of a historical recording. It also links
to other sites offering free Bruckner downloads. At least at
the time of writing, it was possible to follow the links from
there to download a very decent Eighth conducted by Kent Nagano
for free. There is also a four movement version of the Ninth
freely available which is conducted by Hubert
If there are recordings
that one is only likely to want to hear once or storage space
is an issue, streaming i.e. downloading without saving, is a
useful option. Much the best site on the web for streaming of
classical music is the Naxos Music Library
and this has multiple versions of all Bruckner’s symphonies
including all the Tintner and Paternostro recordings.
Below we give one
principal recommendation for each of the early symphonies (as
far as No. 3) and two choices for the later works. It is worth
reiterating here that we make no pretence to these choices being
based on a complete review of available recordings and availability
may change over time, so we have disregarded it as a factor
in our choices. These choices merely represent what we believe
to be the finest recorded performances we have yet heard; sound
quality was not taken into account.
Symphony No. 00
Symphony No. 0 Tintner
Symphony No. 1 Haitink
Symphony No. 2 Giulini
Symphony No. 3 Haitink
Symphony No. 4 Böhm
(1973), Wand (1998)
Symphony No. 5 Horenstein
(1971), Sinopoli (1999)
Symphony No. 6 Klemperer
(1964), Haitink (2003)
Symphony No. 7 Wand
(1999), Haitink (2007)
Symphony No. 8 Karajan
(1988), Wand (2001)
Symphony No. 9 Walter
(1959), Wand (1998)
Finally, with a
nod to Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity, our personal
top five Bruckner symphony recordings, in order of preference,
Gunter Wand 8th
Carlo Maria Giulini 2nd (1974)
Giuseppe Sinopoli 5th (1999)
Bruno Walter 9th (1959)
Karl Böhm 4th (1973)
Günter Wand 8th (2001)
Karl Böhm 4th (1973)
Jascha Horenstein 5th (1971)
Günter Wand 4th (1998)
Herbert von Karajan 8th (1988)