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CD, HQCD, FLAC: High Definition Tape Transfers

Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor [55:56]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carl Schuricht
rec. 27 November 1961, no venue given
HDTT HDCD188 [55:56]

Experience Classicsonline
The combination of the right repertoire and the engineering wizardry of HDTT has proven to be a killer combination in the relatively brief time this company has been releasing back-catalogue recordings. Reviews on this website alone in recent weeks have been full of praise for their revivification of famous performances of Mahler’s First and Third Symphonies conducted by Horenstein as well as de Falla’s The three cornered hat from Frühbeck de Burgos. My own first-hand experience has included a magnificent Shostakovich Cello Sonata from Daniel Shafran and a Karajan/Richard Strauss disc that made it into my half-dozen ‘best of the year’. So it was with considerable hope and expectation that I looked forward to listening to this recording - previously unknown to me - of Bruckner’s towering Symphony No. 9 in D minor from Carl Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic. Where possible HDTT try to source commercial reel-to-reel material but when that medium is unavailable – as apparently here – they use pristine LPs. This performance was recorded for EMI in 1961 and since then has reappeared in numerous incarnations on LP including the bargain, but much loved, CFP label. I have no doubt that the re-mastering engineers have extracted every available iota of recorded information and the disc sounds reasonably well although there is a persistent low rumble that becomes noticeable while listening over headphones. However, in this instance it would be wrong to suggest that they have been able to achieve the quantum improvements in audio quality that has marked their work elsewhere. The Vienna Philharmonic as recorded for EMI in 1962 has none of the bloom and rich warmth that characterises their sound as captured by Decca for example at exactly the same time. We speak a lot about the ‘sound’ of an orchestra but far less often about the sound of a record label. Clearly EMI in Austria in the early 1960s were technically inferior to Decca. The stereo sound-stage is quite crudely split left to right with little front to back depth. Yes the horns are powerfully, if somewhat raucously caught, but similarly the woodwind – a particularly sour oboe – have an edge and a synthetic prominence that destroys much of Bruckner’s organ-like chord voicings.

None of which would matter to any degree were the performance of such stature as to disarm criticism. Regretfully, I would have to say that this remains a resolutely earthbound and stubbornly unmystical Ninth. Now for sure, I understand that in the intervening half century since this was recorded we have become ever more beguiled by the Karajan-led and richly upholstered ‘heavenly’ Bruckner but even in the age of austere authenticity this comes across as a pretty plain reading. Yet herein lies my real frustration with Schuricht’s interpretation. If, throughout, we were presented with the notes and nothing but the notes one could argue that we were being given an austere vision. But no, in the midst of a brisk traversal - he completes the first movement in 20:09 (even Walter in his famously no-nonsense 1959 Columbia SO version takes 23:54) - Schuricht suddenly, and in defiance of any kind of musical logic he might be trying to create, extends anacrucis beats (creating 5/4 bars almost in a 4/4 passage) and adds pauses and extended rallentandi where none are marked. At best it sounds mannered; at worst perverse. Take the very opening; after 4 bars of a pedal tremolando D in the strings the 8 horns intone a little fanfare figure based on a D minor triad. Crucially the pickup note is a semi-quaver (16th note). This is answered by the trumpets and timpani quietly repeating the tonic Ds in a heavier quaver (8th) note pattern as if to emphasise the tonic. Schuricht allows his horns to elongate the pick-up semiquaver and the contrast is lost. Jochum, also on EMI, with the Dresden Staatskapelle perfectly delineates this tiny difference but in that single instant - it does repeat throughout the movement and Bruckner is exceptionally careful with his rhythmic definition - he achieves a tension and momentum beyond Schuricht; this from a conductor whom the liner-notes tells us; “... invented a clear, almost objective style of conducting, based on fast tempos and flexible but cleanly articulated orchestral playing …”. Take another example from the first movement – rehearsal letter D in the Eulenburg/Nowak edition score [3:57]: the marking langsamer allows Schuricht to indulge in some swooning phrasing that for me totally undermines the bedrock of the music. In the spirit of comparing like with like I referred mainly to the Walter/Columbia Symphony Orchestra recording still available at bargain price. This performance does for me fulfil the ideal of passionate objectivity (some comically approximate timpani tuning apart) and even the ‘standard’ CD transfer seems superior to the EMI LP-sourced engineering offered here. Take the passage mentioned above – Walter phrases beautifully but with an essential simplicity that seems truer to the spirit of Bruckner – more of the open air and fields than the lace handkerchief drawing room ballad of Schuricht.

The second movement Scherzo marked Bewegt, lebhaft is as vehement and possessed as any music Bruckner ever wrote. Schuricht is a good minute faster than Walter but a half minute slower than Jochum. But timing tells only part of the story; Walter’s tempo allows the music to stamp like some great giant’s clumsy dance with the repeated brass chords grinding against each other as a musical volcano threatens to erupt. Conversely Jochum is full of malevolent glee – his pizzicato strings playfully outlining their diminished chords and the brass spikily articulating the clashing harmonies. Schuricht literally lies somewhere between but to my ears without the personality of either. The trio of this movement is unusual in that it is marked to be played faster than the material that precedes it. All three of the versions here maintain this tempo relationship but Jochum pushes his Dresden orchestra along at an extraordinary speed – which results in a rather soupy slowing into the trio second subject at B. Schuricht does the same, unmarked, slowly but compounds this ‘sin’ by then indulging in more arch phrasing. Walter, positively serene and almost Schubertian in the opening of the trio is able to sail into the second subject with a graceful turning of the musical corner but a logical maintenance of his basic tempo thereby ensuring a structural coherence to the movement.

As is well documented Bruckner struggled to complete the finale of this symphony for most of the last decade of his life. I often wonder whether part of this struggle was due to the fact that at the close of the third movement Langsam feierlich he had achieved one of the towering high points of music and was at a loss as to quite where to go next. The music moves from yearning to doubt and conflict through to a radiant conciliatory close. The movement centres on E as its tonality which is about as far away from the ‘home’ key of D as it is possible to be but Bruckner disturbs this immediately by having the first violins who open the movement alone move from a B to a C natural an octave and a semitone above. They are directed to stay on the same (low) G string for this leap which instantly creates a dramatic and achingly poignant opening. Schuricht, in obeying the markig, breit direction, makes the phrase clumsily pointed. Walter seamlessly flows through the notes – only the essential timbre telling you his players are still on their G strings. It is Jochum here who maximises the drama – having delivered the fleetest Scherzo his is now the slowest third movement – an extraordinary seven minutes behind Schuricht. In essence he chooses to feel 8 quavers in each bar, Schuricht prefers the crochet pulse. In lesser hands than Jochum the results would be turgid but he has the flawless long-spanning control and his players the technical resource to make this utterly compelling. Schuricht seems almost perfunctory by his side. It is Walter in this movement who finds the middle way – quite literally - clocking in at 23 minutes. The climax of the movement is the famous chord where Bruckner piles semitonal clashes on top of each other – it’s a moment of chaos and collapse BUT Bruckner did just write it as a crochet with a pause on the following silent beat. Schuricht, maddeningly, extends the clashing chord and then all but eliminates the silent pause. The drama should surely be that the implication of that chord is left to hang in the following silence – a sense of ‘whither now?’. Jochum slightly extends the chord but is already at a significantly slower tempo. His great triumph here is the shocked frozen silence that follows – and his Dresden brass are more able to unleash a true triple fff in the immediately preceding passage than their Vienna counterparts of 1962. Walter holds the chord a fraction too long and does not make as much of the pause as he might but it is still a major improvement on Schuricht. The ‘whither now’ proves to be this incredible ascent leaving behind earthly things – Bruckner throws in little thematic references to his own Third, Eighth and Seventh Symphonies here as well as his Mass in D – before, with one last gesture of farewell, the four horns rise to a richly-voiced E major chord from the full brass over pizzicato strings. Schuricht’s Vienna horns cannot quite get the chord to settle – something that causes no problems for Jochum or Walter. One last irritation – the horns should come off with the strings final pizzicato; Schuricht allows them a good extra four seconds overhang. There is no justification for this in the score and adds to the fact that the placing of the three pizzicato chords bear no relation to the tempo of the previous passage at all. My incomprehension is complete.

Clearly, this is a performance that has been in and out of the catalogue a lot in the last five decades so it must resonate for others more than myself. HDTT believe it to be a performance worthy of their considerable expertise and I feel part of the restoration process should be some kind of historical comment on this specific performance and why it was chosen. Likewise, wherever the information is available, I think collectors drawn to this type of recording would enjoy having information about original recording producers, dates and venues as well as the detailed information of the mastering equipment used that is present – the information I have given above is not present on the CD. I notice from the www.abruckner.com website that there have been at least six other recordings of this work conducted by Schuricht although this is probably the most commercially available now and historically. So a work he obviously cared about deeply, but a vision of the work I do not share.

When reviewing other releases of this label I have lamented certain elements of the presentation of these discs which simply do not measure up to the quality of the engineering/restoration that has been achieved. So it is again here, the liner-notes are presented on a light-weight card fold-over and consist of a not very well written or informative ‘analysis’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly) of the work as well as the brief pen portrait of the conductor I quoted from above. The cover art-work set on an unappealing mustard coloured background adds nothing to the experience. This is being promoted as a premium product to discerning collectors and it should be presented as such. As I hope I have made clear I have nothing but praise for the restoration that the HDTT engineers have achieved. One big flaw that was present on the Strauss disc I mentioned before is repeated here – the ridiculously short gap between movements. In a work of this epic nature you need at least ten seconds between movements. Here we do not get even two. If not this performance I would urge collectors to seek out the best of the HDTT catalogue because when the music-making matches the quality of the engineering the results are stupendous. Unless you hold this version of Bruckner’s transcendent symphony close to your heart this would not be the place to start that exploration.

Nick Barnard

[NOTE: In the press copy sent for review two of the movements were reversed in order. HDTT assure us this will be corrected before sale]

 


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