Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.1 in C minor edited Haas (1877) [43:08]
Symphony No.2 in C minor edited Haas (1877) [51:00]
Symphony No.3 in D minor edited Rättig 1890 (1877) [50:48]
Symphony No.4 in E flat Romantic edited Haas (1878-80) [60:29]
Symphony No.5 in B flat major (1876) [68:31]
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81) [50:49]
Symphony No.7 in E major edited Gutmann 1885 (1884) [58:26]
Symphony No.8 in C minor edited Haslinger 1892 (1884-87, rev. 1889-90) [72:13]
Symphony No.9 in D minor edited Orel 1934 (1894) [50:42]
Te Deum WAB45 [20:56]
Emmy Loose (soprano); Hildegard Rössel-Majdan (alto); Anton Dermota (tenor); Gottlob Frick (bass); Alois Forer (organ)
Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Volkmar Andreae
rec. January-February 1953, Vienna, broadcasts. From the Archives of ORF/Radio Österreich 1. Digital restoration by Aaron Z. Snyder (2009).
9 CDs priced as 7
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1227(9) [9 CDs: 527:02]

The Swiss conductor and composer Volkmar Andreae has a small, concentrated discography. Violin aficionados remember him fondly for his accompaniment to compatriot Stefi Geyer in Schoeck’s Violin Concerto. He also conducted Fournier in the same composer’s Cello Concerto, though this was an off-air 1949 traversal. There were other recordings, often with distinguished soloists, principally in the expected pieces - Edwin Fischer and Marcelle Meyer in the Emperor Concerto for instance (the latter is on Tahra TAH580), the Vienna Symphony Missa Solemnis with stellar singers, Gieseking in Mozart’s K488, Karl Engel in Chopin’s First, and Gulda in the Schumann and Weber Konzertstück. But there was also Brun’s Ninth Symphony to swell the discography as well as Andreae’s own Kleine Suite. But the conductor’s greatest legacy resides in his championship of Bruckner.

This Vienna Symphony cycle was performed and broadcast in January and February 1953. It constitutes an important addition to the discography and a fascinating perspective on Andreae’s individual and collective approaches to the composer’s music. To sum up these crudely, I would characterise Andreae’s conducting as unmannered, linear, strong, dramatic, crisp, devoid of hallowed sanctimony, and intensely vital. There is a powerful sense of a conductor whose reach extends from first to last, and who sees the symphonies as part of a continuum of architectural and expressive development. He neither inflates the earlier symphonies nor bloats the last ones; instead he vests the music with a real sense of life-giving exultation, and whilst this summary might suggest that he thereby downplays the solemnity and gothic depth of the music, I would argue that this is not so. It has been an immensely valuable experience to listen to the canon under his direction.

I began my journey with the Seventh, which is characterised by fresh and verdant wind playing. It’s a feature of these performances that Andreae coaxes some flowing wind paragraphs from the VSO. This is not a monumental 7, but nor is it a timid affair either. Tempi are fluid, forward-moving, as lissom sometimes as a stream. Orchestral textures are well calibrated and not over-vibrated; string unison figures are not vehement. There’s no dawdling in the finale where the vivid sense of the music is finely put across.

The marvellously architectural acuity that characterises Andreae’s performances is perhaps at its most penetrating in the Eighth. There are no longueurs here at all, or any sense of undue haste. Andreae develops his own momentum, leading from paragraph point to paragraph point with utter naturalness. The wind and string cantilever in the Scherzo, and the refined and noble elevation of the Adagio attest to a supremely human countenance.

One thing that he does - it may sound simplistic but you can feel it throughout - is immediately to establish a sense of dynamism and direction. Rhythm is underway from the first second. This is especially true in the case of the Sixth which starts with a kind of tensely flowing tempo (an Andreae speciality) that lies at the heart of his music-making. There is great buoyancy here. Though his tempi are generally fast they don’t seem so, so well pointed are they. It is an example of incision, of accenting, of lifting phrases forward without hustling them. Flexibility and control go hand-in-hand and no stasis is allowed to impede the natural musical current that runs throughout the Sixth’s Adagio.

The Fifth receives another splendid performance. The pizzicati in the second movement underlie the plangent and never indulged lyric line above. Passion here is co-opted to lissom and invigorating dynamism. It is playing once again of life-affirming directness. The Scherzo’s bold accelerando attests to the unrigid, tensile quality Andreae evokes. There’s a big echo which adds to the tension of the performance, and an occasional murmur from Andreae which amplifies his expressive engagement with the music’s sweep and dynamism. The Ländler is affectionately drawn.

He is generally much quicker than say Furtwängler throughout, where comparison exists, and roughly aligned in terms of tempo relations with Knappertsbusch, though Andreae tends to be definitively fleeter in slow movements. He strives for a sense of symphonic proportion. Thus his Fourth may seem brisk when judged against some of his contemporaries’ performances, but it never sounds brusque. The same applies to the Ninth. It’s certainly fast, but its rapidity brings a galvanic fluidity, and exciting directional contour that sweeps all before it. There’s a conventional tempo for the Scherzo, but Andreae is even faster in the last movement than he had been in the opening, taking off six minutes in this movement alone from the timings of Furtwängler and Kna.

The first three symphonies share, clearly, this proportionate and vital approach. The Third in particular has great elegance of expression. The rise and fall of the Adagio is movingly conveyed, the taut elasticity that is so much a feature of the conducting - graphically so in this case. There are some unusually expansive examples of portamenti in the Scherzo. We also have a marvellously strong Te Deum. The line-up of stellar vocal talent may remind one of Scherchen-directed performances on disc but the ethos is all Andreae’s. Rhythmic surety and sonorous choral contributions reign supreme throughout.

There are bilingual (English/German) notes with pertinent commentaries on editions used by the conductor, his discography, biography and a background to his Bruckner performances. The transfers are by Aaron Z Snyder who may have had good quality digital transfers with which to work, but has also had to work hard at removing extraneous noise and correcting balances. Snyder is one of the best in his field at the moment and he lives up to his reputation with restoration work that never draws attention to itself.

If you’re looking for a Bruckner cycle in resplendent SACD you will not have read even the first paragraph of this review. To appreciate this set requires belief in Brucknerian electricity and a ‘just’ balance between expressive nobility and dramatic dynamism. Among historic cycles this one now ranks high indeed.

Jonathan Woolf