Whoever scouts around for old recordings for the "Brilliant" label to re-master and re-issue deserves a gold star and a bonus for this one. These recordings by Rögner have previously been issued separately on Berlin Classics but are here licensed from the German "Edel" label. They are presented by "Brilliant" in an attractive, super-bargain box set containing cardboard slipcases and a booklet providing good notes. A misprint on the back of the slipcase and box states that the Eight is the "1877/90 Haas" edition, when it is 1887/90.
It's not a true cycle as such, given that the recordings here are a compilation. Symphonies 4 to 9 are with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by natural Bruckner conductor Heinz Rögner. These were recorded in superb, warm analogue sound between 1980 and 1985. The earliest three symphonies are something of a rag-bag. The First, conducted by Vàclav Neumann and Third, with Kurt Sanderling, are both studio recordings from the early 1960s with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The Second is decidedly incongruous, being a good, live mono recording from 1950 conducted by Franz Konwitschny but again with the BRSO.
There is a kind of unity to the set insofar as all are played in what must be acknowledged to be the old, post-war East German tradition. However, the first three, older recordings are decidedly grand and leisurely; with overall timings ranging, by comparison with other established classic recordings, from the average to the slow. By contrast, Rögner's speeds and manner are swift and propulsive, mostly breathlessly and thrillingly fast with a real sense of drive and purpose. The Fifth, for example, clocks in at 68 minutes instead of the usual 80 and is none the worse for it. Similarly, the Seventh and Eighth, each have timings some ten minutes (and more) swifter than many rival versions but never sound rushed, just compelling.
The orchestral playing is predictably marvellous - just listen to the string quality in the Adagios - but it's the conducting which astonishes. You might well say, "Rögner - who?" as did I. He was a Leipzig-born conductor who spent most of his career there and in East Berlin and thus had little exposure in the West. In fact he is clearly a master of the Brucknerian idiom, with an extraordinarily confident, over-arching sense of the architecture of his symphonies, always eschewing the wallow in favour of forward momentum and thereby neatly side-stepping the facile accusations of Bruckner's detractors.
Yet the first three symphonies are well worth hearing, too. The First is coherent and convincing, the Leipzig fiddles maintaining perfect intonation and making the most of that lovely falling string figure reminiscent of Verdi's "Otello". The Second, despite the mono sound with thin upper frequencies and too much coughing, is a performance of stature typical of good old "con whisky" on a sober day. It’s Romantic and rhapsodic with plenty of rubato and broad, subtly-shaded phrasing of Wagnerian intensity and scale. I greatly enjoy Sanderling's Seventh on the Hänssler label. This Third is a recording to stand by it, being grand and stately.
However, it is Rögner's recordings of the last six symphonies which make this set an absolutely compulsory purchase for all true Brucknerians. It is difficult to pin down what it is that distinguishes his Bruckner but I can only point to the sense of unity and inevitability which informs his interpretations. Each symphony emerges as an entirely integrated artistic entity. These are conceptions that emulate the sweep and concentration of Karajan yet are very different in affect.
The Fourth is fast and furious, removing all possibility of bombast or the ponderous, yet the second movement is deeply reflective and restrained. The Fifth is likewise first positively manic then imbued with a compensatory balance by the gentle tranquillity of the horn and pizzicato passages before the mad dash to the finish. This potentially problematic symphony seems all of a piece in Rögner's hands. The Sixth is tense and menacing and perhaps lacking in the gravitas conferred on it by other versions like that by Klemperer. It is closer to Sawallisch's conception. The Seventh is exceptionally fluent, flexible, always redolent of mystery and the narrative is always gripping. The brass is superb, simply heavenly at the climax of the first movement and the Wagner tubas in the opening of the Adagio are beautifully forward. The opening of the Eighth is nervy, almost edgy, yet with the sense of occasion that Karajan brought to a favourite symphony and certainly my candidate for the greatest ever written. The Scherzo is breathtakingly swift yet the individual instrumental lines remain wonderfully differentiated. The Ninth is sublime, exalted, gorgeously played and recorded in splendid sound.
This is the perfect set for introducing the doubting novice to Bruckner's world; nor will the seasoned collector want to be without it. What a bargain - what a revelation.
Previous review: Nick Barnard
Masterwork Index: Bruckner symphonies
of Bruckner symphonies
by Patrick Waller and John Quinn