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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Complete Symphonies
Symphony No.1 in C minor (Linz version) (1866 rev. 1877) [51:21]
Symphony No.2 in C minor ed. Haas (1872 rev. 1877) [64:40]
Symphony No.3 in D minor ed. Raettig (1873 rev. 1890) [64:00]
Symphony No.4 in E flat Romantic ed. Nowak (1878 rev. 1886) [58:17]
Symphony No.5 in B flat ed. Nowak (1878) [68:26]
Symphony No.6 in A ed. Nowak (1881) [52:17]
Symphony No.7 in E ed. Haas (1885) [59:15]
Symphony No.8 in C minor ed. Haas (1887/90 – mixed version) [75:01]
Symphony No.9 in D minor ed. Nowak (1887) [54:15]
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Václav Neumann (1); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Franz Konwitschny (2); Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling (3); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Heinz Rögner (4-9)
rec. Saal 1, SRK Berlin Germany, 14 January 1951 (2); Heilandskirche Leipzig, Germany, June 1963 (3); 13-14 December 1965 (1), Saal 1, SRK Berlin, Germany, 19 June 1980 (6), 9-12 February 1983 (9), July 1983/January 1984 (4), 5 August 1983 (7), September 1983/January 1984 (5), May 1985 (8)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94686 [9 CDs: 9:07:20]

Scratch the surface of just about any release from Brilliant Classics and you will see a major label's name beneath from which the astute licensing department at Brilliant have sourced their discs. In exchange for a very competitive price point, albeit with minimal packaging and brief liner-notes, collectors can source material from Decca, Chandos, BIS, EMI as was, Dorian, Deutsche Grammophon and ASV to name just a few. Also, in that list - and less celebrated - are discs from the former East German company Edel/Berlin Classics. This is proving to be as rich a source of top-notch material as any - recent sets of Reger and Hindemith have proved the quality of this label in both musical and technical terms.

So it proves here. Put aside prejudice and any preconceptions - this set of Bruckner Symphonies is remarkably fine. This is not Brilliant's first cycle; their catalogue continues to list the EMI-sourced second 'complete' cycle from Eugen Jochum recorded with the Dresden Staatskapelle between 1975 and 1980. I put complete in inverted commas since they topped-up Symphonies 1-9 from Jochum with a No.0 from Skrowaczewski and the Saarland RSO.

The set under current consideration is similarly composite; Symphonies 4-9 from Heinz Rögner with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra of which he was principal conductor from 1973 to 1993, while Symphonies 1-3 are shared between three conductors, one with the Berlin RSO again and the other two from the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The absence of a No.0 and the seemingly random allocation of the early symphonies might rule this out for some collectors. Indeed, I hesitated before asking for this set to review in the mistaken belief that it would be some modest mish-mash piled high and sold cheap. How wrong could I be, yes indeed I am very sad that we are not able to hear Rögner's conception of the entire cycle but what we have is very fine indeed and the 'extras' of 1-3 share a similar vision and make logical couplings.

I will return to the three early symphonies later because, fine though they are, it is the Rögner performances that command attention. A little bit of biography first; Heinz Rögner was born in Leipzig in 1929. His professional career started as a répétiteur for the Weimar Staatskappelle when he was just eighteen. Before he was thirty he was principal conductor of the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra before taking over in Berlin in 1973. These Bruckner symphonies were all recorded between 1980 and 1985 in analogue stereo. There is low-level tape hiss audible although I would have to say not distractingly so. None of these performances is new to the catalogue and indeed all are still available in their single-disc original label format. As far as I can ascertain, this is the first time they have been gathered together in one place. Apart from price, the immediate benefit of this is to give the listener a clear sense of Rögner's unity of conception which is remarkably consistent throughout.

I was interested to read just a couple of days ago my colleague Simon Thompson's review of Christian Thielemann's new DVD recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony again in Dresden. In this review he references Karajan's 1988 Vienna performance on DG as "probably the best performance of this symphony you’ll find in any format". I would agree it is very fine whilst at the same time offering the following observation. It seems to me that the industrial machine that was Deutsche Grammophon in its hey-day took great care to promote Karajan and his recordings as representing the very pinnacle of artistic achievement. Much money and time was lavished on this to the point that - rightly or wrongly - the perception was that for large swathes of repertoire the Karajan way was the 'best' way. Beethoven and Bruckner would seem to me the composers who were most swept into this catch-all approach. By the time Karajan came to complete his DG Bruckner cycle - and enshrine some of the performances on film too - this meant a visionary spiritual style epitomised by super-refined playing and a very extended controlled approach. Watch the films with the frequent shots of Karajan, eyes all but closed, gestures at a minimum and one has a sense of him in direct communion with God. This chimes quite neatly with the received image of the 'simple' God-fearing composer creating cathedrals in sound. Such was the power of the DG publicity machine that this has become the default position for both the performance and understanding of Bruckner.

Rögner, working on the other side of the Iron Curtain, comes to Bruckner from another earlier performing tradition. One that stresses the humanity of the composer, warts and all; the occasional clumsiness, the humour and a quality I never hear in Karajan; the shout out-loud for joy. Rögner's performances have an extraordinary sense of life-affirmation about them. Not for a second would I wish to dismiss conductors who follow Karajan's 'other-worldly' approach - with music as complex and rich as this there will never be one way only - but these are interpretations that have persuaded me more than any others I know that Bruckner can be vibrant, vigorous, playful and lyrical as well as epic and awe-inspiring.

I do not intend to write at length in a comparative manner about each work. As mentioned previously, Rögner has a unified approach to the six symphonies he conducts. Except for Nos. 7 and 8 where he uses Haas he prefers the Nowak editions. Overall tempi tend to be quicker than other conductors. ‘Quick’ as an umbrella term, does no justice to the fluent skill with which he handles tempi. The control is remarkable - ten years into his post in Berlin his orchestra follow him with complete unanimity. These are highly personal accounts with tempi fluctuations used to point thematic material and larger musical structures most effectively. Orchestral balance is superbly handled; Rögner encourages the strings in general and the cellos/basses in particular to play through their lines with a song-like quality. The brass is beautifully balanced and voiced with climaxes placed to perfection. One observation would be that the East German horns have that slightly backward and less focused quality than - at that time - their Western counterparts. This makes for a gorgeous tonal blend in say the opening of the Seventh Symphony. Conversely the massed horn group does not cut through the texture in the closing pages of the outer movement of the 4th symphony in quite the way I would like. Overall, the engineering is excellent. Documentation is limited but as far as I can ascertain these performances were recorded in Studio 1 of East German Radio in Berlin. This studio has an ideal acoustic for this music - rich and full without being overly resonant. Stereo spread is good with plenty of front-to-back space too and little sense of multi-mike spotlighting. Occasionally the timpani - always audible - do not dominate a texture as some more recent recording might allow. The hammering recapitulation in the first movement of No.6 is one such moment but this is a small price to pay.

Clearly at this time the Berlin RSO were in very fine shape. The upper strings make light work of Bruckner's endlessly varying arpeggiating figures. Overall, Symphony No. 4 Romantic is the performance that impressed me least. This is still fine but without the exceptional qualities that mark some of the other discs. This is the one time I am not convinced by the quicker speeds. For the opening movement at 15:15 Rögner is a full five minutes quicker than Tennstedt's live LPO performance and three faster than Karajan. In contrast, the hunting scherzo is surprisingly sedate without the sheer thrust of Barenboim in his Chicago cycle or even Jochum in Dresden. It is in the finale for the first time that the dividend of the clean textures and flowing speeds pays off. As a consequence the work feels much more of a bridging piece between the early dynamism of the first two numbered symphonies and the grandeur of the closing triptych.

A favourite version of Symphony No.5 is Jochum's live performance with the Concertgebouw. This is an extraordinary performance, burdened with a sense of mortality and struggle - the epitome of Bruckner as a spiritual journey. Jochum heaves the music from weary opening to transcendent close - it was his 93rd and final live performance of this work. Jochum takes 82:30 compared to Rögner's 68:26 - a huge difference but both versions really work. Rögner finds a lightness of spirit, an uplifting sense of joy and release quite different from Jochum's troubled vision. I am not sure that I have ever heard the strangely perky clarinet motive at the opening of the finale make as much sense. All too often the extended fugal writing in that movement can feel functional and strangely unconvincing. By keeping the textures clean and the contrapuntal writing well-defined this becomes a joyful display of pure technical skill. Rögner drives through the final chorale. This is the passage that appalled Bax so much when he described; "at this precise moment (that) an army corps of brass instruments, which must have been crouching furtively behind the percussion, arose in their might and weighed in over the top with a chorale, probably intended by the pious composer as an invocation to 'Der alte Deutsche Gott'."

The Sixth Symphony is the one that responds least well to the Karajan-esque spiritual approach. Rögner is strong and dynamic, the all-important dotted rhythms never allowed to sag or get soft. There is a drive and momentum that is superbly sustained and an exuberance – a word not often associated with Bruckner - which is as effective as it is unexpected. Before listening to the closing three symphonies I did wonder if Rögner's approach would pay as great dividends in these three massive works which for many people would epitomise the 'spiritual' side of Bruckner's work. I soon came to the conclusion that the stopwatch alone is a crude and unrepresentative measurement of Rögner's art. By that standard alone the comparisons to Karajan are fascinating; in the case of the Seventh Symphony, aside from a trademark flowing Adagio three and a quarter minutes quicker than Karajan the other time differences are fairly minimal. In the first movement he is a minute and a half quicker, the scherzo barely half a minute and the finale twenty five seconds. Karajan's Adagio crowned with the (probably) spurious cymbal crash is glorious – a funeral paean to a lost hero marking as it did Wagner's death. Rögner, substantially quicker and with no cymbal, places this climax as a high point on the arc of the movement as opposed to Karajan's lofty peak. For Rögner the scherzo has an impressive mighty lilt to it – a dance quality that once again I rarely associate with this composer. There is a similar sprightly lightness about the finale. Rögner controls the walking bass lines with great care – phrasing is immaculate and they help propel the music forward with no feeling of rush or haste. Here, and in all the symphonies the upper strings help inject a real sense of energy and anticipation whenever they are asked – as they are a lot by Bruckner – to execute tremolando figurations. Not only does Rögner ensure these figures always have a shape but the players execute with a really fast tremolando stroke. This means that the figures cannot sound too heavy as well as imparting an eager brilliance to what can feel like a stave-filling waste of space.

The Adagio of Symphony No.8 is Rögner's one exception to the lyrical song-like rule of the earlier symphonies. Here he takes a full 26:21 to Karajan's 26:07. They both use the Haas 1887/90 conflated version – the Brilliant sleeve has a typo here and refers to a 1877/90 edition. Perhaps because I have become used to Rögner's fluent style this movement felt rather static certainly in the context of the blazing scherzo (listen to the tubas throwing down their bass lines) or a stunning finale. It is still very good but not quite as convincing as nearly everything else around it.

As is well documented the Ninth Symphony caused its creator no end of problems both technical and spiritual. Recent recordings of speculative completions of the Finale have proved convincing both emotionally and from a musicological standpoint. However, the ‘incomplete’ three movement torso remains the most common version performed and that is what we get here. It is clear that Bruckner was attempting to set out on a new musical path. As a consequence this is – simply put – his most questing, questioning and revolutionary music. Famous and favourite versions are Bruno Walter’s wonderfully rough-hewn interpretation conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra on Sony/CBS and Karajan in Berlin on DG. The latter does create a transcendent sense of arrival in the closing few pages that is one of his very greatest achievements on disc. Rögner is very good – details register as rarely elsewhere; I’m thinking of the dancing pizzicatti in the trio of the central scherzo. His principal horn is quite beautiful in the transfigured close. Where he is less successful is in the battering figurations of the opening of the scherzo or the cataclysmic climax of the Adagio. For once the fluency and air that he brings to the score works against its essentially elemental character. I find it a valuable interpretation because it is the logical completion to the sequence of symphonies as he has interpreted them. It is simply, with the luxury of being able to cherry-pick different versions, that this would not be at the top of a current list.

Turning to the three performances that complete this set; they are more variable in some respects. In fact there is a continuity in overall style that gives coherence and value to the overall set. The stand-out performance of this sub-set is Václav Neumann’s very dynamic version of Symphony No.1. Given the twenty-two years he spent as the principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic from 1968 it is easy to forget that he spent four years immediately prior to that in the same role at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. So at the time of this December 1965 recording it was very much ‘his’ orchestra. This is my first encounter with Neumann in Bruckner and it is very impressive. The recording is not as refined as those given to Rögner twenty years later but it is perfectly good and in some ways its ‘penny-plain’ style matches the direct and unfussy Neumann style very well. The liner mentions the rather curious nickname sometimes given to this work; ‘The Saucy Shrew’ – for once I begin to understand why such a name might exist. Certainly, it ties in with Rögner’s vision of lithe and lean yet powerfully dynamic approach to the later works. Much the same can be said of Kurt Sanderling’s very forthright approach to Symphony No.3, also in Leipzig. He strips away any sense of the overly reverential – this was the symphony in its first version that was replete with direct quotes from Wagner – allowing it to stand as a powerful symphonic statement in its own right. I am no great expert in the minefield that is Bruckner Symphony editions. Here Sanderling uses what the www.abruckner.com website describes as; “1890 Thorough revision Bruckner with Joseph and Franz Schalk Ed. Theodor Raettig.” Sanderling did not record a great deal of Bruckner but interestingly Symphony No.3 seems to have fixated him more than any other. The Bruckner website mentioned above lists no fewer than nine other – all different – recorded versions of this one work by Sanderling but all using the more standard 1889 revision edited by Nowak. In fact this Raettig edition is relatively rare in the catalogue and its use only in older recordings – Szell’s Cleveland version on Sony/CBS is one – suggests it is now considered flawed. Other considerations are some noticeable pre-echo/print-through from the original master tapes and a reasonable but slightly murky recording. The string balance is skewed towards the front desks and the horns disappear again too much for my personal preference.

That leaves Franz Konwitschny’s 1951 performance of the Second Symphony. The moderate at best sonics here, perfectly reasonable mono for its time, and the presence of a very bronchial audience rule this out for me as anything but an archive consideration. Again the interest in the context of this set is the similar approach to the other conductors and certainly the power and directness of the performance is impressive.

To cover ‘any other business’; the liner booklet is quite extensive by Brilliant’s standards. In English only there is a translated small essay on each work. Since these are all by different authors I assume they have been lifted from the original releases and are of reasonable interest. The fleetness of the interpretations allows each symphony to fit neatly and conveniently on a single disc. Presentation is again the usual Brilliant preference of a reasonably strong cardboard box with each of the nine discs in its own card inner sleeve. The back of the sleeve gives the only listing of track and recording information as well as orchestra and conductor.

In conclusion, it is clear that I have found Heinz Rögner’s traversal of Symphonies 4-9 to be wholly convincing, refreshing and rewarding. I would never be able to recommend one single version of works of this scale over all others let alone a cycle. However if, like me, you are a collector who returns with unquenchable fascination to these extraordinary works, Rögner shares a vision that demands consideration. The CD set is retailing around the £15.00 mark – which is how I listened – with the MP3 set, albeit it with rather low bit-rates, available from as low as £7.99. Even so, I would not treat this as a way of getting a bargain Bruckner cycle. Buy it for the brilliance of Rögner and his excellent Berlin players and consider the three early symphonies as a bonus.

A set, that by restoring an older performing tradition, challenges preconceptions about this complex composer and his mighty works.

Nick Barnard

Bruckner symphonies: a survey by Patrick Waller and John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Bruckner symphonies