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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 - 1896) Symphony No. 1 in C minor, WAB 101 (“Vienna” version – 1868/1890/1891)
Four Orchestral Pieces (1862): March in D minor, WAB 9 & Three Pieces for Orchestra, WAB 97
Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg/Gustavo Gimeno
rec. Philharmonie Luxembourg, June 2016 PENTATONE PTC5186613 SACD [63:06]
My first encounter with the Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno was at the Musikverein in Vienna in January 2017. Then he conducted Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Well-mannered, somewhat reserved in bodily expressions, and impeccably dressed, Gimeno’s music resembled his appearance. Invariably gentle and polite, the music was free of the expressive zeal characteristic of a number of up-and-coming conductors of Gimeno’s generation including Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Certainly, I was missing a bit of oomph. Still, having seen the same piece powerfully conveyed by Bernard Haitink in London few months before, I thought I may have been a bit unfair in consolidating judgements toward this promising conductor based on the single performance. As such, much personal expectation was involved when reviewing the current disc.
The current CD represents part of the first set of collaboration on disc between the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and Gustavo Gimeno, their music director. The appointment for the position being fairly recent, i.e. 2015, that the releases consist of early works of two of the greatest symphonists in history – Anton Bruckner and Dmitri Shostakovich – is rather fitting.
Textually speaking, the First Symphony in C minor adopts the later ‘Vienna’ version instead of the commonly recorded 1877/1884 ‘Linz’ version. The choice of the ‘Vienna’ version can be controversial; musically, the latter revised version is often judged inferior to the earlier ‘Linz’ version. Robert Simpson’s statement that “the Vienna score is rarely an improvement over the original” and Robert Cooke’s conclusion that the ‘Vienna’ version is one “that most Bruckner-lovers prefer to forget” are two of several examples of how Bruckner scholars tend to make this point more than clear. Moreover, given the inclusion of early works, the selection of the earlier ‘Linz’ version would have made more sense in giving a better musical coherence throughout the disc. The explanation of the selection, then, must be novelty. Indeed, most of these works included in the disc have only a handful (or less) of comparable recordings.
The First symphony in C minor was composed following Bruckner’s first exposure to Wagner, i.e. Tannhäuser, a composer he would revere throughout the rest of his life. Notably, the work stands out as unusually raw and dramatic by Bruckner’s standards, and a tinge of Wagnerian orchestral texture can be felt. Bruckner would give the jovial nickname skecke Beserl ("the cheeky little minx") to the work.
Gimeno unravels the symphony with natural pace and drama. Adopting a steady and measured pace, the playing becomes increasingly expressive as the symphony progresses. Never missing is a sense of Apollonian containment.
While such characteristics may sound nice on paper, in reality many sections that build up to the drama are projected in a manner too detached and plain-speaking to generate excitement nor preparation for excitement, consequently making it difficult for the later more impassioned playing to blend together with the rest. The fact that the orchestra seems to fail altogether to play together in moments of heat, as can be heard in the recapitulation of the first movement, does little to allow for a satisfactory listen. While a number of instruments such as the flute stand out, I have definitely heard performances with a much better sense of clarity, coordination, and tightness of playing.
The overall impression of Gimeno’s music making, then, is not too far away from my initial impression of the conductor. Where emphasizing the interplay between lyricism and grandeur, together with better dynamic range, could have both benefitted and befitted the contrast-driven architecture of Bruckner’s aesthetics, Gimeno’s distanced and laisser-faire, matter-of-fact approach refuses such an opportunity.
Of course, allowing the orchestra to speak without being bogged down in eccentricity is not a criticism in itself. Abbado, for example, achieves natural grandeur with warmth in his recent recording of this symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. In a slightly different manner, Wand’s naturally paced account with the Kölner Rundfunk Symphonie Orchester, with alert phrasings and clarity, is something to admire. Haitink, while having never recorded this particular version of the symphony, is a true master of this art when it comes to the interpretation of Bruckner symphonies. Gimeno, unfortunately, neither displays the necessary level of humanity nor concentration of thought; the music is rarely elevated to the plane of enchantment or singing – it only speaks, plainly.
The rest of the disc consists of a set of works – Four Orchestral Pieces – that Bruckner most likely would have worked on as part of his education under Sechter and Kitzler. They have an eerie combination of the sound-worlds of Mendelssohn, Liszt and even Brahms. Given the monumentally profound works Bruckner would produce in the next decade, these works are valuable blueprints of how fast Bruckner – already in his early 40s when these works were written – developed once he started composing seriously. Gimeno leads the ensemble with professional care.
The three last symphonies, i.e. nos. 7 to 9, remain the litmus test for being a great Brucknerian conductor. Therefore, nothing much is lost. Yet there is little to be gained from this recording either, unless one is tempted by the novel choice of works.