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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1888/89 version, ed. Nowak) [55:08] Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak) [82:04]
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
rec. 1966, Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio. ADD SONY CLASSICSSB2K53519 [69:39 + 67:33]
I was first alerted to Szell’s unexpected eminence as a Brucknerian when I acquired his 1965 recording of the Third Symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle – sadly in mono but still very fine – and progressed naturally on to these superb recordings of two symphonies, also from the 1960s and with surely the finest American orchestra of that era in splendid stereo sound – slightly tubby but really very grateful on the ear.
Like many a convicted Bruckner devotee, I am increasingly surprised by the diversity of styles that Bruckner’s music accommodates; it seems to me that it will thrive under the hand of any conductor who does not attempt to trivialise or smooth over the indubitably challenging nature of his writing – and Szell delivers two performances here which do honour to the spirit of Bruckner’s inspiration: every mood is properly and even triumphantly encompassed, from the rustic good humour of the Trios to the ethereal transcendence of the Adagios to the cosmic apotheosis of the finales.
Szell might have had a justified reputation as a martinet but there is no evidence of an inappropriate “iron grip” over his unfolding of Bruckner’s long movements; tempi are swift – properly, in my opinion, closer to Andante than Adagio
in both the Third and the Eighth, as per Bruckner’s respective markings “quasi Andante” and “nicht schleppend” – with plenty of rubato, pauses which are not skimped, and a grandeur which sounds more urgent than portentous, recalling Szell’s reputation as a superlative Wagner conductor.
Szell might not achieve the kind of timeless suspension Karajan generates with the
VPO but his readings are never less than absorbing and propulsive; there is a rightness to his pacing and phrasing which concentrates the mind upon the architectonic spaciousness of Bruckner’s vision, such that the conclusion of both finales are deeply satisfying and overwhelming in impact. The rapt concentration and beautiful playing of the orchestra confirm that the heart of any recording or performance of the Eighth must be found in the Adagio. The finale is similarly homogeneous and remarkably well played, with lovely brass and plenty of heft in the bass string and timpani sections. The Wagnerian climax really delivers; Szell is completely at home in that sound world.
The timing given here for Symphony No. 3 are corrected by me; when this coupling was first issued in 1995 on “Sony Essential Classics”, they had inadvertently truncated the Scherzo by cutting da capo section. This was rectified in subsequent issues, but the booklet and case inserts were not corrected; hence the timing for the Scherzo is given as 5:53 whereas it is in fact 7:17. Don’t let that put you off acquiring this wonderful bargain twofer – but do check that you have the later, corrected version.
I can unhesitatingly recommend this double Bruckner offering as an introduction to his idiom or as addition to the seasoned collector’s shelves.