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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1877 Linz version with revisions - edited Leopold Nowak) [50.48]
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 25 September 2017, Stiftsbasilika, St. Florian, Linz, Austria

Austro/German repertoire is at the core of the Münchner Philharmoniker, including a long tradition of performing Bruckner. To commence its cycle of Bruckner symphonies, Münchner Philharmoniker under principal conductor Valery Gergiev has chosen to record Symphony No. 1. All the cycle will be recorded at the Monastery of St. Florian near Linz a setting of considerable significance in Bruckner’s life. I’m not sure where this leaves their outstanding Bruckner Symphony No. 4 recorded in 2015 live at Philharmonie, Munich and released in 2017 (review). Incidentally a look at the discography on the website doesn’t show Münchner Philharmoniker having released any another recording of Symphony No. 1.

Born at nearby Ansfelden, the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian was of great significance to Bruckner, described as “his lifelong spiritual home” by biographer Derek Watson. At St. Florian Bruckner served as a choirboy, later a teacher and organist (1850/55), had works premiered there and in accordance with his wishes, after his death his remains were placed in a sarcophagus under the great organ.

Taking almost a year and a half to write in Linz, Bruckner completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1866. It was two years before the premiere, given at Redoutensaal, Linz with the composer conducting what was reported to be an unsatisfactory performance from an orchestra augmented by bandsmen from regiments stationed close by. Nevertheless, the symphony was greeted with audience approval. Bruckner subjected the score to considerable revision and there are four versions of the symphony with the Linz and Vienna versions the best known. On this recording Gergiev is conducting what is normally referred to as the Linz version which correlates to the revisions Bruckner made in 1877 with additional revisions made around 1884 and edited by Leopold Nowak. Bruckner specialist Dr. Robert Simpson wrote “the Vienna score is rarely an improvement over the original, and often the simplicity and urgency of Bruckner’s inspiration in Linz is ruined by fussy and frequently difficult detail”.

Gergiev underlines the bold march theme that strikingly opens the stormy first movement Allegro. Urgency and zest are watchwords in Gergiev’s reading, ensuring the rhythmic energy contrasts starkly with the gentle lyricism of the second subject and the trombone fanfare of the third theme is quite majestic. Impressive throughout are the forceful climatic surges produced so expertly by the Munich players. Despite the generally carefree surface veneer of the Adagio Gergiev ensures that an undertow of melancholy pervades the score. Overall, what I will take from the movement is the austere beauty of the outstanding playing. Making quite an impact in the Scherzo, Gergiev generates driving rhythmic energy that feels resolute, producing marked dynamic contrasts. In the truculently fiery Finale, Gergiev determinedly sustains the powerful impetus of the climactic surges; that were becoming Bruckner trademarks.

Recorded during a live performance in the basilica of St. Florian Monastery the engineering team excel, providing satisfying sound which has presence and is both clear and well balanced. There is no problem at all with the very minor reverberation produced by the large space of the basilica. There is very little extraneous noise detectable and the applause at the conclusion has been removed. Contained in the booklet is an interesting and helpful essay titled ‘Not the first symphony’ by Bruckner authority Dr. Thomas Leibnitz.

This outstanding Gergiev account can stand confidently alongside the evergreen 1965 recording from Eugen Jochum with Berliner Philharmoniker performing the same version (1877 Linz version, ed. Nowak). Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin Jochum’s account forms part of his complete set of Bruckner’s 9 symphonies on Deutsche Grammophon.

With the infrequently encountered Symphony No. 1 Gergiev presides over great music making which bodes unquestionably well for this ongoing Bruckner cycle.

Michael Cookson


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