The Oehms label has displayed remarkable confidence in the appetite of the classical music market for Bruckner by issuing over the last three years no fewer than three sets of his complete symphonies, conducted by Skrowaczewski, Ivor Bolton and this by Simone Young, made over her tenure as Chief Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic from 2005 to 2015. My route into it, and hitherto my only experience of Simone Young’s recorded Bruckner, was her account of the Ninth released in 2015, the penultimate recording in this complete survey, which presents all eleven symphonies in their earliest incarnations and the Ninth without any of the completions of the fourth movement now increasingly encountered in modern performances. All of the recordings are live, made in the Laieszhalle and the engineering is exceptionally fine, providing, to quote my previous review, “sound quality [which] is simply breathtaking, with a lovely depth and sonority.” Those who have any of the earlier, individual issues should note that they were hybrid SACDs, whereas these are conventional digital.
Critical reviews of the individual issues of the symphonies as they appeared over a decade have been generally very complimentary and approving but, at least according to my online researches, assessments of the complete set as a whole are relatively sparse. However, every one of these symphonies has been reviewed by MusicWeb colleagues, the majority by John Quinn, as per the list below. With one or two exceptions – for example, Nick Barnard’s reaction to a Ninth which, in contrast, I liked very much – their response was very positive.
Young offers relatively straight, subtly phrased and balanced accounts. The earliest symphony is played with a fresh, sparkling lightness that makes the most
of the symphony’s attractions. It is clearly on a path derived from the example of Mendelssohn and Schumann; apart from a faint pre-echo in the closing bars of the first movement of Bruckner’s habitually grand manner with brass codas and some proto-Brucknerian demonicity to the pounding rhythm of the Scherzo, there is little about its style that would cause you to ascribe the work to Bruckner if you did not already know it was his. Bruckner’s teacher Otto Kitzler adjudged it to be “uninspired”, which was unduly harsh, but certainly few truly Brucknerian tropes are in evidence. The gentle, bucolic Adagio is sensitively played but never aspires beyond a general, all-purpose rustic charm. The finale sound like pure second-rank Schumann to me, certainly not without charm or interest and the sonority of the Hamburg orchestra does much to enhance those qualities. The conclusion is conventional but especially rousing in Young’s hands.
Bruckner explicitly disowned “Die Nullte” but retained sufficient affection for it to bequeath the manuscript to the Linz state museum. It was of course actually written after the First, but emerges as a surprisingly mature and rewarding work; the opening motif is a persistent, scurrying, semiquaver figure over a sombre march and punctuated by stately, defiant brass chords, prefiguring the beginning of the Third Symphony. Young doesn’t linger but I feel that the slower passages could carry more impact if she followed Schaller’s example by pressing the tempi a little more. Ultimately a magnificent climax is underlined by a characteristic Brucknerian pause of six beats and we thus remain on familiar territory.
The calm, richly harmonised introduction to the Andante creates a bucolic or pastoral atmosphere, followed by a first falling, then rising, chromatic theme which is passed around the orchestra from the cellos to the woodwind to the flute to the strings. The Scherzo is typically rumbustious and faintly menacing; the Finale is grand but slightly stilted and disjointed; perhaps the least successful movement; indeed, the comparatively short measure of the symphony’s movements – at least by Bruckner’s later standards – may perhaps partially be explained by his inability or unwillingness at this stage of his symphonic career to trust the material to longer development. Young certainly makes the most of it and the brass is especially impressive.
The First gets a big, bold performance which confirms that Bruckner was correct in abandoning the direction of the “Nullte” and defaulting to the more recognisably Brucknerian idiom here. not yet graced with the massive chorales and arresting pauses which marked his mature works but full of rhythmic energy, swift modulations and polyphonic complexity even if themes are left somewhat orphaned. Young does not follow Van Zweden with any daring extremes of tempo but follows the likes of Barenboim and Schaller; Karajan gives the Adagio considerably more time to breathe, even if he does not approach Van Zweden’s expansiveness, but I cannot say that Young sounds in any sense rushed here and her conclusion is beautifully phrased, moving from the ethereal to the epic and back again to the empyreal, as perhaps only a successful Wagner conductor such as Young can. Her delivery of the Scherzo is almost bombastic but I love it; it was surely the best thing Bruckner had written to date and Young fully embraces its barbarity. The finale is similarly large-scale, making no concessions to the Norrington school of interpretative diminution.
There are plenty of highly recommendable versions if the 1877 version of the Second Symphony, fewer of the original. I have not heard the recordings by Kurt Eichhorn and Herbert Blomstedt, both conductors I much admire, but there are also excellent accounts from Gerd Schaller (review) and Dennis Russell Davies (review). All use the Carragan edition which restores about 250 bars of music and puts the Scherzo before the Adagio (later Andante). I have long persuaded myself that this is my least preferred Bruckner symphony, but the bounce and precision of Young’s performance captured my attention straight away – and always there is the sheer sound of her orchestra which never fails to delight. The delicacy of the development is really appealing, too and the return of the opening subject comes across as a haunting, faintly disturbing memory; it is touches like that which convince me that Young is a really first-rate conductor with Bruckner in her soul. The Scherzo is enlivened by blazing trumpets and suitably incisive; the Trio is light and lilting; very few conductors can mess up a Bruckner Scherzo. However, the real test is the Adagio, one of Bruckner’s finest, and Young takes her time over it, building long arcs of sound, shading dynamics subtly and touching that inner core of otherworldly timelessness which is Bruckner’s speciality. The synthesising of preceding themes and frequent, potentially jarring changes of pace and mood into coherent memories which characterises the finale is skilfully managed, despite the excessive length of the movement and she drives it to an exhilarating conclusion.
There is no shortage of recommendable recordings of the original Third; Nézet-Séguin’s performance in Dresden has become my benchmark, though Inbal is also very fine and for those who like his manner, Ballot’s extended performance of 87 minutes is another compelling account. The acoustic for this recording seems rounder and broader than elsewhere and Young’s approach is aptly grand, though also urgent; once again her control of dynamics is notable and in the first movement she exhorts the orchestra to produce wave after wave of glorious sound. Apart from the impact of the climactic points, she also engineers some marvellous still points, such as the sighing, descending string figure sixteen minutes into the movement. The Adagio has momentum without sacrificing the essential yearning of that sinuous melody (let’s forgive a little, lone false entry at 2:38 – after all, this was live). The pounding, pulsing frenzy from 15:40 onwards until the serene coda (with its uncanny foreshadowing of the Largo from Dvořák’s New World Symphony at 18:49) is something to hear again and again. But can Young also conjure up Bruckner’s dark, diabolical moods as well as she captures that vertical, elevated spirit? Resoundingly, yes: the Scherzo stomps and blares with abandon in the manic waltz tune, easing into the tipsy Trio before reprising the Bacchic whirl. That energy carries over into the opening of the finale then the music eases seamlessly into the lilting rustic dance as there were not a cloud in the sky. Then the speed and attack of the ensuing accelerated passages alternating with the dance create a striking contrast. A performance like this makes me forget that my favourite Bruckner symphony is supposed to be the Eighth…
At first, I thought the Fourth might be under-powered, but when the timpani and brass chorale thunder in, it’s like being hit by a truck; subtle, it ain’t; impressive, it is. Kent Nagano, in his comparable recording of the original, 1874 version, emphasises the Romantic, lyrical and chivalric elements of Bruckner’s conception, whereas Young’s grand approach belongs more the school of Klaus Tennstedt and the martial outbursts from the brass seem less incongruous, especially delivered at the “Allegro” Bruckner originally marked rather than the later “Bewegt, nicht zu schnell”. The original conclusion might not be as telling as Bruckner’s later revision but Young makes the most of its raucous impact. Indeed, one of the many strengths of this cycle is her ability to ratchet up the tension as required. The original second movement can be problematic in that it is simply too long for the material, but the sustained pulsing forward over the last three minutes is hypnotic. The first Scherzo can never be regarded as preferable to the “Hunt” version which succeeded it, but Young makes the most of its driven, restless quality and tries to bridge the fragmented Trio by playing up its epic, percussive nature. The finale is similarly problematic, in that it is cruder and more disjointed than its successor, and its conclusion is disappointing compared with Bruckner’s final thoughts - but the fault lies with the composer himself, or at least the conductor’s choice to perform the original, and not with the playing or conducting once that path had been taken. There is no lack of propulsion in the grand, proto-Sibelian conclusion, but all in all, this is the symphony which most suffers from being played in its original incarnation, despite its intrinsic interest to the Brucknerian already familiar with the superior 1878-80 version.
The opening of the Fifth is quieter and more mysterious than we have been wont to hear from the likes of Karajan and Eichhorn but the timpani are imposing and there is a sense of hushed expectancy rather than Old Testament terror. There is a deliberateness of phrasing and clarity of articulation in Young’s direction which suggest that she knows exactly how she wants to impose unity upon this behemoth of a symphony. Some listeners might require more of a sense of risk or impulsiveness in its progression but for me the cumulative effect is one of massive certainty. The dynamic range of this recording is large but properly managed so that Young’s intentions are faithfully conveyed without our having to resort to knob-twiddling. The Adagio is conventionally paced but there are some lovely touches indicating the thought and care she has put into her interpretation. To take but one example, the lovely, flowing main melody is delivered in a variety of ways with telling little variations in rubato, dynamics and phrasing – and Young is one of those conductors who really knows how to handle Brucknerian pauses. I pass over the Scherzo with little comment as I find, as is so often the case with a good conductor and orchestra, that it is performed just as it should be, with a mixture of weight and drive in the outer sections and lilting charm in the Trio; Bruckner made them essentially fool-proof. The finale is more of a challenge, synthesising a retrospective of preceding themes into a new whole. As ever, with Bruckner’s almost experimental finales, a sense of fragmentation can set in, but Young brings the same clarity and purpose I remarked upon in the first movement to bear upon the whole and never sounds lost. I am absorbed throughout the movement as she steers us towards apotheosis via fugues and the Dresden Amen. I don’t think she quite reaches the degree of exaltation Karajan achieves but it’s a fine, confident ascent.
If I have less to say about the Sixth here, that is not because I do not like it but quite the reverse; it embodies all the virtues and best qualities of this set: there is nothing extreme about the tempi or interpretative choices, everything is beautifully played and coherently presented, the sound and balances are excellent – and of course the issue of versions is irrelevant to this most concise of Bruckner’s major symphonies, as it was never revised. As is consistent with her approach in general, Young opts to press the pace of the opening movement rather than follow Klemperer’s example of evoking granitic majesty – which might be seen as disregarding Bruckner’s marking of “Majestoso” but does not sacrifice the grandeur of the music; the brass chorales are magnificent. The Adagio also keeps moving but is very moving and dignified; the Scherzo is perhaps faster than the direction “Nicht schnell” implies but its rhythmic punchiness and fleetness makes a nice contrast with the Trio, which is decidedly “langsam”. Young soon resolves the nervous hesitancy of the opening of the supposedly problematic finale into as cogent an assemblage of themes as the admittedly disjointed music permits and does it as well as any other version I know.
The Seventh here is similarly innocent of editorial contentiousness apart from the famous cymbal-triangle clash in the Adagio (happily included here) and this strikes me as a very successful performance, full of warm, flowing tone and an ease of exposition; the listener simply luxuriates in the golden glow of the orchestra’s sound. Perhaps I would like a touch more savage beauty of the kind Knappertsbusch brings to the jagged second subject of the first movement but the Scherzo is aptly driven and otherwise this is such a graceful, long-breathed account and consistent with Young’s overall approach to Bruckner. The quartet of Wagner tubas here is especially imposing. The finale unfolds in a free, flowing manner culminating in a triumphant Wagnerian paean.
As much as I revere the Ninth, it is the Eighth Symphony which for me presents the ultimate test of any Bruckner cycle; I regard it as one of the greatest symphonies in the canon of Western classical music.
I start by saying that I do not expect any recording to rival the presence, power and numinosity of Karajan’s last recording with the VPO but that is in a different league in two senses: it is the later, mixed Haas version and, for me, sui generis, as a testament to Karajan’s talismanic gifts. Nonetheless, Young delivers a performance of great poise and intensity and her customary forward momentum makes her account less static than the comparable recording of the original version by Kent Nagano on the Farao Classics label, which I very much enjoy but which is considerably slower and sometimes lacks tension. The biggest shock to the listener accustomed to the subdued, desolate conclusion of the 1890 version, will be in the rambunctious conclusion to the first movement rather than the usual quiet ending. That masterstroke wasn’t what Bruckner originally wrote: in the 1887 score, that passage is followed by a fortissimo major-key passage; this loud ending might seem obvious and rather bombastic to some; to others, it will be unexpected but still impressive.
Bruckner required the original Scherzo to be played considerably faster than the revised versions and Young makes the carillon effect fleet, fluent and propulsive. The Trio is completely different in its original, five-minute form, even if some fragments which survived into the revised version can be glimpsed, and I was struck by the warmth and richness of the Hamburg strings here; it is more pastoral in nature whereas the revised version is shorter, tougher, more rhythmic and more clearly linked thematically to the first section. Another major difference between the 1887 and 1890 scores is that in this earlier version the harps do not appear in the Trio; Bruckner reserved them for the Adagio. I feel that the 1890 Trio is better but there’s some good music in the 1887 version and it is interesting to be able to hear it, especially when it is as well played and persuasively conducted as here. The resumption of the carillon is thrilling.
Another great difference between this and the subsequent revisions of this symphony lies in reduction of the Adagio; we hear in this original version 38 more bars of music, much material which was subsequently either rewritten or excised. It is apparent how a structure which always threatened to become bloated was tightened - but Bruckner's first thoughts are still fascinating and intermittently very effective, especially when played so eloquently. If you like cymbals, one of the glories of the 1887 version is that you may follow the score and have six cymbal clashes at the climax of the Adagio - three at the beginning and three at the end of the triple forte. Some conductors find them embarrassing: Tintner wrote in the notes to his recording on Naxos: "Increases in tempo and intensity lead to a tremendous climax (in a different key from 1890) accompanied by six rather grotesque cymbal strokes. ... It is easy, and very necessary, to omit that cymbal stroke in No. 7 ... but what can the poor conductor do with these six strokes? He has to do them, because they are in Bruckner's original manuscript." Some conductors exclude them altogether; Nagano compromises by replacing each three with a mere one, whereas Young is faithful to the original and we get two lots of three. The coda remains very similar to the final version and hits home, the weeping, descending figure played with such delicacy. Regardless of the differences in score, the splendour of this movement emerges intact and confirms Young as a Bruckner conductor of the greatest integrity and inspiration.
The Finale can drag in less skilful hands and the extra material here does little to alleviate that danger. Tennstedt in his live recording with the BPO in 1981 provides the best example of how to handle it and he is assisted in his endeavours by the tauter structure of the 1890 version; he emphasises the barbaric splendour of this music with thumping timpani and raucous brass, but Young brings a taut edge to her shaping and articulation, giving the heroic horn tune its full measure and guiding the music to its monumental conclusion, as Bruckner enters his own Christological Valhalla to echoes of "Das Rheingold".
The debate continues regarding the desirability of playing the Ninth as a four-movement work now that so many elaborations are available. I have on my shelves some twenty or so recordings, including half a dozen various completions of the latter, and am now habituated to the idea of a completion, having gradually shifted my position towards favouring that option, especially in reconstructions such as that conducted by Johannes Wildner on Naxos, so I take mild issue with the observation by Michael Lewin in his otherwise excellent notes that “[n]one of these numerous attempts at reconstruction, however, has been completely convincing”, but I concede that any such reconstruction cannot legitimately claim to reflect the composer’s wishes and respect a conductor’s decision to stick with the three movements as they stand, concluding, as here, with Bruckner’s transcendent Adagio.
This was my first encounter with Young’s Bruckner before listening to this complete set and I was bowled over by it. From the instant those noble and impeccably tuned horns began to intone their stately motif over the growling string tremolo I felt in safe hands. The music builds magnificently for three glorious minutes before the descending pizzicato prelude to the second theme eases us into the lyrical second subject and we are off on a beautifully judged performance. Everything about Young’s tempi, choices in dynamics and those all-important Brucknerian pauses seems right to me; she engineers a slow-burn approach with a confident sweep that must reflect her experience as a Wagner conductor. She moves blocks of sound around without ever allowing the music to sound choppy, fragmented or episodic in the manner of more self-conscious conductors.
Although her speeds are essentially moderate and sensible in comparison with the recording canon, she takes a small risk with what looks on paper like a fairly etiolated timing for the Scherzo at nearly twelve minutes, but in fact it works supremely well, as the legato and tonal richness of the orchestra are amplified by the detailed sound, such that our ears are seduced by the pungency of the pizzicato punctuations and the power of the triplets and nothing drags. The whole movement has such felicitous balance: two passages full of the driving, pounding energy of the relentless “machine” main theme framing a wonderfully free and ethereal Trio.
By contrast, the Adagio is relatively brisk; Young joins predecessors like Walter, Knappertsbusch and Sawallisch by taking some three or four minutes less than versions by Bernstein, Karajan, Skrowaczewski et al. She is thus far from alone in opting to eschew the danger of sentimentality or even the stasis some hear in Giulini’s VPO recording, where he takes almost half an hour over this movement with controversial results. She instead goes for a fluid, long line, avoiding portamento and emphasising momentum.
This is surely the most recommendable of more recent, modern Bruckner cycles, characterised by an almost unerring judgement in matters of tempo and phrasing, complemented by superb sound and playing; the only caveat to the potential buyer is that the original, less familiar versions of those symphonies which were extensively revised.
1. Symphony in F minor, "Study Symphony" (1863) WAB 99 [41:59]
rec. 22-23 February 2013
2. Symphony no. 0 in D minor, "Die Nullte" (1869) WAB 100 [49:41]
rec. 20 & 21 March 2012
3. Symphony no. 1 in C minor, “Linzer” (Urfassung 1865/66) WAB 101 [49:08]
rec. January 2010
4. Symphony no. 2 in C minor (Urfassung 1872) WAB 102 [71:22]
rec. 12 & 13 March 2006
5. Symphony no. 3 in D minor (Urfassung 1873) WAB 103 [68:38]
rec. 14-16 October 2006
6. Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, "Romantic" (Urfassung 1874) WAB 104 [70:01]
rec. 1-3 December 2007
7. Symphony no. 5 in B flat major (1873-75) WAB 105 [73:23]
rec. 1-2 March 2015
8. Symphony no. 6 in A major (1881) WAB 106 [54:37]
rec. 14-16 December 2013
9. Symphony no. 7 in E major (1883) WAB 107 [66:32]
rec. 29 & 30 August 2014
10 & 11. Symphony no. 8 in C minor (Urfassung 1887) WAB 108 [30:45 + 51:56 = 82:41]
rec. 14 & 15 December 2008
12. Symphony no. 9 in D minor (1887-94) WAB 109
rec. 25-27 October 2014 [59:01]
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