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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (1894 Original Version. ed. Leopold Nowak, 1951) [62:26]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 Haas Version) [86:28]
NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg / Günter Wand
rec. live, 22-23 August 1987 (8), 24-26 June 1988 (9), Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival, Lübeck Cathedral.
SONY SICC1813-4 [79:59 + 69:35]

I came late to these live recordings, which were eventually mastered and paired in one double CD issue as per here by Sony Japan and can now appreciate why they have for twenty years been adjudged the best of Günter Wand’s Bruckner discography. There is always an air of mystery and expectation about the playing but also a faintly disturbing “underwater” quality in the sound; the big, reverberant acoustic lends a certain epic grandeur to proceedings and the horns sound as if they are summoning us to our Final Accompt. Some might find the sound a bit boomy and indistinct and occasionally you feel that the orchestral colours are muted by the mushy ambience, but the remastering has made the best of the original recording. A fitting comparison might be with the forensic clarity of more recent versions like that from Simone Young, which still achieves breadth and majesty but within the much cleaner acoustic of a modern concert hall. However, even though Wand makes allowance for the echo of several seconds, his phrasing can be urgent and propulsive: after the numinous horn-call introduction and its spiky climax with the huge drum-roll, when the big melody is introduced at 3’54”, he alternately spurs on then relaxes the pace by applying gentle rubato, while avoiding the abrupt, choppy gear changes which for me mars Jochum’s Bruckner and without imposing any affected distortion of the general pulse. Overall timings are by no means leisurely; indeed, the Scherzo is decidedly taut and perky, its edge slightly blunted by the thunderous reverberation of Lübeck Cathedral, but the tension never lets up and Wand drives the movement to a splendid conclusion.

The Adagio opens with all the power and promise the listener requires of this extraordinarily confident and assertive music, even if individual lines are blurred – but a hazy, golden glow is an appropriate to the sound-world and the execution is magnificent., building inexorably to apotheosis before fading into eternity. Surely Wand’s finest hour, patently superior to his good but relatively unremarkable live recording a decade later with the Berlin Philharmonic, which was my introduction to this symphony years ago but lacks the inspirational quality of this one and has one or two odd balance or dynamics issues.

For me, any recording of the Eighth must be measured against Karajan’s recordings, especially his sublime account with the VPO made in the twilight of his life. The same observation made above regarding the sound and the interpretation: the first two movements have momentum and are fast-flowing, whereas Wand takes considerably more time over the final two. I don’t quite get the same impression of planetary harmony as Karajan’s recording but the playing is exemplary and the orchestra sound inspired. It helps that the sound, especially via headphones, is somewhat cleaner and closer here than for the Ninth. The first movement embraces the gamut of moods from the massive resolve of the introduction to the still serenity of the middle section, so akin to the mountain-top scene-painting of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Wand maintains a firm grip, never permitting slackness or indulgence, and the security and sonority of the orchestral playing consolidates his unerring sense of purpose and direction.

The Scherzo is sharp and pacy, the brass aggressive and thrilling; the Trio is warm and bucolic then Wand again imparts a real snap and spring to the rhythms. The Adagio exudes the sane confidence and coherence; there might not be the same sense of timelessness here that Karajan creates but what a glorious narrative Wand sustains. However, the climatic crash is perhaps more garish than grand, and the concluding bars do not whisper into the eternal ear, being rather too loud and prosaic to achieve transcendence.

The finale begins in the same assertive vein. Karajan shapes phrases in more nuanced manner but I like the calm assurance of Wand’s direction and the impact of his orchestral tutti in that stupendous Wagnerian peroration.

While I have some reservations regarding sound quality and some lack of nuance in Wand’s engagement, I can now understand why these two accounts have their adherents and represent the best of Wand’s considerable Bruckner output.

Ralph Moore

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