Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, WAB 102 (Mixed 1872/77 version, edited Leopold Nowak, 1965)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 24-25 September 2018, Basilica of the Monastery of St Florian, Austria
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS MPHIL0012 (8709997405) [55.32]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor, WAB 108 (1890 version, edited Leopold Nowak, 1955)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 26 September 2018, Basilica of the Monastery of St Florian, Austria
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS MPHIL0013 (8709997408) [80.44]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109 (1894 original version, edited Leopold Nowak, 1951)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 25-26 September, 2018, Basilica of the Monastery of St Florian, Austria
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS MPHIL0014 (8709997411) [62.43]
“In my opinion Bruckner is by far the greatest composer of symphonies since Beethoven.”
Hermann Levi (1891).
Austro-German music is core repertoire of the Münchner Philharmoniker, including a long tradition of performing Bruckner, notably with Sergiu Celibidache, who was renowned for his performances of Bruckner symphonies with them. Under its principal conductor Valery Gergiev, the orchestra is currently recording a Bruckner symphony cycle, all to be recorded live at St. Florian near Linz, a setting closely associated with Bruckner. In this series I have already relished reviewing the Münchner Philharmoniker recordings of the First (review) and Third Symphonies (review) and as recently as 2016, the same forces released a splendid recording of the Fourth that I subsequently reviewed. It was recorded live at the Philharmonie, Munich so cannot form part of the current St. Florian series, yet the performance bodes well for a new recording. Now in 2019, three more St. Florian recordings have appeared in quick succession: the Second, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and this is my composite review.
The Münchner Philharmoniker has made a fitting choice in using the Augustinian monastery of St. Florian for its Bruckner cycle. Described as “his lifelong spiritual home” by Bruckner’s biographer Derek Watson, St. Florian was of considerable significance to Bruckner, who born in nearby Ansfelden. He served there as a choirboy and later a teacher and organist, had works premièred there and in accordance with his wishes after death his remains were placed in a sarcophagus under the great organ.
Bruckner wrote his Second Symphony in 1871 and 1872, completing the score at St. Florian. In 1873, he managed to secure a performance with funding from Prince Johann Liechtenstein, and conducted the work that October at Vienna. He was making alterations right up to the actual performance. Although the première was a success, Bruckner was dissatisfied with aspects of the score and made further revisions. In 1876 he conducted a newly revised version, then subjected the score to considerable revisions at various times before publication in 1892. There are editions that are combinations of the 1872 and 1877 manuscripts versions prepared by Robert Haas and Leopold Nowak; William Carragan has prepared several versions too. Here, Gergiev has chosen to conduct the so-called mixed 1872/77 version, edited by Nowak (1965) which is closest to the 1877 version but does contain passages of the 1872 version by Haas.
The Münchner Philharmoniker’s glorious playing under Gergiev in the opening movement is immediately striking, laying out the ground with real focus and drawing in the listener. Its generally calm disposition gives way to more robust passages and the effect is one of fresh and glowing beauty. The level of hymn-like serenity Gergiev creates in the Andante, the heart of the work, is remarkable. Overall, the effect is like floating on clouds and the spiritual beauty of the writing is palpable. Very short at under seven minutes, the lyrical Scherzo is rhythmic with a rather Ländler-like quality that feels as if one is striking out on a summer walk through glorious countryside. Marked Mehr schnell, the Finale is agitated and reveals considerable reserves of energy. Squally and swirling, the character of the writing evokes a sense of circling overhead with contrasting passages of repose.
Given the difficulty Bruckner had for much of his career in being taken seriously as a composer and obtaining performances for many of his works, it is gratifying that today there are so many recommendable recordings of the symphonies available in the catalogues, including many complete sets. For the Second, I recommend the compelling 1981 recording from Gunter Wand conducting the Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (1872/77 mixed version, edited Haas 1938) on RCA Red Seal. Another first-rate account is conducted by Eugen Jochum with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and recorded in 1966 (1872/77 mixed versions edited Nowak (1965) on Deutsche Grammophon. Smoothing the rough edges, Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker play splendidly, with great refinement and great beauty; this is undoubtedly a recording I will play often.
It is easy to imagine Bruckner, having completed his Eighth Symphony, in euphoric mood when he dispatched it to conductor Hermann Levi in 1887. Bruckner trusted Levi, who had conducted the Seventh for him in 1885 at Munich to considerable acclaim. Bruckner had been working on the Eighth for in excess of three years and was hurt and disillusioned when Levi rejected the score. It was well over a year before in 1889 Bruckner found the motivation to undertake a serious revision and in 1890 he finished a new version of the score that contained a considerable number of changes from his 1887 original. Matters improved for Bruckner when Emperor Franz Josef I agreed to be the dedicatee of the Eighth and in 1892 Bruckner eventually managed to find a publisher. After difficultly in arranging a first performance and finding a willing conductor, Hans Richter finally premièred the Eighth in 1892 at the Musikverein, Vienna. Many distinguished audience members were present including Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss and Hugo Wolf, as well as detractors - notably the critic Eduard Hanslick.
Bruckner’s Eighth exists in two complete autograph manuscripts dating from 1887 and 1890 respectively. It’s a work that has been subject to substantial alterations, revisions and cuts, often made at the behest of well-meaning friends. Of all his symphonies, the Eighth has the largest number of available versions when it comes to the preferences of various conductors. The website abruckner.com has divided its discography of the Eighth into seven full orchestral versions; a list dominated by editors Leopold Nowak and Robert Haas. Gergiev conducts here the 1890 version, edited by Nowak (1955).
The Münchner Philharmoniker rises to the challenges of Bruckner’s magnificent compositional and spiritual dimensions. Generating plenty of Romantic warmth, the orchestra plays with style, vitality and a strong sense of engagement. In Gergiev’s interpretation, the overall structure of the symphony feels rock-solid together with tempo selection which seems model to me, which I believe are fundamental requirements in Bruckner scores. In the turbulent opening movement Allegro moderato, containing the great Todesverkündigung and Totenuhr (Annunciation and hour of death), the dark tension and drama generated make considerable impact together with exemplary playing that glows radiantly. Marked Allegro moderato, the second movement Scherzo, one of the composer’s most magnificent creations, seems to depict an archetypal Deutscher Michel (a nickname for a rural, plain and honest German). Gergiev guides his players adeptly ans they react with an irresistible performance, especially of the lyrical Trio section. The massive Adagio movement here lasts twenty-seven and half minutes and one senses that Gergiev, while maintaining reliable momentum, is relishing a devotional journey. Gergiev develops the tension persuasively and the playing of the Philharmoniker attains the same deeply convincing spirituality and the rarely achieved sense of consolation encountered in the finest recordings. Renowned conductor Eugen Jochum explained that in the Eighth “the ‘point of culmination’ comes at the end of the Finale” surmounting the powerfully played climax in the Adagio (point 22.05). This really is a magnificent movement, containing some of the most memorable music Bruckner ever wrote, including the inspiring hymn-like passage for strings and harp (points 22.58-23.22) just prior to the Coda. In the Finale marked Feierlich, nicht schnell, Gergiev’s interpretation is gripping and his telling tempi create an invigorating vitality. His shaping of Bruckner’s swelling climaxes and forbidding peaks is exceptional. The Münchner Philharmoniker is in sterling form throughout, maintaining notable levels of lucidity and stamina and an unyielding level of concentration.
There are earthier, fierier and more dramatic readings than Gergiev’s but few as beautifully played or with as much unity and glorious sense of expression, and it rightly joins the finest recordings I know.
My benchmark recording of the Eighth for its profound spiritual intensity is the live 2001 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Günter Wand with Berliner Philharmoniker (1887/90 mixed version, edited Haas, 1939) on RCA Red Seal. The live 2009 Semperoper account from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann (1887/90 mixed version, edited Haas, 1939) on Profil is awe-inspiring. Of the older accounts made under studio conditions, for its bold and thrilling atmosphere I admire Eugen Jochum with Berliner Philharmoniker from 1964 at Philharmonie, Berlin (1890 version, edited Nowak, 1955) on Deutsche Grammophon.
In seriously deteriorating health whilst writing his Ninth Symphony and plagued with torment and anguish Bruckner said, “I have served my purpose on earth; I have done what I could, and there is only one thing I would still like to be granted: the strength to finish my Ninth Symphony.” Intending to dedicate the score to God he sadly never lived to complete it. Despite the physical decline and mental instability of Bruckner’s final years the breath-taking quality of his writing feels remarkably assured, technically daring and harmonically formidable. Right up to his death in 1896, Bruckner was working on the fourth movement (Finale) of the Ninth, leaving behind material in a fragmentary state. Clearly believing that he wouldn’t complete the final movement, Bruckner advised that his Te Deum could be used instead. Consequently, there has been a number of completions of the unfinished fourth movement based on Bruckner’s surviving manuscripts.
Fortunate to have heard the Ninth, in its three-movement form, a number of times in concert and many recordings, I acknowledge this is a work that can in special performances communicate an extraordinary feeling of awe. I recall a glorious performance from the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Marek Janowski which was part of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele 2016 and will never forget the magnificent waves of sound which reverberated around the Frauenkirche. Memorable, too, was the impact of the performance with Valery Gergiev conducting the Münchner Philharmoniker in the Philharmonie at the Musikfest Berlin in 2018. On this recording of the Ninth, Gergiev is once again conducting the most commonly encountered original version of 1894, edited Nowak (1951).
In what is probably my favourite Bruckner symphony, Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker step up to the plate, building a steadfast foundation and confronting the composer’s awesome structures with assurance. Gergiev’s tempi are adeptly judged, and the players respond confidently to Bruckner’s broad dynamic contrasts. Gergiev’s approach is decidedly persuasive, producing handsome, calmer passages of a singing quality and generating monumental climaxes of remarkable impact. In the opening movement marked Feierlich, misterioso, a benchmark of the effectiveness of the “points of culmination” is the unrelenting strength of the heaving waves of orchestral force which Gergiev achieves with authority. For me this is a model movement for demonstrating the depth of power of that can be generated so early in a symphony. Notable in this unforgettable performance of the Scherzo is the level of tension and near-brutality that Gergiev imparts to the unsettling quality of the writing. At times, it feels as if fate is pounding on “the infernal gate” as Robert Simpson describes it, yet at point 4.17-7.07 the passage of carefree frivolity in the manner of Mendelssohn breaks up the seriousness. Commencing with a sense of desolation in the sublime Adagio, Gergiev provides plenty of space allowing the music to develop innately without any sense of being forced. This is a penetrating performance which communicates a strong spiritual quality, and leaves behind a sense that Bruckner was finally resigned to his mortality.
For their towering level of thrilling intensity and polished playing, there are four recordings of the Ninth that I usually reach for first, all using the 1894 original version (edited Nowak 1951) and I can now place Gergiev’s account in this eminent company. They are: the live 1998 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Günter Wand conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on BMG/RCA Red Seal; the 1964 Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin performance also from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Eugen Jochum on Deutsche Grammophon; Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra recorded live in 2013 in the Lucerne Concert Hall on Deutsche Grammophon and Gerd Schaller’s inspiring live 2018 account with the Philharmonie Festiva from the Abteikirche Ebrach. Schaller’s performance includes his own mightily impressive completion of the Finale
(in his revision of 2018) on Profil (review).
All these Münchner Philharmoniker performances under Gergiev are successfully recorded at live concerts in the Basilica of the Monastery of St. Florian. There is clarity, revealing lots of fine detail especially noticeable in the woodwind, together with presence and excellent balance. For my taste, the slight reverberation in the basilica adds positivity to the overall effect. Although they are all recorded live, virtually no extraneous sound is detectable and no applause has been retained. The interesting and instructive booklets for all three releases are first-class, each containing an essay written by Thomas Leibnitz.
The orchestral playing from the Münchner Philharmoniker under Valery Gergiev is of high quality, surmounting the large-scale challenges of these Bruckner’s symphonies. The beauty of the string sound is conspicuous and the brass section, especially the Wagner tubas (in the Eighth and Ninth), produces the magnificent effect the composer surely intended. With these three recordings, Bruckner’s music continues to be remarkably well served.