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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 -1896)
The Nine Symphonies
Wiener Philharmoniker
rec. 1964–74, Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria. ADD
ELOQUENCE 484 0204 [9 CDs: 567 mins]

The nine symphonies collected here were never intended by Decca to be regarded as a complete set, although a CD box was previously issued in Japan in 1991. They are united – if that is the word – by their being played by the same great orchestra in the same famously acoustically sympathetic venue: the Sofiensaaal, which burned down in 2001, was rebuilt in 2013 but has not since been used for recording. Otherwise, six different conductors are involved in the making of these stereo analogue recordings between May 1965 and March 1974, which, by some mathematical sleight of hand, the reverse cover note calls “a ten-year period”; by my pedantic calculation, that should read “nine”. Each of the symphonies is given its own cardboard sleeve which reproduces the original, very retro LP cover designs, with photographs, artwork and design wholly redolent of the era. The booklet provides attractive photographs and clear, neat introductory notes by the General Manager of Eloquence Australia and the producer of this set Cyrus Meher-Homji (great name) and Anthony Hodgson’s respectively set out the historical background to the recordings and the options regarding the editions chosen by each conductor. No technical information is given beyond the fact that the recordings have been remastered by Chris Bernauer but there are some famous names listed among the various engineers and sound quality, given the age and provenance of the recordings, will not be an issue for the average collector.

So far so good. Apparently, the Japanese release was a commercial success, despite it being a bit of ragbag; I can certainly see its historical and artistic allure, given the names involved but the question is, of course, whether this set is worth acquiring, given the wealth of competition. For example, DG recently re-issued my standard recommendation: the complete Karajan symphonies including a tenth Blu-ray disc; the Profil label offers a box set of Gerd Schaller’s recordings with no fewer than 18 CDs containing alternative editions, two versions of the Ninth and some choral works and if you don’t mind an assemblage of conductors as encountered in this Decca set, Brilliant Classics issued a very interesting collection of the nine mature symphonies featuring mostly East German conductors associated with Leipzig and Berlin: Rögner, Neumann, Konwitschny and Sanderling with two first-rate orchestras. All three sets are available considerably more cheaply than this one and arguably represent better investments for the first-time buyer; I imagine that this Decca Eloquence set appeals more to the seasoned collector who wants it as supplement.

Consideration of the merits of the individual recordings should help decide the issue. Prior to coming to this set, my own experience of the majority of conductors here was that however much I might esteem them in other repertoire, Bruckner was not necessarily their forte. Top of that list was Solti, closely followed by Abbado. For some, Horst Stein will be a dark horse, being mostly esteemed, as a Bayreuth regular, for his conducting of opera, but having previously reviewed his Sixth I knew it to be very fine and had high hopes of his Second, and I was not disappointed. Böhm’s two recordings here are probably the best known and, as the notes tell us, “have long been recognised as classics of the gramophone.” Despite the praise he received for this debut recording of the Ninth, Mehta has since hardly excelled in Bruckner and Maazel, while rightly lauded as a great conductor of the Eighth both live – as I can attest from hearing him conduct it with the VPO in the Albert Hall – and on disc – as per his wonderful recording with the BPO on EMI - is controversial elsewhere, not least in this Fifth which some have described as “perfunctory” and devoid of spirituality, whereas others love its lightness and charm. Let’s see.

The First was barely performed when Abbado recorded this in 1969; he uses the preferred (so-called – erroneously) “Linz Version” edited by Haas. Despite its neglect, I have grown to value and increasingly to enjoy this symphony as much more than an essay in the medium.

Abbado’s timings are very fast, especially in the first two movements – the Adagio is almost four minutes shorter than Van Zweden’s - but similar to Barenboim’s. In Bruckner, patience is a virtue and some will undoubtedly – and in my judgement, rightly - find his manner rather rushed, even frenetic, but the pace tends to help cover any short-windedness in Bruckner’s inspiration and development and emphasise why Bruckner characterised the symphony as “das kecke Beserl” (the saucy minx). Nonetheless, that possibly ironic sobriquet has encouraged some interpreters to underplay the music’s grandeur; Von Karajan, Simone Young and Jaap Van Zweden – to take three quite disparate interpreters – all find more gravitas in their recordings and in truth do it greater service. Abbado essentially glosses over both the barbarity and the profundity of the music in his haste and the potential nobility of the Adagio never materialises; it remains mundane, with little sense of climax. The Scherzo – surely the best and most recognisably Brucknerian thing the composer had written to date – lacks bite; Abbado sounds detached from its elemental fury. The opening of the finale should storm heaven; Abbado taps timidly on the door then runs away – although possibly the somewhat distant acoustic there, compared with the digital splendour of more recent issues, does not help. The great flare-up beginning four minutes in, is crudely accelerated in Abbado’s hands and achieves little, whereas Karajan builds magisterially to a grand climax. This recording does not provide the most auspicious beginning to this set.

Stein plays the Second Symphony as per the Haas edition with repetitions omitted and with the horn, not clarinet, solo at the end of the slow movement. My touchstone for recordings of this, the gentlest of Bruckner’s symphonies, is Giulini’s refined, affectionate, yet still dramatic account with another Viennese orchestra. Stein gives the "Pausensymphonie" a more dynamic, muscular treatment with a string sense of direction and purpose in a symphony which can ramble - yet it is still lyrical and suitably pastoral, qualities enhanced by the silky warmth of the VPO’s playing. The sound is clear and warm. This is, as I had suspected before I had heard it, a sleeper worthy of comparison with the best.

Böhm plays the Nowak 1889 edition of the Third with cuts and re-orchestrations. On its appearance, High Fidelity magazine opined, ‘Böhm offers Bruckner as he is played in Vienna today with the Philharmonic showing us how to stretch a singing phrase effortlessly or build one of the composer’s galloping fanfare climaxes up and up to the final peak of intensity.’ It is indeed a good performance but for me lacks the last ounce of what is often an intangibly mysterious or even epic quality that I hear in, for example, Karajan's recording. A friend summed this up thus: “…listeners looking for Wagnerian thrills might find it a bit stodgy… but again: majestic, golden toned Bruckner.” The brass here is especially impressive; Böhm knew how to cultivate a glorious sound but he never dawdles over phrases for their own sake and momentum is maintained. The Scherzo is impeccably executed, with a striking contrast between the steely, martial outer sections and the lilting Trio. The finale is very well managed and hangs together beautifully, rising to a suitably rousing conclusion, even if it doesn’t quite knock on heaven’s door. This is undoubtedly a keeper.

Böhm’s Fourth is the standard 1878-80 Haas edition. Reissued many times, this recording can rightly claim classic status. Everything about it satisfies, especially the virtuosity of the orchestra, headed by magnificent strings. The sound is equally impressive, especially for its vintage. Tempi are steady, measured and unhurried but Böhm never rushes or shirks climaxes – indeed I find the Andante, quasi Allegretto a tad deliberate, but the finale is truly grand. Nonetheless, it does not necessarily scale the heights of Karajan’s recording; even though Böhm secures weighty, majestic playing; those last three, magic minutes are just that bit more numinous under Karajan.

The gigantic Fifth holds a special place in the hearts of some committed Brucknerians, even though it puzzles others. My go-to recordings are Karajan and Eichhorn, whose tempi in the Adagio are for once sufficiently measured – sehr langsam - to permit the slow burn it demands. Maazel’s first movement goes well enough but It is precisely in the Adagio where he lacks poetry and is oddly prosaic, despite the tonal beauty of the VPO’s playing. The measured tread of the opening needs gravitas and a sense of purpose; Maazel simply plods along blithely. The Scherzo is lively enough but the finale again disappoints; the playing is glorious but the opening Adagio is too brisk and for once the VPO brass doesn’t have the heft and grunt of the BPO. The sustained rushed speed applied too early on robs the movement of cumulative power; Karajan hardly takes much longer, whereas Eichhorn is considerably more spacious but both pace matters far better and dynamics are more effectively applied. I do not experience the same sensation of cosmic revelation which the greatest recordings provide; side-by-side comparison with Eichhorn and Karajan reveals this recording to be routine.

Stein’s second contribution to this set is his performance of the Haas edition of the Sixth. It starts with striking energy; the opening is dark, brooding and almost menacing in its intensity and that mood is sustained throughout. The "take no prisoners" directness of his approach is such that I wondered for a moment whether it did not prematurely generate a sense of tension but listening to the whole convinced me of the excitement and integrity of Stein's vision. This highly dramatic interpretation is all of a piece with a conductor who made his reputation in opera; this is large-scale, opulent playing and the rich, sumptuous, analogue sound allows us to hear the virtuosity of the VPO. The Gesangperioden are lovely; perhaps the Adagio could be a tad tenderer and more reflective but again, it is in keeping with the account as a whole; in any case, for some, too much of that is tantamount to dawdling and lays Bruckner open to the accusation of being a perpetrator of longueurs. The Scherzo goes swimmingly and the Finale is bold and brave enough to paper over what may be heard as incipient banality of melodic theme and supposed structural weaknesses in its composition, so that it makes complete sense here.

This has to be considered one of the best recordings on the market.

For those who find Solti’s later versions of the Bruckner symphonies too percussive, these earlier Viennese recordings might look more attractive, especially as they are engineered for Decca by the famous team of John Culshaw and Gordon Parry. However, the recording is harsh – perhaps the tapes have deteriorated? - and reactions to the performances are decidedly mixed.

Solti plays the Nowak (1881-85) edition of the Seventh with the cymbal clash. Although I hesitate to fall lazily into the default position of branding his Bruckner crude and brash, I note that back in 2008 my MWI colleague Jens F. Laurson received it coolly as a misfire “which will appeal only to Solti enthusiasts” (review) and I continue to quote him, as he neatly summarises the problem:
“What remains easily discernible here, though, is that somehow swells don’t quite resonate, that climaxes are not intense and don’t resolve. Energies, nervous rather than compelling, seem misapplied in the wrong directions by margins scarcely noticeable but strongly palpable.”

I have to agree; Bruckner wasn’t really Solti’s bag and his performance remains earthbound and perfunctory – and I keep thinking “Mahler” while listening to his Seventh, which should not be the case….

There are still things here which work really well – such as the unmistakably Wagnerian climax to the first movement; hardly surprising, I suppose, given Solti’s gifts. The great climax to the Adagio, however, is vitiated by Solti’s application of minute hesitations between the sequence of rising scales before cymbal clash; as a result, momentum and impact are lost - which is the last thing you would expect from this conductor. Nor does the Scherzo really take off. The finale is a bit of a plod, too; a literal, rather lifeless progress through the notes.

The Eighth – in the Nowak 1890 edition - fares better, as does the sound. It is again a swift account, fitting onto one disc. I find its blazing opening to be impressive but am soon perturbed by the occasional lack of patience in Solti’s phrasing. Climaxes are crude and blowsy – but I have to say that I enjoy the sound of this great orchestra let off the leash; the horns at the close of the first movement are outrageous. The Scherzo carries on in the same vein with no attempt to nuance the three-quarter-time; Solti just blasts his way through the carillons thrillingly. In the Adagio, the beauty with which the VPO strings and wind caress the layered themes and harmonies of the music is almost sufficient to distract from the way Solti presses ahead but for me but I still miss those moments of rapt concentration when time is suspended and mystery hangs in the air. Ultimately, what we hear is more of a “sonic spectacular” than the spiritual experience many want this movement to be but it is still sensuously seductive and the ringing climax is overwhelming. The tripartite finale finds Solti in his element with the thunderous opening chorale, and if the second song theme lacks tenderness, the third march theme finds him back on home ground and the coda is pure Götterdämmerung; accuse me of poor taste or heresy, but I love it.

This Ninth is the earliest recording here. On its appearance, critics such as Deryck Cooke in Gramophone were quick to accuse Mehta of adopting tempi which were far too slow, but now that many of us are habituated to the extremes of Celibidache and, more recently, Ballot, Mehta’s beat hardly seems excessively leisurely, especially as some commentators believe that Bruckner himself did not want his symphonies to be performed too fast. Mehta’s timings in fact represent a happy medium between celebrated recordings by Karajan ten years later and Giulini with the same orchestra live in Vienna in 1988, and are virtually identical to those employed by Wand in Hamburg in 1988 and Giulini in Stuttgart in 1996, so they no longer represent any kind of extreme.

Anyway, despite some adverse responses, it soon won critical praise for its broad, patient build-up of tension, sustained lyricism and sumptuous playing – all really impressive from a 29-year-old conductor in his debut recording. Mehta combines finesse and power in a manner which reminds me of Wand at his best; furthermore, he sustains a grip over the arcing structure of the symphony, added by the remarkable homogeneity and tonal effulgence of his crack orchestra. The first movement is grand and imposing, as good as any I know. The Scherzo is suffused with demonic energy contrasting tellingly with the sprightliness of the Trio.

I disagree with those who find Mehta’s approach to be lacking in Innigkeit; indeed, I am astonished at how similar his interpretation is to those of far more mature, seasoned conductors. Obviously, the key movement for gauging this is the Adagio. I do not detect any lack of weight in the playing but I concede that there could be greater intensity; having said that, it is clear that Mehta is avoiding the Solti tendency to go for broke too soon and build very prudently, playing the long game and – to commandeer a third cliché – keeping his powder dry for the high points such as the unusually articulated, shimmering sunburst of high strings at 17:39 .

The sound is splendid for its vintage, rich and detailed; unless you are a very picky audiophile who values sonics over musical quality, I cannot imagine that you will demur.

In sum, of the nine recordings here in this set, at least five are first-rate, another – Solti’s Eighth - controversial and only three, in my judgement, negligible – and even there, others may legitimately disagree. I’m not sure if that is sufficient to justify its acquisition given that the most desirable, such as the two Böhm symphonies and other great accounts such as the Stein and Eichhorn recordings, are currently cheaply available separately, but on balance I would deem it of great interest to the Bruckner enthusiast even if some of the performances here will divide judgement.

Ralph Moore


Contents:
Symphony No. 1 in C minor [46:17]
rec. 30 November – 2 December 1969; Claudio Abbado
Symphony No. 2 in C minor [57:26]
rec. 26–29 November 1973; Horst Stein
Symphony No. 3 in D minor ‘Wagner Symphony' [56:52]
rec. 21–23 September 1970; Karl Böhm
Symphony No. 4 in Eb Major 'Romantic' [68:12]
rec. 14–19 November 1973; Karl Böhm
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major [75:57]
rec. 25–28 March 1974; Lorin Maazel
Symphony No. 6 in A major [55:01]
rec. 14–15 November 1972; Horst Stein
Symphony No. 7 in E Major [65:46]
rec. 20, 21, 25–28 October 1965; Sir Georg Solti
Symphony No. 8 in C minor [77:07]
rec. 24, 28–30 November & 6 December 1966; Sir Georg Solti
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor [64:12]
rec. 3–7 May 1965; Zubin Mehta



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