Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Hiroshi Wakasugi
rec. live, 1996-98, Suntory Hall, Tokyo
ALTUS ALT431/440 [10 CDs: 584:39]
I admit to first quailing a little at the prospect of embarking on listening to, and reviewing, yet another issue of Bruckner symphonies, as much as I love the music. Even if one restricts the field of comparison to live recordings of the nine “core” symphonies by the one conductor directing the same orchestra throughout, as per here, there are now several fine sets to choose from. Then there are a further ten or so studio recordings of the nine symphonies by such as Karajan and a further half-dozen which include Die Nullte and even the youthful Study Symphony, such as those by Gerd Schaller (review) and Simone Young (review)
A further twenty or so partial or almost complete sets – usually of the later symphonies from Nos. 3 or 4 onwards - and yet another half-dozen more of compilations of different performances and recordings by various conductors and orchestras assembled in one box (such as the recent Decca Eloquence issue (review) accumulate to provide an embarrass de richesses, making comparison and recommendation of a “best” set a challenging task.
However, I was heartened by the knowledge that conductor Hiroshi Wakasugi was much-respected as an exponent of the German repertoire and had a fine pedigree as a genuine Brucknerian, with the empathy and patience requisite for successful and satisfying realisation of the symphonies. He had been appointed permanent conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra a couple of years before recording this cycle, having previously made two excellent studio recordings of Bruckner symphonies for the budget label Arte Nova - the Second in 1992 and the Ninth in 1994, both with the Saarland Radio Symphony Orchestra. He had also made a live recording of the Fourth in 1986 which I very favourably reviewed on this site.
Japanese orchestras have, over the last two or three decades, increasingly made a speciality of Bruckner such that they often rival German bands. Here we have a coherent and unified vision of Bruckner’s symphonic oeuvre recorded live over two years which cuts through the perennial debate about which versions to play by defaulting to the
most commony played Nowak editions, but you must decide whether you can do without the two early symphonies, the original versions and studio sound. Regarding the latter, I can assure you that it is of the highest quality, virtually indistinguishable from the product of a studio. Japanese audiences being the most polite and attentive in the world, there is no extraneous noise beyond some very occasional faint and barely discernible cough or sneeze, and the conductor’s habit of intermittently punctuating his exhortations of the orchestra with grunts and groans which are occasionally intrusive – although he would presumably in any case have done the same in the studio.
A strong, purposeful trudge to the opening marching theme augurs well for a no-nonsense approach, then the singing second theme is eloquently phrased before we return to a suitably grand and tragic martial vein. The immediate impression is of a conductor and orchestra who know what to do with this music; this is firm, virile Bruckner capable of warmth and tenderness. Played like this, the supposed weaknesses of this symphony are much mitigated and the concluding build-up of the first movement, with its scurrying strings and urgent brass and woodwind interjections, is thrilling – reminiscent - or rather anticipative - of Sibelius. The soulful, gloomy Adagio is played with great feeling, its falling string figure (surely coincidentally echoed by Verdi in Otello) is beautifully articulated. As with the first movement, this builds wonderfully to a grand climax. The Scherzo is fiery and dynamic, its Trio elegant, and the finale, while being the weakest and most diffuse movement of the four, is delivered with maximum energy and conviction. A performance like this makes the listener reassess the standing of this sometimes-scanted symphony; for me, it justifies its inclusion in the canon of Bruckner’s great works. The audience clearly loved it.
My touchstone for Die Pausensinfonie has long been Giulini’s 1974 studio recording with the VSO of this most airily bucolic of Bruckner’s symphonies and Wakasugi takes a very similar approach here, eliciting lyrical, singing tone from his orchestra. As with his previous recording for Arte Nova, some might find him a little too polite and low-key, with playing that is relaxed and subtly graded. He overdoes nothing, so the pauses are not exaggerated but he does not follow Giulini’s example of applying an accelerando to the coda of the first movement. The Andante has a stately, dignified beauty without losing momentum and the Scherzo blunders along with a bluff, rustic directness – perhaps rather too slowly for some tastes - 8:33 as compared with Karajan’s 6:12, for example – and the finale too, is taken at a pace considerably slower than Giulini but identical to that of Karajan. I have no quarrel with it, as Wakasugi maintains concentration and intensity throughout, driving on to a splendid conclusion.
The last and now least-favoured version is played here but Wakasugi is in good company with the likes of Karajan, Sanderling and Skrowaczewski. Tempi are again broad and there is no lack of grandeur in that wonderful ostinato opening, or of mystery in the descending second theme. Wakasugi is at times particularly vocal here but this could be said to reinforce the impression of live music-making caught on the wing – and the playing is superb. The Adagio is tenderly phrased and its pauses keenly judged; the strings’ singing tone deliver a memorable account of one of Bruckner’s most sublime slow movements. The rumbustious Scherzo (without its coda) is graced by a delicate dialogue between the violins and violas in the Trio. The first theme of the finale is aptly energised and frenetic, making a pleasing contrast with another lilting Lšndler second subject. Once again, Wakasugi makes the climax a real event. To my ears, everything is done right here.
Wakasugi’s tempi here are little different from those of the 1986 live performance referred to above and indeed there was no reason to change. An improvement over his live recording is that there are fewer blemishes such as split horn notes, but the opening horn solo could still be better and in general the orchestral tone is not as plush and sumptuous as the world’s greatest bands; at first, there is some almost indefinable lack of a sense of occasion in the playing, as it is a little bland and slick. However, things pick up around eight and a half minutes in with the forte restatement and development of the “Bruckner rhythm” theme; from then on, the brass are given their head and real excitement is generated. I feel that the pulse of the Andante is a little slack but the cellos seize their moment to play with warm, sweet homogeneity. The Scherzo is similarly deliberate and soft-grained; for me, Wakasugi’s approach throughout is rather too genial and comfortable; I’d like more spring and bite. The finale has decidedly more hair on its chest and the sonority of the orchestra in full cry is very satisfying. The masterly, majestic coda is properly dark, grand and numinous.
I remarked in my review of Wakasugi’s 1986 performance that “the mood here recalls a kinship with another sylvan-pastoral symphony, Mahler’s First which also conjures up aural impressions of hunting, forests, birdsong within a chivalric, hyper-Romantic sensibility” and I think that applies equally to his recording here, a decade later. It comes somewhat at the expense of tension, so try before you buy to see if that approach resonates with you.
For me, the twin cores of any survey of Bruckner symphonies are my favourites, the Fifth and the Eighth. Wakasugi’s speeds and interpretative approach are very similar to those of another of my preferred recordings by Eichhorn; both take an imperious and leisurely approach to the first movement. The orchestra rises to great heights here, delivering this imposing, hieratic music with maximum gravitas and sonority. Wakasugi is nearly five minutes brisker than Karajan in the Adagio but there is no sense of haste. The second theme string chorale is beautifully shaped and dynamically graded. The Scherzo is alternately eery and rustic, Wakasugi audibly underlining his insistence upon sharp, pointed accenting of the staccati. The complex, often whimsical then awe-inspiring finale unfolds naturally with the sense of unified, cyclical, over-arching vision which is essential here, such that everything is moving gradually but inexorably towards the massive, fugal culmination of the symphony – one of the most stirring, triumphant and Wagnerian Bruckner ever wrote. Wakasugi nails it.
The introduction here is imposing and menacing and an emphatic, insistent mood is maintained through to the heroic conclusion of the coda with its arresting key change. The Adagio is yearning and soulful; once again, I am impressed by the fullness of the orchestral sound and Wakasugi’s willingness to indulge in overt emotion without courting vulgarity. The timing of 16:53 is moderately paced between the two extremes of Klemperer (14:42) and Karajan (18:58); indeed, that is the case for the timings in all four movements. In the Scherzo, the situation is reversed and it is Klemperer who is slower at 9:23 and Karajan faster at 7:52, whereas Wakasugi finds le juste milieu at 8:51. He brings a pounding intensity to the music’s rhythmic complexity and the respective timbres of the horns and strings in the slow Lšndler Trio interlude are beautifully contrasted. The scurrying opening of the finale restates the atmosphere of unease and the horns are allowed to blare threateningly. Momentum carries the performance through to its magnificent A major peroration. Once again, Wakasugi’s overview binds what can be a fragmentary movement into a convincing entity.
This is another grand, spacious account and I have little to say beyond observing that everything proceeds as it should, from the hushed, then soaring, introduction to the alternately songful then dramatic first movement, through the sublime homage to Wagner (with percussion, of course), the hard-driven Scherzo and a similarly propulsive finale, which leaves no space for any dragging or lack of cohesion. (Wakasugi’s vocal obbligato is especially prominent in this last movement.) This was the symphony which perhaps gave Bruckner the least trouble and brought him his greatest success; that is reflected in the assured majesty of Wakasugi’s conception of it. As much as I am personally attached to the Fifth and the Eighth, I acknowledge that this is the most lyrical, formally perfect and best balanced of all Bruckner’s symphonies, hence it was the earliest to be appreciated and has since enjoyed enduring popularity. There are so many recordings of it– over four hundred - that it can never be said that just one is definitive, but this is as good an account as many.
For many of us, this is the greatest symphony ever written, so expectations have to be high. I think it unfortunate that Wakasugi uses the Nowak instead of the Mixed Haas edition, although that does not materially affect my appreciation of his rendition here. The conductor seems to become more vocal as we proceed through the symphonies, so some might find that a distraction too many, but he tones it down for the crucial conclusion to the Adagio and otherwise, this is musically deeply satisfying. Essential little touches, like the pianissimi tremolandi by the strings underlying the brass statement of the main theme, are flawlessly executed, but there is also real heft to the big, concerted passages and climaxes where the brass in particular are superb – and Wakasugi is not afraid to use rallentando to enhance their impact. The deutscher Michel theme of the Scherzo is so rumbustiously hammered out as to be almost menacing, while the Trio is slow and dreamy, its harp and flute suggesting escape into celestial regions. The divine Adagio capitalises on that mood of flight and maintains a consistently rapt and elevated mood, transporting the listener to Elysium, just as Karajan does in his last recording with the VPO; indeed, the orchestra’s silky playing is comparable to their Viennese counterparts. The finale is thrilling with nicely prominent timpani in the opening chorale.
I would have thought myself very fortunate indeed to have been among the audience that March evening.
The observations I make about the Seventh above apply equally to this performance. The ‘rightness’ of Wakasugi’s judgement and the virtuosity of the playing, even if the strings cannot much the deep, aureate timbre of the BPO under Karajan in the most expansive phrases. There are very minor flaws inherent in a live performance, such as the lack of synchronisation among the brass and on their entry at 7:55 in the Adagio but such blips are negligible when set against the conviction of the music-making. The “sunburst” key change at 16:19 is especially tender and beautiful, contrasting with the piercing violence of the dissonant thirteenth chord climax. The coda is wonderfully serene and after a suitable pause the audience makes it appreciation very apparent.
When lauding the Ninth Wakasugi recorded with the Saarland Radio Symphony Orchestra, in his review a respected Brucknerian friend observed that, “It is conducted by a man who is a natural in this domain; what a pity Wakasugi did not go on to record the wider canon.” This set of live recordings remedies that supposed omission and, despite my minor reservations concerning the Fourth and the conductor’s penchant for singalong, constitutes a really recommendable cycle.
1. Symphony no. 1 in C minor, “Linzer” (1877, Nowak) WAB 101 [51:25]
rec. 28 February 1998
2. Symphony no. 2 in C minor (1872/77 Mixed, Nowak) WAB 102 [57:57]
rec. 13 January 1997
3. Symphony no. 3 in D minor (1889, Nowak) WAB 103 [61:47]
rec. 26 February 1996
4. Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, "Romantic" (1886, Nowak) WAB 104 [68:19]
rec. 24 February 1997
5. Symphony no. 5 in B flat major (1878, Nowak) WAB 105 [78:58]
rec. 27 January 1998
6. Symphony no. 6 in A major (1881, Nowak) WAB 106 [57:16]
rec. 18 March 1997
7. Symphony no. 7 in E major (1885, Nowak) WAB 107 [65:01]
rec. 29 January 1996
8 & 9. Symphony no. 8 in C minor (1890, Nowak) WAB 108 [31:50 + 51:04 = 82:54]
rec. 31 March 1996
10. Symphony no. 9 in D minor (1894, Nowak) WAB 109 [61:07]
rec. 13 March 1998
NB: the timings of the finales are slightly longer than in the a.bruckner.com discography, as some faded-out applause is included here.
(This review commissioned and reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal)