A Shortlist of Bruckner Symphony Recommendations
by Ralph Moore
Let me establish right away that the following is in no way meant to be a comprehensive survey; an attempt at such an enterprise would be foolhardy and one of endless toil. It is, however, an entirely personal selection of favourite Bruckner recordings, prompted by John Drayton’s suggestion via the MWI Message Board.
The issue of versions is always a vexed subject when discussing Bruckner symphonies. Mercifully, it does not apply to the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh (cymbal clashes apart - and that argument seems now to have been put to rest in favour of their inclusion), while with the Ninth, the only question is whether or not to include a finale. I take a pragmatic approach, in that I am no musicologist and simply find the development of Bruckner’s thought regarding his revision of some symphonies interesting; I listen to a recording primarily applying only one criterion: do I enjoy it?
Thus I will happily endorse recordings of any of the four main versions of the Fourth Symphony if to my ears it provides pleasure and do not propose to become too enmeshed in debating their merits as if that were a moral issue. Likewise, I am happy to listen to the Ninth with or without the now numerous options for completion – though I tend to adopt the stance of “the more Bruckner – or even putative, quasi-Bruckner - the better” and obviously I have my own preferences. I certainly do not, for example, adopt the hard-line attitude that “only Bruckner’s original thoughts are valid”; it is clear that some of his changes were desirable refinements in response to the practical experience of hearing them performed, the response of persons whose judgement Bruckner respected, and his own evolution as a musical genius.
Here, then, is a list of recordings, both individual and collected in sets, some with links to my reviews, which I prize as offering the listener the best and most rewarding interpretations of the various scores and editions. Others will demur, object and add to this list but I cannot be “wrong” because I make no claims to be objective; the selection is entirely personal…
When it comes to introducing the novice to Bruckner or suggesting a convenient collection, I have no hesitation in endorsing Karajan as the supreme interpreter, for all that I prize other conductors in Bruckner such as Jansons, Tennstedt, Eichhorn, Suitner etc., going back to Knappertsbusch playing the “discredited” Schalk editions. Hence, my primary recommendation for a complete set is Karajan on DG. However, do be aware that his set is not "complete" in the sense that it contains only symphonies 1 through 9, not the two other, early works; for those look below to a truly complete set such as that by Simone Young or buy the "Study" and "Nullte" symphonies separately in Gerd Schaller's issues.
For anyone primarily interested in the original versions, I suggest Simone Young on Oehms but not everyone warms to her style as I do. A wild card recommendation for the conventional Nowak editions is Hiroshi Wakasugi on Altus. For even more complete surveys, including all eleven symphonies and different editions, there are Gerd Schaller’s box sets on Profil Hänssler – and a new, enhanced one – has just been released.
Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch feature below but are mostly in historical sound, except for a couple of Kna’s later, stereo recordings; however, they should be heard.
(For anyone on a budget, the box set of complete symphonies conducted by Paternostro on the bargain Membran/Documents label provides very satisfactory accounts.)
Symphony in F minor (1863)
(Sometimes referred to as the "Study Symphony" or “Symphony No. 00")
Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2015: Profil Hänssler
Symphony No. 1
Original 1866 version: Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2011, Profil Hänssler
Linz version (1877): Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1980, DG
Vienna version (1891): Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2019, Profil Hänssler
Symphony in D minor (1869) (Sometimes referred to as "die Nullte" or “Symphony No. 0")
Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2015, Profil Hänssler; Poschner, Bruckner Orchester Linz, 2021, Capriccio
Symphony no. 2 in C minor
First concept version (1872): Ballot, Altomonte Orchester St Florian, 2019, Gramola
Mixed versions (1872/1877): Giulini, Wiener Symphoniker, 1974, Wiener Symphoniker/Testament
Symphony no. 3 in D minor
Original version (1873): Nézet-Séguin, Staatskapelle Dresden, 2008, Profil Hänssler
1874 version: Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2011, Profil Hänssler
1877 version (with coda to Scherzo): Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1992, Decca
1889/1890 version: Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2017, Profil Hänssler; Järvi, Frankfurt Radio Symphony, 2014, RCA
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major
I thoroughly recommend Jakub Hrůša’s three versions collected in one 4 CD issue:
Jakub Hrůša, Bamberger Symphoniker, 2020, Accentus
Original version (1874): Schaller, Philharmonia Festiva, 2021, Profil Hänssler
1878 Volksfest Finale: Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2013, Profil Hänssler – see the section on the Fourth Symphony
1881 version: Tennstedt, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1989, LPO
1888 version: Furtwängler, Wiener Philhamoniker, 1951, DG; Knappertsbusch, Wiener Philharmoniker, 1955, Decca Eloquence
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major
Original version (1878: Eichhorn, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, 1990, Capriccio
Schalk revision (1896): Knappertsbusch, Wiener Philharmoniker, 1955, Decca Eloquence
Symphony no. 6 in A major (1881)
Mena, BBC Philharmonic, 2012, Chandos
Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2013, Profil Hänssler – refer to the section on the Sixth
Symphony no. 7 in E major (1885)
Eichhorn, Bruckner Orchester Linz, 1990, Camerata; Haitink, Wiener Philharmoniker, 2019, Vienna Philharmonic
1885 version with some modifications by Bruckner: Furtwängler, Berliner Philharmoniker, May 1951, Archipel
Symphony No. 8 in C minor
1887 Original version: Nagano, Bayerisches Staatsorchester, 2009, Farao
This is a slow but deeply soulful performance and certainly the best account of Bruckner’s first thoughts.
1887/90 Mixed version: Karajan, Wiener Philharmoniker, 1988, DG
1890 version: Sinopoli, Staatskapelle Dresden, 1994, DG
1892 version by Bruckner and Joseph Schalk: Knappertsbusch, Münchner Philharmoniker, 1963, Decca Eloquence/Westminster
Edition prepared by Furtwängler based on Haas and earlier editions: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1944, Musical Concepts
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
1894 Original version ed. Orel: Walter, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, 1959, Pristine
(but despite its vintage sound there is nothing to compare with the manic violence of Furtwängler's wartime, 1944 recording with the BPO)
1894 Original version ed. Nowak: Giulini, Wiener Philharmoniker, 1988, DG; Sado, Tonkünstler Symphony Orchestra, 2017, Tonkünstler
With Finale completion:
Schaller, Philharmonie Festiva, 2018, Profil Hänssler (finale Schaller)
Rattle, Berliner Philharmoniker, 2012, EMI (finale Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca)