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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in c minor (1884)
Recorded 28 May-2 June 1979, West-Deutsche-Rundfunk Grosser Sendessaal
Symphony No 9 in d minor (1894)
Recorded 5-10 June 1978, West-Deutsche-Rundfunk Grosser Sendessaal
Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra/Günter Wand
RCA/BMG 09026 639382
[2 CDs: 140"00’]

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When Günter Wand made this, his first recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, he was 66: old enough, you might think, to offer an experienced and fully formed interpretation of Bruckner’s bare and often painful last work. Yet his final performance of it came some 23 years later, in a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall which wrote its hero’s mantra of ‘So und nicht anders’ indelibly on the eyes and ears of all those fortunate to be present.

It’s all the more revealing, then, to go back and find out that ‘Thus and no other way’ is true only, shall we say, for the moment at which any of Wand’s interpretations were being created. For RCA offer us ample opportunity to find out that Wand’s views and feeling for the works’ many corners changed if not radically then appreciably over the course of the two decades following these recordings.

The semitone stepwise motifs on clarinet and oboe which open the Eighth and on which its eighty minutes are built would be more plaintively drawn out later on. The cellos’ first presentation of the main theme would later gain tension for being slightly held back. Even the second theme has a rigidity which many used to think of as characteristic of Wand’s conducting (encouraged by his constant emphasis on the need for one basic tempo within a movement) and yet which is belied by any examination of his evolution as a performer, in Bruckner above all others. Cologne Radio’s brass section is no match for that of the NDR orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic, and yet Wand appears to encourage it to dominate at tutti climaxes, obliterating the fascinating and unpredictable figurations in the wind and strings which he would later so carefully cultivate. The walls of sound which they create then obstruct the momentum which is so intrinsic to the Eighth by virtue of those appoggiatura-like stepwise motifs. Elsewhere the Cologne orchestra is biddable but hardly timbrally distinctive; oboe and flute present their questing dialogue at 10" entirely without accents, as though they didn’t know which note was coming next; hardly possible, but it creates an oddly naïve effect. The horn solo 5" into the Adagio is far too prosaically done for it to convey any pregnancy of gesture. The muzziness of the woodwind section's tuning and ensemble at 13" in the Scherzo (shortly after a nasty edit which I suspect the remastering has exaggerated) are sadly typical of the general standard of playing on these discs. Admirable as the philosophy is that the music, if straightforwardly presented, should be able to speak for itself, the result in this case is an occasional disengagement which inevitably transfers itself to the listener. All that said, Richard Osborne has declared this Eighth 'exceptionally fine', 'the consummation of the Wand style'. Moments like the first tutti of the Scherzo, where we can hear every note of the scales in contrary motion, are undeniably characteristic

The Ninth is less of a blueprint for his later thoughts and better played. Some may find its haunting bareness more affecting at the less inflected tempos of this first recording, and there is no sign of the slight but debilitating accelerando during the passage to the Adagio's crisis that would mar some of Wand's later recordings. But an Adagio of Bruckner 9 which eschews introversion in favour of a resplendent presentation of its angst-ridden dissonances is not for me.

Even if these recordings weren’t superseded in subtlety by Wand’s later performances, faithfully transcribed to disc by RCA, the sound would put them out of court. The entry of timpani at climaxes often causes the engineers to lower the levels, flattening out Bruckner’s terraced dynamics rather as Radio 3 often does for its FM broadcasts these days. Coupled with the obvious spotlighting of wind solos, this dynamic compression is fatal to the music’s potential for tension. Some will find justifiably irritating the mike attached to the harp in the Eighth which presents it so prominently in the left channel.

As I don’t have access to the original LPs, I can’t tell which of these sonic inadequacies are to be laid at the feet of Cologne’s radio engineers and which are the fault of BMG’s remastering team, but having heard other Cologne recordings, I suspect the latter is more to blame. Michael Kennedy noted of the LPs that they 'were made in a slightly resonant acoustic which adds its own spaciousness to that of the interpretations and in these crowning masterpieces the total effect, captured faithfully by the engineers, is devastating.' There you have it. If you have the original LPs, perhaps it's time to dust them down. If not, I direct you towards his later remakes of both works with the NDR, live in Lübeck Cathedral. These really do distil Bruckner's ever more troubled late compositional language with an extended lifetime of wisdom.

Peter Quantrill


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