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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
The Nine Symphonies and Helgoland
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1866 Linz version, Nowak edition) [49:44]
Helgoland* (1893) [11:13]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1877, Nowak edition as revised by Bornhöft and Carragan) [62:25]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1877 version) [59:36]
Symphony No. 4 in E flat (1878/1880 version) [68:23]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat (Original version, 1878) [72:02]
Symphony No. 6 in A (1881) (Nowak/Haas edition) [54:45]
Symphony No. 7 in E (1883) [70:40]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890, Haas edition) [77:02]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1896) [63:30]
*Male voices of the Rundfunkchor, Berlin und Ernst Senff-Chor
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Rec. Philharmonie, Berlin and Deutsches Schauspielhaus Berlin (Symphonies Nos. 5, 7 only), 1990-1997. DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 61891-2 [9 CDs: 589:20: 60:57 + 62:25 + 59:36 + 68:23 + 72:02 + 54:45 + 70:40 + 77:02 + 63:30]

 

 

“Horses for courses” is the ideal way to collect Bruckner symphonies but many will wish to have a single set, minimizing the cost. When John Quinn and I recently reviewed all the Bruckner symphony recordings we had heard (see link below), Daniel Barenboim hardly made it on to our radar. Now here comes the complete set (his second cycle, the first was made in Chicago for DG), attractively presented and at a very low price. All the individual discs are also available separately on the Elatus label (see links below to more detailed reviews of Nos. 3, 7 and 8).

If one is going to make such a set the mainstay of a Bruckner collection, what might ideally be required? My criteria would be an experienced and unidiosyncratic Brucknerian at the helm, top orchestra with a strong performing tradition, decent modern sound and “normal” choices regarding versions/editions (more of which below). This offering meets all those criteria although it falls short of greatness.

To deal with the question of versions first, I should make it clear that the information given above is the totality of what is offered in the booklet (apart from the dates of publication of the editions which have been omitted to avoid confusion). This is probably sufficient for most people but too patchy for those who take these things seriously. The important questions of edition relate only to symphonies Nos. 1-4 and 8. “Normal” is fairly clearly the first (i.e. Linz) version of No. 1 and the final versions of Nos. 2, 4 and 8. Much debate is possible about No. 3 but the second version (of three) played here would be my preference. Between symphonies Barenboim mixes Haas and Nowak editions and it hardly matters which was played in No. 6 although here the designation of both is curious. It probably would have been appropriate for No. 7 for which no information is provided but Barenboim seems to play Nowak whilst adding the cymbal clash and other percussion at the climax of the adagio; these come from the Haas edition.

The sound is not consistently out of the top-drawer but it is generally pretty good and at least acceptable throughout. The Fifth and Seventh symphonies were the only ones not to be recorded in the Philharmonie and the sound in these works has a bit more air around it but is not greatly preferable. All except the Fourth and Seventh symphonies are supposed to have been recorded live but the audience is rarely noticeable - and slightly intrusive only in No. 2 - and there is no applause; good decision, I think. I am quoting the booklet in these respects but the lack of complete consonance between live and “studio” in terms of venue is surprising. I am fairly sure there is evidence of an audience in the slow movement of the Fourth (the distant coughs at 1:22 and 2:13 presumably don’t come from the orchestra) but it is hard to be certain whether or not an audience is present in the Fifth. There are a few instances of imperfect balance but overall, despite some reservations, there are likely to be few, if any, complete Bruckner cycles with better recorded sound.

There is no need to say much about the orchestra which is one of the top three in the world for this composer and plays like it; to my mind the others reside in Vienna and Amsterdam. The brass contribution is almost invariably superb and there is heavenly playing from the strings in the gesangsperiodes. Barenboim’s reputation is probably greater in Wagner but he is an experienced Brucknerian and generally he does not impose himself on the music. Timings suggest that he is rarely extreme in matters of tempo although the Second, Fourth and Seventh contain some speeds which are on the sluggish side. Apart from the finale of the Second (see below), this is most notable in the slow movement and trio of the Seventh. More importantly, Barenboim’s variations in tempo within movements generally coincide with markings in the scores.

The first disc in the set contains a reading of the First Symphony which is highly coherent but perhaps a bit clinical. There follows an unusual secular choral fill-up: Helgoland – the last work Bruckner completed. This has been recorded quite rarely and was new to me. It is a brief and dramatic setting of a poem by August Silberstein which relates the tale of Saxon islanders threatened by a Roman fleet. After some divine intervention the invasion is repelled. The influence of Wagner seems stronger here than in any of Bruckner’s other works; there are times when one expects Hagen or Klingsor to appear at any moment. This is not to disparage the work - I found it compelling and a useful bonus. The choruses are excellent and the piece is dispatched with considerable vigour.

Timings can sometimes be misleading. The introduction to the first movement of the Fifth is pretty slow but Barenboim drives the Allegro along at quite a lick and the overall timing for this movement is about average. The slow movement of the Fifth is also quite fast but, for me, this symphony is the highlight of the cycle. Whether or not it was recorded “live”, it certainly has the tension of a live performance. Barenboim holds the massive structures of the finale together most effectively, culminating in a thrilling combination of fugue and chorale at the climax. Other clear successes are the Third, Sixth and Ninth. The adagio of the Ninth is of interest in that Barenboim finds as much hope as anguish in the impassioned opening bars – in marked contrast to the approach of Wand with the same orchestra. There is not much else to say about Barenboim’s straightforward but convincing interpretations of these three works. All blaze with great conviction and are renditions to which I will wish to return. Along with First and its coupling, the symphonies mentioned in this paragraph (i.e. Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 9) would be worth considering on single discs although none of them would be a top choice.

Much the most problematic performance here is the Second which was the last to be recorded – an “off day” I fear. Here even the orchestral playing is not quite at the usual exceptional standard and the outer movements are too slow. The finale is particularly unconvincing. In this performance one is almost immediately reminded of the original nickname Pausensinfonie since there is a massive pause just before the letter B in the first movement, around two minutes into the work. The four bars in question consist only of one timpani stroke on the first beat of three bars followed by an effective pause of seven beats. The first two timpani strokes are barely audible, the third is inaudible and then somebody – and my inclination would be to suspect the producer rather than Barenboim – adds an extra bar of nothing. The pause is therefore almost twice as long as it should be and, if you weren’t listening very hard and missed the first two timpani strokes, you might be left wondering if there had been a power cut. The middle movements of this work are much more satisfactory but, overall, this Second is the one significant disappointment.

The Fourth and Seventh symphonies would certainly not stand out against the massed ranks of competition and the Eighth is ultimately a bit disappointing after a promising opening movement and scherzo. The first movement is taken quite quickly relative to many other conductors but this is more consistent with Bruckner’s tempo marking (Allegro moderato). Unfortunately the climaxes of both the adagio and the finale both seem to miss something; for one thing the harp is insufficiently prominent in the adagio. Great moments pass by without quite registering as they can. At the very end Barenboim goes for broke but the result lacks grandeur. This Eighth is therefore not in the same league as the last readings by Wand or Karajan. All the above criticisms are relative to the very best. Apart from possibly the Second Symphony, none of these performances is sufficiently flawed that it should deter the collector who wants a single set.

Superficially the documentation looks good considering the bargain price but it could easily have been much better. This mainly takes the form of an essay on each work by a variety of authors, presumably a conglomeration of what is provided for the individual discs. The main shortcomings are a lack of consideration of the general issues surrounding Bruckner’s symphonies and little biographical information. My lack of trust in the asterisks which define the live recordings and the paucity of information on editions are noted above, and I also spotted some errors in the timings; the overall timings for the first two discs and the first movement of the Ninth are wrong.

At the basement price level there is competition from two other sets with which I am familiar - Eugen Jochum’s Dresden readings for EMI and Georg Tintner on Naxos. Barenboim’s set seems preferable to Jochum’s in virtually all respects. One advantage of Tintner’s set is that it is includes Symphonies Nos. 0 and 00 but this cycle is unusual in terms of versions; in particular giving us the first versions of the Second, Third and Eighth. Whilst these are all treasurable discs for the serious Bruckner collector, they are not for people who just want one recording of each symphony. Tintner’s recorded sound is fine and his various orchestras are good but not as good as the Berlin Philharmonic. Taking all these factors into consideration, Barenboim’s set is the best value “complete” Bruckner around at the moment. I would not choose his cycle in preference to Bernard Haitink’s Amsterdam recordings from the 1960s and 1970s but that seems to have been recently deleted. Unless and until that re-emerges at bargain price, Barenboim is in pole position.

Patrick C Waller

Link to general review of all Bruckner’s symphonies: http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Feb05/Bruckner_symphonies_PWJQ.htm

Link to review of Symphony No 3:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Nov03/Bruckner3_Barenboim.htm

Link to review of Symphony No 7:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2003/Sept03/ANTON_BRUCKNER_barenboim.htm

Link to review of Symphony No 8:
http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/July04/Bruckner8_Barenboim.htm

 



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