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CD: Crotchet AmazonUK AmazonUS


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1865/66; rev. 1890/91) 1865/66 version, “Linz” [50:31]
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1871/72; rev 1875/76) 1876 version ed. L Nowak with passages restored from the 1872 version [60:08]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1873-77; rev 1888/89) 1888/89 version, ed. L Nowak [57:08]
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major “Romantic” (1874, 1878-80; rev 1887/88) 1878-80 version, ed. R. Haas [64:11]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (1875/76) [80:35]
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-81) [57:36]
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881-83) ed. R Haas [64:37]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1884-87; rev 1887/90) Version 1887-90, ed. R Haas [82:20]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-96) [61:37]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Philharmonie, Berlin, January 1981 (No. 1); December 1980 & January 1981 (No. 2); September 1980 (No. 3); April 1975 (No. 4); December 1976 (No. 5); September 1979 (No. 6); April 1975 (No. 7); January & April 1975 (No. 8); September 1975 (No. 9). ADD (except Nos 1 – 3 DDD)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMPHON 477 7580 [9 CDs: 579:14]
Experience Classicsonline

As part of their celebration of his centenary, DG have reissued Karajan’s cycle of Bruckner’s nine numbered symphonies that he set down in Berlin between 1975 and 1981.
The booklet notes are by Karajan’s biographer, Richard Osborne, and I think it’s worth quoting what he has to say about this conductor’s approach to Bruckner. “Karajan’s patient, lofty way with mature Bruckner – works from the Third Symphony onwards – is not the only one. There are times when one might turn to readings that are lighter and quicker, more overtly dramatic; and there is probably a place too, for the much more flexible, inspirational approach of a Furtwängler or a Jochum.”  Yet, he goes on: “Karajan’s Bruckner is a man who contemplates great issues, deeply pondered, and rigorously argued. They are readings in the valued older tradition where the route is known intimately in advance and where the vitality of the playing springs from the active collaboration between the music, players, and conductor at the point of performance.”
Osborne also comments that Karajan’s association with Bruckner spans over four decades. However, I think I’m right in saying that that certain of the symphonies – the first three and perhaps also the Fifth and Sixth – featured much less frequently in his programmes than did the Fourth and the last three symphonies. Those four symphonies were works that he recorded more than once whereas the remainder were recorded only once and those performances are preserved in this set.
A couple of things strike me particularly about these recordings. One is the sheer beauty of the playing. Karajan was often criticised, especially in his later years, for an alleged cultivation of quality of sound as a prime objective in his music making. Now is not the time to argue the rights and wrongs of that assertion but I think it’s fair to say that in the case of these recordings the beauty of orchestral sound is placed wholly at the service of the music. Secondly, whilst I wouldn’t disagree with Richard Osborne that one can find readings that are more fleet and/or dramatic, Karajan displays pretty consistently a sense of line that’s tremendously impressive and which is crucial to success in Bruckner’s long paragraphs.  
I suspect the first three symphonies came late into Karajan’s repertoire. His performance of the First Symphony is a very good one. The reading of the first movement has fire and drive. The slow movement isn’t one of Bruckner’s greatest adagios – those lay in the future – but Karajan moulds it with care and the listener can’t fail to be struck by the firm bass line on which the BPO playing is founded. The scherzo has bite and energy and the finale, which has its powerful moments, seems tightly controlled by Karajan. The very end is somewhat strident but that’s down to Bruckner’s relative inexperience and is not the fault of these performers.
For the Second Symphony Karajan presents a conflated text, combining some elements of the Nowak edition with the Haas text. There’s a good deal of liveliness in the first movement but the lyrical passages also receive full value. It’s in those latter passages that the richness of the Berlin strings pays dividends. The second movement is marked Andante and Karajan’s pace does seem a touch on the broad side but the music is beautifully sung and the performance convinces. The energy generated in the scherzo spills over into the finale though Karajan also does the more relaxed passages of that movement well. This finale is a bit long-winded for my taste but Karajan holds it together well and the conclusion, if musically rather obvious, is exciting.
In the Third Symphony Karajan, who normally preferred the editions by Robert Haas, opts for the Leopold Nowak edition. The first movement was, by some distance, the most substantial symphonic movement Bruckner had written to date. Karajan seems to have the measure of the architecture and is at the helm of a sonorous, world-class orchestra. He’s patient in the second movement, obtaining some admirable hushed playing along the way. The finale is quite fiery at the start. Later the polka-like second subject trips along delightfully. At the several dramatic points in the movement the BPO brass section is superb and the very end, where the trumpet theme, heard at the outset of the work, is brought back in major key splendour, is an affirming apotheosis. At 10:44, just before the concluding peroration, I thought I detected the merest hint of over-blowing in the trumpet section; somehow it’s reassuring to have even the scantiest evidence of fallibility in Karajan’s BPO.
Though Karajan gives the first three symphonies full value, with the Fourth we move into the realms of Bruckner’s acknowledged masterpieces – and to works more associated with Karajan throughout his career.
At the start of the Fourth there’s a proper sense of hushed expectancy but, as Richard Osborne suggests in his notes, one doesn’t feel that Karajan is indulging in romantic musing, rather the movement is soon unfolding with purpose. There’s plenty of grandeur but a strong impetus is maintained and Karajan handles the characteristic Brucknerian crescendi magnificently. The andante and scherzo are successful and the reading of the finale is a commanding one. In that movement, however, I do part company with Karajan at one point. At 2:32 he inserts what I’m sure is an unauthentic cymbal clash. I can only recall one other conductor doing this: Tennstedt in his EMI recording, also with the BPO. But this egregious addition is absent from accounts by the likes of Haitink, Böhm and Wand and it’s a surprising lapse of taste by Karajan. Otherwise I enjoyed his exposition of the finale very much. The coda is outstanding, right from its hushed beginning right through to the radiant sunburst of the last few pages, Karajan exhibiting masterful control.
The Fifth Symphony is arguably Bruckner’s most intellectually rigorous work. Certainly, for a conductor it’s the most difficult of the canon to hang together convincingly. Karajan is highly persuasive in the first movement. The main allegro combines energy and majesty. At the several points where, on the surface at least, Bruckner relaxes, Karajan maintains focus admirably. This means that the vast structure of the movement doesn’t degenerate into a ramble. One particularly relishes the richness and depth of the BPO strings while the nobility and huge power of the brass gives equal pleasure. The weight and depth of the string pizzicati at the start of the adagio lays a strong foundation for the keening oboe theme. The playing throughout this whole movement is simply glorious – Karajan and his players identify completely with Bruckner’s idiom and the music is given all the space, all the length of line that it needs in order to make its full effect. The finale is an epic composition, which opens with reminiscences of thematic material from the preceding movements, rather as happens in Beethoven’s Ninth. These reminiscences are punctuated by cheeky little clarinet phrases and I thought perhaps these little interjections are a little too smooth, but that’s a pretty minor point. The fugal passages that form such an important element of Bruckner’s argument in the finale have weight, purpose and, crucially, clarity. Karajan’s concentration and his sure sense of the music’s direction of travel ensure that the musical logic is always compelling and so the listener’s attention is held throughout the lengthy span of the movement. The final peroration is toweringly majestic, crowing what is the finest Fifth that I can recall hearing on CD.
I’ve never understood the relative neglect of the Sixth Symphony, which is taut and memorable. The first movement is difficult to pace. Bruckner is no real help, it must be said. What, precisely, does he mean by the tempo marking, unique in his symphonies, Majestoso? To me that suggests a somewhat broad speed is required but then the opening rhythmic figure on the violins, which dominates the movement, seems to demand a forward-moving tempo. To my ears Karajan seems to be a touch too fleet. But on comparing him with Haitink’s 1970 recording (Philips) and with the one made in 1976 by Wand (RCA/BMG), I find they’re all almost identical in the pace they adopt. And I’d rather have the lift that their respective tempi provide than the lugubrious speed adopted by Klemperer (EMI, 1964)
Given that three such distinguished Brucknerians have a broadly similar view of the pacing required for this music I can only bow to their combined wisdom. Yet I have to say that I feel Karajan’s reading, superbly played though it is, appears just a little bit lacking in breadth. This is most especially apparent in the build-up to the coda and the final pages themselves, all of which seems a bit matter of fact. I have no such reservations about the speed adopted for the Adagio. Here we have a reading of majesty and space. The playing is glowing and Karajan’s concentration is total. Climaxes seem to expand quite naturally and nothing is forced. This performance confirms to me that this movement is one of Bruckner’s finest achievements. Like the first movement, the finale is not easy to pace, especially as it begins almost from nothing. Karajan seems to me to get things just right and thereafter the movement hangs together well, which isn’t always the case when things are in the hands of lesser interpreters.
Richard Osborne describes the Seventh as the composer’s “richest and most luminous utterance.” Karajan was to record this symphony again for DG, in 1989, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic. Indeed, that was his very last recording. There is, perhaps, a touch more spaciousness at times in the later recording, which plays for 66:15, but the differences don’t seem material. It’s marvellous to hear the way the Berlin celli sing out the gorgeous opening theme at the start of the symphony, their tone golden, the lines long. Karajan’s unfolding of this movement has a feeling of rightness and inevitability about it; here, one feels, is a man steeped in Bruckner. The playing throughout is superb and the interpretation convinces completely.
The Adagio is immensely noble in this performance. One marvels at the sheer quality of the orchestral playing and at the profundity of the conception – both Bruckner’s and Karajan’s. The main climax – complete with cymbal clash - has great breadth and majesty but then the quiet, deep sonority achieved in the coda is, if anything, even more impressive. After the blaze of the preceding climax it’s as if the embers of the movement glow, still containing life and emitting warmth but now more subdued. Following the profundities of the slow movement Karajan puts the scherzo across with pleasing vitality, providing a welcome contrast. The finale is essentially sunny in tone. Karajan was rather a serious musician, especially later in life, but he responds very positively to Bruckner’s geniality in this movement. Overall this is a very considerable account of the symphony. 
As with the Seventh Karajan went on the record the Eighth once more for DG, again using the VPO. That superb recording, made in 1988, has long been one of the versions of this vast symphonic edifice that I esteem most highly. However, I wouldn’t want to choose between the Vienna reading and this present Berlin version.
Karajan realises expertly the grandeur of the first movement, investing the music with an appropriate sense of scale. He’s equally successful in the more lyrical stretches. There seems to be a complete command of the architecture of the movement and in Karajan’s hands the music has great reach. The final climax towers imperiously but then the coda sounds bleak and spent – what a stroke of genius on Bruckner’s part to revise this passage, substituting this profound ending for an all-too-obvious fortissimo conclusion!  
The third movement, the great Adagio, is perhaps Bruckner’s single greatest symphonic achievement. Karajan lays it out magnificently, displaying complete understanding and an intuitive sense of line. The eloquence of the BPO’s response is marvellous. If Karajan was indeed guilty of an obsession with beauty of sound in his later years, as some detractors aver, then this performance surely vindicates him. From 22:38 onwards the coda offers a supreme example of the control and sensitivity of Karajan and his great orchestra. The finale has all the grandeur and power for which one could wish and the more subdued passages receive equal care and attention. In summary, this a very fine performance indeed and I’m not even going to begin to try to express a preference between this recording and the 1988 version; it’s a pointless exercise for they’re equally distinguished. What I would say, however, is that if you invest in this set then you wouldn’t also need the VPO versions of either this symphony or of the Seventh. 
The Ninth confronts us with Bruckner at his most searching. You sense that at one and the same time he’s reaching out to new vistas in this work and yet is reluctant to go there, possibly realising that the old order, in music and in many other things, was slipping away. Perhaps this accounts for the spare, often bleak, musical language and, as Richard Osborne observes, for the lack of a finale. In this work, Osborne opines, we have “Bruckner at his bravest and most despairing.” I’m not going to repeat myself. Karajan and the BPO bring to this work all the fine qualities of interpretation and execution that have been so evident in the earlier symphonies, especially the Seventh and Eighth, and give a superb, magisterial performance. At the end of the Adagio one has a sense of finis.    
So this Karajan Bruckner cycle has many estimable qualities. In particular there’s an interpretative sureness of touch and a fine sense of line and Karajan obtains orchestral playing that is consistently of the highest quality. I’m mindful that I’ve commented regularly on the excellence of the brass and the strings without mentioning the woodwind. That’s largely because Bruckner’s orchestration relies so heavily on the string and brass choirs. But the winds have an important role to play in all these scores and the contribution of the BPO woodwind players is top notch – as is the incisive timpani playing. If you like your Bruckner to sound just a little bit rugged you may find these performances too sleek, too cultivated but I’d urge collectors not to spurn them for that reason for sheer beauty of sound is an important ingredient in successful Bruckner performances.
When Patrick Waller and I did our survey of the Bruckner symphonies a while ago this Karajan cycle received scant mention. The simple reason for that was that, as we made clear, our survey had no pretensions to completeness. Rather, it was a survey of CD versions that one or other of us possessed and I didn’t own the Karajan set and Patrick was only familiar with it from LPs. Our survey is probably overdue for an update since the spate of Bruckner recordings shows no sign of abating. At that time this set will certainly demand inclusion.
It’s risky to confine oneself to a cycle of one composer’s symphonies by a single conductor unless there is no alternative choice. At the head of this review I quoted Richard Osborne’s very sensible view that Karajan’s is not the only way with Bruckner. I’d not wish to restrict myself to one conductor to the exclusion of Haitink, Wand or Jochum, to name but three. However, if for whatever reason you need or wish to limit yourself to just one version of the Bruckner symphonies then this Karajan cycle is very worthy of consideration and will not disappoint.
In conclusion, a few words about presentation. The discs come handily packaged in cardboard slipcases within a stout cardboard box. The booklet contains an excellent essay in English by Richard Osborne. There’s an alternative note in German, with a French translation, but this doesn’t cover each symphony individually, which Osborne does, albeit succinctly. I don’t know if the sound has been remastered for this issue but I found it to be full, clear and very satisfying throughout the cycle. Each symphony is presented on a single disc with two exceptions. The Fifth and the Eighth are contained on two discs. In each case the first movement follows a shorter work (the First and Second symphonies respectively) with the remaining three movements on the next disc. This isn’t a major inconvenience, nor is the fact that, as a result, the works aren’t presented in numerical order.
This repackaging of Karajan’s Bruckner cycle affords an appropriate and very worthy centennial tribute.
John Quinn 


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