Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Linz version, 1866; ed. Nowak) [47:08]
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Marek Janowski
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, June 2011

Marek Janowski's handling of the C minor Symphony's first movement is bracing, to say the least. The opening marziale theme is brisk, clipped and athletic - not adjectives one usually associates with this composer - and builds to a compulsively swift climax. The brief second subject barely registers as such - it feels more like a transitional passage - and the proclamatory tutti at 2:55, imposing and exciting as it is, also seems hasty. Mind, there is some relaxation for the little woodwind chorale at 3:13, and the development is roomy and evocative. But, for the most part, Janowski turns the music inside out, playing up its overt drama just like any other Romantic symphony, downplaying its mystical and hieratic qualities.

Such an approach, bringing the music's ordinarily subtextual aspects to the forefront, doesn't lack interest; unfortunately, the conductor hasn't consistently realized his conception on its own terms. That second theme is a clue: time and again, in the process of maintaining momentum, Janowski lets climactic tuttis and important structural joins arrive practically unacknowledged, marked by little sense of weight or importance. If you're going to play this as abstract, rather than metaphysical, music, you'd better be sure to project the shape of the piece; this Janowski doesn't do.

The two middle movements are more conventional in spirit. Much of the Adagio flows more like an Andante, but it maintains the right sense of spaciousness and tonal weight. A lovely aspirational feeling emerges from the opening paragraph, and Janowski supplies an undulating lift to groups of short notes, particularly in the second theme. He then provides a nice jolt by beginning the volatile, propulsive Scherzo attacca, taking care to shape the phrases as it rolls along. The Trio takes a bar or two to come into focus, but gradually blossoms into full, expansive tone, after which the Scherzo's return is, again, startling.

The Finale, unfortunately, is a write-off. It starts well, with a weighty, imposing opening and a gracious second theme, with the syncopated accompaniment falling neatly into place. The development, however, for all the bristling articulations and buzzy trills, gradually degenerates into mindless note-spinning; lacking any sense of direction or overall shape, it becomes pure fustian.

Long ago, discussing the Bruckner Seventh, I described Eliahu Inbal's Frankfurt Radio account (Denon) as sounding "like a technically more polished version of the old Suisse Romande." Well, here's the Geneva ensemble itself playing Bruckner, and sounding like a technically more polished version of itself in its Decca/London heyday. The strings contribute focused tone and crisp articulations in the outer movements; there are a few granulose patches in the Adagio, and the basses have a sclerotic moment now and then, but the tonal density is welcome. The woodwinds have maintained the transparent tone quality of their Decca predecessors and added a touch of sensitivity and nuance to their phrasing: chorale passages, such as the parallel flute chords at 1:55 of the Adagio, are consistently lovely and pure. Brasses are springy, alert, and full-bodied: it's hard to imagine Ansermet's brass section — or, for that matter, Ansermet — coping with Bruckner, but these players have no problem with the writing.

The sound is rich and powerful, with a nice sense of space around those chorales. The tuttis, fortunately, don't turn strident as in some other recent productions. By massing first and second violins on the left, however, the conductor and the engineers have missed an opportunity to clarify their back-and-forth dialogues. A few of the quick brass interjections sound edgy, but this may have inhered in the playing rather than the recording.

Committed Brucknerians may find Janowski's aesthetic eversion of interest; unfortunately, the brainless Finale rules the whole thing out of court. I continue to rely on Haitink (Philips) as a reference for this and the other early symphonies. Among more recent issues - just a few decades, rather than half a century, old - Chailly (Decca), using the later, "Vienna" version of the score, has one of his better outings; some listeners, however, may find Decca's luscious reproduction out of keeping with the composer's austerity.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review (complete set): Dave Billinge

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