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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor (1877) [60:54]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor (1888/89) [55:38]
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (1878/81) [64:48]
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major (1878) [76:17]
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879/81) [58:54]
Symphony No. 7 in E major (1881/83) [63:39]
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887/90) [72:42]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1894/96) [54:31]
Südwestrundfunkorchester Baden-Baden / Hans Rosbaud
rec. 1955-1962, Südwest-Tonstudio, Loffenau (7), Studio des Südwestrundfunks, Baden-Baden (others)
SWR MUSIC SWR19043CD [8 CDs: 507:23]

The conductor Bruno Walter once claimed that “Mahler renewed himself from head to toe with each symphony”. In contrast, there is something of a bold homogeneity in the symphonies of Bruckner. Whther it be it the presence of palpable silences, grandeur alternating with the vernacular of Länder-driven ideas, or the rigidity of structural progression, Bruckner’s symphonic creations inform each other stylistically and formally, albeit in a manner that unmistakably recalls the vision of the creator’s imaginative monumentalism.

Given the monolithic characteristics in each of Bruckner’s symphonies, to attempt to record a cycle of them requires great determination from the conductor and orchestra alike. What a delight, then, that SWR Classic have remastered and released as a boxset of what could have been the first complete studio cycle of Bruckner’s symphonies, played by the then Südwestrundfunkorchester Baden-Baden under Hans Rosbaud, recorded between 1955 and 1962. The scheduled recording of the 1st symphony did not take place due to Rosbaud’s illness.

Previous reviewers have painted Rosbaud’s direction as being simultaneously poetic and rugged. Indeed, there is much space for polish in the severe shrills of the brass and orchestral shape, yet this is combined with a matter-of-factness to reflect a deep respect of the score with unaffected integrity. A sense of balance is prominent, whereby matters neither delve into introspection nor the orotund.

Rosabund particularly finds merit in extracting thin textures and spryness from scores that risk being turgid. Taking the scherzo of the Fourth symphony as an example, the lithe strings, piquant winds, and controlled timpani bring detail, colour, and vigour to the outer themes. Similar things can be said of the third thematic group of the Finale in the Seventh symphony, which can easily be lumbering in heavier accounts.

This is not to say that Rosbaud is uniform in his approach, and works that effectively escape the equation have the best results. The Fourth symphony, while it starts off straightforwardly, acquires a dramatic sweep, not least due to an unhurried grace in the second thematic group of the Finale followed by an eruptive coda. The spacious Sixth symphony achieves an alternative portentousness to that of the acclaimed Klemperer EMI recording, and is accordingly both eager and majestic. In the Seventh symphony, the subtle expansion at the end of each of the outer movements results in miraculous effects, in the context of a tight-reigned intensity throughout the rest of the work. Again, Klemperer’s reading of the 7th symphony, recorded live in 1958 with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, is recalled in its driven concentration.

While no one should be encouraged to reproduce what Celibidache dared during his tenure at the Munich Philharmonic, this brisk sobriety also means that the readings can remain earthbound, forgoing the vast and mysterious dimensions of Bruckner’s sound-world. The Eight symphony, despite its Adagio of heavenly length, ultimately refuses to reach its conquering heights in the Finale due to a coda that feels rather hurried. In a similar way, the Fifth symphony starts off incredibly well only to find itself winding down – the 15-minute Scherzo is one of the slowest on record. The Ninth symphony, which in fact is based on the Orel edition, suffers from Rosbaud’s disregard of the metaphysical element of Bruckner. Compounded with substandard playing, the performance is undesirably underwhelming. Next to the spiritual richness that the likes of Giulini, Jochum, and Karajan favour in these symphonies, Rosbaud’s readings fall short of either shaking or convincing the listener.

Yet Rosbaud’s interpretations rarely fail to be intriguing. If Giulini’s live recording of the Second symphony (Testament) underscored a lyrical impulse, Rosbaud’s stop-go approach to the same work conveys a stark edifice that reflects its initial nickname, the ‘Pausensymphonie’. And although the Third symphony is certainly represented on disc as a work of monumental if not sombre contours, as in the various studio recordings by Haitink and Kurt Sanderling, there is much detail to be discovered in the tangy urgency of Rosbaud’s view of the work.

All in all, in terms of orchestral detail and no-nonsense approach, the renditions come from a similar school as those of Haitink (Concertgebouw studio), Wand (Berliner Philharmoniker live), Bohm (various live performances), and Klemperer (various live performances in the 50s), minus the lyricism, concentrated polish, flair, and the angled ruggedness these conductors offer respectively. Yet the works that stand out in this set – the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies – eclipse many of the recordings that exist in the market.

Textually, Rosbaud adopts the Haas editions whenever possible, reflecting the conductor’s awareness of the importance of textural consistency. While the sound in general is decent for its age, the protruding high frequency tones and the lack of air can make the tuttis rather harsh. Nevertheless, these occasions are not distressingly frequent, given the generally low volume.

Young-Jin Hur

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