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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, ‘Romantic’ (1880 edition ed. Nowak) [67.08]
Symphony No. 7 in E major (ed. Haas) [67:50]
Staatskapelle Dresden /Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 1980/1, Lukaskirche Dresden, Germany
MDG 6502150-2 [2 CDs: 134:58]

When MusicWeb International published a Bruckner Symphony 8 Survey, closely followed by a survey of the whole Bruckner canon, readers were quick to point out that there was hardly any mention of Herbert Blomstedt – and they were right, for this conductor has long been a doughty champion of Bruckner, from recording symphonies 4 and 7 with the Dresden Staatskapelle in the 1980’s, symphonies 4, 6 & 9 with the San Francisco Symphony on Decca in the 1990’s, to a complete cycle with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra made over a number of years the decade after (2005 -2011) on Querstand, hard to find and currently rather expensive. He also features in the Ninth Symphony in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s multi-conductor traversal on BR Klassik, as well as the Third Symphony on the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label integral of the Nine (review), the only time he was mentioned in those two surveys (and very favourably as well). I concede that his absence might be considered to have been a significant oversight.

What we have under review here is a mid-priced double-CD release of the earliest of these recordings, set down for Denon during the early 1980’s. Readers of a certain age may well have fond memories of them as, for a long time, they were amongst the only available recordings of the works available on the (then) new medium of compact disc and indeed, showcased the qualities of the silver disc to its best advantage, encompassing whole symphonies on one disc and silent surfaces, allowing the most whispered string tremolos to emerge seemingly from the edge of sound. With regards to the latter point, the sound on these recordings were aided and abetted by Denon’s engineers, who pioneered what they termed  "one-point recording" in order to convey the natural depth gradation of the instruments in stereo reproduction, using as few microphones as possible (often only one), as opposed to the multi-miked productions so beloved of their competitors. I seem to remember a recording by this team of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony made in Frankfurt with Eliahu Inbal where the booklet boasted of only using three or four microphone positions to record the whole thing - hugely successfully, too, I might add. For many years since, these Denon recordings have only been available in Asia, but now the German label MDG (Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm) has embarked on an ambitious project to once again make available recordings from the extensive Denon catalogue along with new productions, on a world-wide distribution basis on CDs, if not (as yet) downloads or SACD.

I played the Seventh Symphony from this set first, for no other reason than it was my preference that day. Almost immediately I was struck by the ‘naturalness’ of the sound, of air seemingly around the instruments – you can almost sense when listening, the placing of soloists from within the orchestra, all quite remarkable for a performance set down as long ago as 1980. A quick a/b comparison was instructive, as I took down from my shelves more recent recordings made by Andris Nelsons in 2018 (review), as well as Blomstedt’s later recording from 2010, both made live with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The most recent by Nelsons did not show any improvement whatsoever sound-wise, except perhaps a slightly greater amplitude at the climax in the Adagio – in every other respect, the sound captured by the Denon engineers is more natural and lifelike than the results obtained by their DG counterparts some four decades later; remarkable. This ‘naturalness’ also extends to the music-making too – Blomstedt’s way with the work is patient and unhurried, but on this occasion with a slow-burn intensity from within,  Bruckner’s mighty creation unfolding on the wing, as if orchestra and conductor were making music for their own delight, with us the listener eavesdropping in upon the magic unfolding. It truly is a unique and remarkable alchemy, of a burning fire guided by a wise hand, that Blomstedt himself was unable to match with his later live recording in Leipzig and Nelsons can barely hint at in his own, once again with the Gewandhaus. Usually with this kind of approach, the climax of the Adagio dispenses with percussion as mere ‘superfluous glamour’, yet I was surprised to note that Blomstedt, on this occasion, employing the Haas edition does in fact uses timpani, but not triangle and cymbals - a neat compromise, not least for this listener who prefers his Adagios from the Seventh to be of the full fat variety.

In John and Patrick’s aforementioned survey of complete Bruckner’s symphonies, they nominated their favourite for the Seventh recordings by Haitink with the Concertgebouw on Philips in 1978 and Wand with the Berlin PO on RCA/BMG in 1999 – my own favourites would be Jochum’s account from Dresden, once EMI but now Warner (review ) and Knappertsbusch, live with the Vienna PO in 1949 (review), two performances of a seemingly improvisatory nature by master Brucknerians. I would have no hesitation in adding this Blomstedt recording to their ranks – indeed, I note that when my MWI colleague, Brian Reinhart reviewed an earlier reincarnation of this recording, he was so bowled over that he concluded: “Suffice it to say that if I were forced to give up all but one Bruckner album for the rest of my life, this would be my choice” (review). You really cannot get a higher recommendation than that.

Turning to the Fourth Symphony, I now thought I had the measure of Blomstedt’s Bruckner – a wise and patient approach that allows the music to grow naturally and organically…. only to be proved, as ever, wrong. Blomstedt’s Fourth is considerably fierier that you’d expect after listening to his Seventh, sometimes sacrificing repose and poetry for propulsion and drama. It’s an approach that is consistent throughout all three of his recordings, although the middle one from San Francisco on Decca can be quickly discarded, beautifully played and recorded though it may be, as being comparatively studio-bound.

The Fourth is perhaps unique amongst Bruckner’s symphonies insofar that it can take both approaches, fast and exciting or dreamily poetic and grand, the latter style perhaps best exemplified by Celibidache’s astonishing account on EMI/Warner (review ), which takes a  yet-to-be-beaten 78 minutes. Celibidache’s super-slow-motion approach to music-making is not everyone’s ideal and nor do I think it works in all of Bruckner’s symphonies, but it is a revelation in the Fourth. A distinguished critic once roguishly commented on this recording with: "the difference between 'slow genius' and 'merely perverse' is a very, very fine line!”, but every Brucknerian needs to hear this performance, even if they may also need a very large pot of tea or an even larger bottle of whisky (depending upon the delicacy their sensibilities!) to help them through the experience. That Blomstedt takes the opposite approach to Celibidache in no way invalidates either– indeed, he seems to have got faster as the years progressed. This is evidenced by the opening of the whole symphony – in Dresden, the haunting opening horn call is taken broadly, the music speeding up when the woodwind take over the melody a few bars later, an attempt I would think to balance poetry with fire. The later performance in Leipzig does not attempt any such balancing, with the opening horn call swift, more dramatic than poetic, the orchestra not needing to speed up at the aforementioned entry of the woodwinds - which sums up the performance as a whole, one of quite extraordinary fire and drama. Now I’ve seen this symphony in live performances on a number of occasions, most notably with the Concertgebouw under Maris Jansons (when the first horn had a nightmare), as well as with the London PO under Osmo Vanska in a performance that wrong-footed the entire audience by presenting the 1888 revision of the score, very different from the standard Haas and Nowak – a point not considered important enough to be mentioned by either the Royal Festival Hall or London Philharmonic management and resulted in a member of the audience marching out halfway through, shouting at the orchestra! Blomstedt uses Nowak, but I have to say if I were present on that night in Leipzig in 2010, I wouldn’t have cared less which edition he used as I would have considered it to be one the greatest concerts I had been privileged to witness, something that comes across very well on the recording. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the earlier Dresden account on this occasion is not quite up to that exalted standard – it is rather a very good and exceptionally well-played recording of a dramatic reading, with sound of similar virtues to that of the companion Seventh Symphony. Nor do I think it quite reaches the heights of John and Patrick’s top nominations of Bohm 1973 account of Decca (review)  or Wand’s account with the Berlin PO from 1998 on RCA/BMG and if the style of the performance, full of fire and drama, is what you want from this work, I would rather advise you to seek out Blomstedt’s later Leipzig recording, which I feel should be on any shortlist of great recordings of this work. In summary, this Denon Fourth is a very good recording, rather than a great one.

Overall, then, this two-fer is a welcome return to the catalogue of one classic and another fine recording of perhaps the two most popular Bruckner symphonies. In my opinion, all collectors should definitely hear the Dresden Seventh and the later Leipzig Fourth, both (again, in my opinion) great performances that go on my shortlists for both works. I am looking forward to more releases from Denon’s fine back catalogue, which I hope will include Blomstedt’s Strauss tone-poems, as well as Inbal’s Mahler Cycle.

Lee Denham
Previous review: Simon Thompson

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