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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Münchner Philharmoniker/Valery Gergiev
rec. live 2017-2019, Basilica of the Monastery of St Florian, nr. Linz, Austria
MÜNCHNER PHILHARMONIKER MPHIL0022 (4693576010) [9 CDs: 9:44:31]

These nine symphonies are presented in a sturdy cardboard slipcase box containing the CDs in cardboard sleeves and a thick, bilingual booklet with colour photographs and extensive notes on each symphony by Bruckner specialist Thomas Leibnitz, Director of the Music Collection of the Austrian National Library and President of the International Bruckner Society. A minor quibble: I find it irritating to have to leaf through the booklet to find the individual movements and timings rather than finding them readily accessible on the reverse of the sleeves.

Gergiev opts to play the Nowak editions, making conventional choices even to the extent of preferring the last, so-called “Schalk revision” of the Third Symphony which these days is less often played than the 1877 version, and rather than do as conductors have more often been doing of late, he plays the three-movement version of the Ninth without adding any of the completions. Some space in the notes is devoted to discussing the SMPC completion but only to quote Mathias Hansen’s harsh dismissal of it as “a well-meaning but hopeless ambition on the part of do-it-yourself enthusiasts”, and options such as Gerd Schaller’s version are not even mentioned.

I admit to embarking on a review of this set with some apprehension, as trusted Brucknerian associates had advised me that there was little here to set the pulse racing; one even witheringly described the recordings as “a glorified sight-read”. On the other hand, I then found that three previous reviews (First Symphony ~ Third Symphony ~ Symphonies 2, 8 & 9) on MusicWeb covering previous, separate issues of no fewer than five of the symphonies collected her in this new box set, were uniformly complimentary. Furthermore, although I concede some inconsistency in his output, I have greatly enjoyed Gergiev’s work with, to name some composers randomly, Mahler, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, but had not previously encountered his Bruckner, so whether for me he could disprove the stereotype of Russian conductors not enjoying any great success in, or affinity with, Bruckner, remained to be seen.

The Munich Philharmonic orchestra have a long and distinguished tradition of playing Bruckner and Gergiev has been its Music Director since 2015. We may take their virtuosity for granted – their brass and woodwind are especially resonant - but the more I listened to this set, the more it seemed to me that Gergiev had determined to adhere to one over-riding guiding principle, which was to take Bruckner quite slowly and steadily, avoiding undue haste. It is of course no bad thing to be generally patient and spacious in Bruckner as long as tension does not sag, but for me, that is the problem in the First. It is not a question of timings – they are entirely apt – but more to do with a lack of bite and spring in Gergiev’s direction and a lack of variety and inflection in his phrasing, so the first movement emerges as a bit slack – although that might also have something to do with the soft-edged acoustic of the basilica. The symphony itself is sometimes a bit-short-winded and needs strong advocacy to make an impact and I don’t find this account very invigorating. The Adagio is elegantly played but generalised, lacking Innigkeit. The strings’ arpeggios do not really sing as they should. The Scherzo is nice but, again, I have heard more convincingly aggressive accounts. The finale is decidedly more energised but I would not say that this is the most auspicious of beginnings to a cycle.

The Pausensinfonie goes rather better, with Gergiev strongly characterising the contrasting martial and lyrical sections - but again, the spacious acoustic robs the tutti of a little impact. The climax of the first movement, however, is impressive. The ensuing Andante is elegantly encompassed but again, I derive no especial sense of “otherness” from its delivery. The Scherzo is a little leaden but goes well enough, especially as the tone of Munich players’ brass is so vibrant. I have no such reservations about the finale, however; it is splendid: Gergiev generates a massive sound and encompasses all its varied moods very successfully from the naïve, blustery bravado of the rustic dances to the sweetness of the contemplative sections, to the grandeur of the exhilarating conclusion. It is a triumph.

The Third is one of my two or three favourites among Bruckner’s symphonies and for me it is of supreme importance that the pulsing opening phrases set the right tone of nervous anticipation – and here, unfortunately, Gergiev immediately disappoints. It is too plodding and deliberate – not in speed but in manner, with a sudden, crudely applied swelling of dynamics, and the ensuing Gesangperiode does not…well, really sing. As with the Second, some of the orchestral climaxes are impressive, but after the reprise fourteen minutes in of the opening, pulsing theme, the renewed climax at 15:04 is so dull and limp as to make me lose all patience and I find myself thinking that with Gergiev there are some grand moments but no real grasp of organic unity. He too frequently allows energy levels to dip – fateful in such long-breathed music – so the movement fragments. The sublime Adagio is treated perfunctorily, with insufficiently affection and breathing space between phrases – although you can certainly hear the conductor’s heavy breathing. The Scherzo is satisfactory but the string figures lack astringency. Timpani are too recessed and the Trio drags rather than lilts. As with the previous two symphonies, the finale, although not without a certain deliberate heaviness, is the most satisfactory movement, such that a pattern begins to emerge. There is certainly more cohesion, especially in a movement whose assemblage of disparate components can result in fragmentation but again, moments of potentially high drama seem to pass by without impact and I have rarely been less stirred by the Wagnerian conclusion.

The Fourth evinces much the same characteristically as its predecessors and for the first five minutes or so into the first movement I find myself irked by the lack of in punch Gergiev’s iteration of “the Bruckner rhythm” until the first big flare-up of the chorale eight minutes in, when instead of rounding off the ends of phrases and insisting in making everything legato, he gives the orchestra its head and it makes a glorious noise – yet again, the brass is monumental. However, on listening to the Andante for the first time I found myself asking why I found it dull; I went back to Karajan for purposes of comparison and could immediately hear here difference: there is a plasticity in Karajan’s phrasing, a nuance in his application of dynamics and a variety in his tonal colouring which obliterates Gergiev’s vision. I found myself thinking of the words Browning puts into the mouth of “the perfect painter” Andrea del Sarto:
“A common greyness silvers everything,
… All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

The Scherzo passes off without incident but the finale, as with Gergiev’s Second Symphony and the end of the first movement here, changes up a gear to provide authentic Brucknerian passion in playing of real thrust and drive. Everything here is as it should be and the climax is thrilling. I wonder why Gergiev could not find this level of inspiration consistently.

The Fifth begins very stolidly and slowly and the very reverberant acoustic seems more prominent here than in other performances, muddying textures – although I find it hard to believe that it was engineered any differently. I suppose that matters less in music of such massive shape, but the combination of the sound and one of the slowest timings of the opening movement makes it more cumbersome than majestic; I would like more momentum. Recording in the same location, Ballot, with a similarly extended timing, creates more tension between the alternating Adagio and Allegro passages and his silences are more telling. The slow movement is also played very deliberately but the chorale cannot fail to please when it is played with such dedication and intensity. The Scherzo is hardly nimble; there, accelerandi are heavily underlined rubato is ceaselessly applied. I would like to hear more delicacy in the Trio and a greater contrast between it and the outer sections. The first fugal theme of the finale is very heavily – even crudely – handled but the carillon second subject and the quasi-Dresden Amen are wonderfully sonorous. There is a certain laboriousness in the articulation of the pounding, contrapuntal fugues, whereas the climax and coda are undeniably grand and propulsive.

The Sixth has perhaps the most chequered recording history of any of Bruckner’s symphonies, not least because of the disagreement about the tempo markings of the first movement and the relationships between them, but also because it is the most enigmatic and least performed of them. My reaction to the opening of the first movement is that once more Gergiev does not find enough momentum in his interpretation of “Majestoso” to bring it alive and a certain insipidness obtains and the chorale beginning five minutes in lacks impact. I find myself much happier as the movement progresses, however; Gergiev takes the long view and builds nicely, gathering pace and intensity as he goes and the last couple of minutes are splendid. The Adagio is an unqualified success: stately but with plenty of inner tension and ideal balances between the strings and horns. The conclusion is as tender and ethereal as you could wish – although I could do without Gergiev’s heavy breathing obbligato accompanying the thrice-repeated last A. The Scherzo triplets bounce along convincingly without losing the sense of underlying menace and the Ländler Trio is relaxed without losing shape. The finale is suitably restless and searching; Gergiev catches the fundamental nerviness of the music and the orchestra is particularly impressive here, making the most heroic noise without obscuring the texture of individual instrumental lines. Minor reservations about the opening notwithstanding, this for me is one of the two stand-out performances in the set.

The rising phrase which opens the Seventh concludes with strangely exaggerated vibrato. That continues and was presumably specifically requested by Gergiev – and I wonder why. That opening also conforms to the pattern of all the preceding symphonies here in that there is a lack of tautness in the phrasing so the music comes across as too smoothed over. Again, the recurrence of that phenomenon suggests that is exactly what Gergiev wants but I don’t think it works. When the tempo starts to increase with the introduction of the third theme the mood remans listless rather than embracing the Alpine jolliness suggested by the rhythm and the movement never really takes off. This is one symphony where Gergiev’s tempi approach Celibidache’s for slowness but he hasn’t the Romanian maestro’s gift for creating transcendence. The famous, funereal tribute Adagio simply drags; it weaves no timeless spell, playing into the hands of critics who find Bruckner’s idiom long-winded – and I have never heard a more spineless climactic cymbal-crash. The Scherzo ambles by innocuously enough but its Trio is lacklustre. The finale is likewise competent without being very rousing – but that is neither here nor there in a Seventh whose Adagio is missing its emotional core. This is the least satisfactory of all the nine symphonies here.

The Eighth is surely both the beating heart and the apogee of any Bruckner cycle – unless that distinction is accorded to the Ninth (of that more below). Yet again, the opening evinces the same tics which mar the introductions to preceding symphonies: excessive legato, slight elongation of note values and a general lethargy which does not equate to sublimity – and subsequent peaks in the music are pusillanimous. The Scherzo, too, is too comfortable. If the Eighth sets the tone of a Bruckner cycle, then its Adagio is in turn seminal to the effect of the symphony itself. This is such beautiful music and it is here so expertly played, that I cannot fail to enjoy it, but if I return to Knappertsbusch, Karajan, Giulini, Maazel, Sinopoli or indeed a dozen other recordings of this, my favourite symphony, plucked at random from the many I prize, I hear so much more of the numinous in the music. The phrasing here is often prosaic and the celestial harp is sometimes sadly submerged beneath the weight of strings. Gergiev’s loud exhaling does not enhance the listener’s pleasure. The finale is predictably the most successful movement; it is as if Gergiev applies the same template to every symphony which involves underplaying and withholding the power of Bruckner’s inspiration until unleashing it in the finale. The coda is everything the preceding music should have been: tense, menacing, mysterious, then triumphant.

The Ninth begins with grave dignity – the product absolutely lovely orchestral blend and sound and judicious pacing – building impressively to the first immense declaration of the main theme. The ensuing second, flowing melody is played lightly and tenderly - everything here is right. This took me by surprise on first hearing, as so much of what had come before - I listened chronologically – had been inconsistent or downright disappointing. The perfect combination of lyricism and forward drive is maintained throughout, generating real and consistent excitement in a manner conspicuously lacking in most of the preceding symphonies. The timpani and horns cover themselves with glory and the movement mesmerises throughout. The Scherzo, too, has all the brutal, manic propulsion sometimes previously missing from that movement. The chattering oboe interludes are like a guest appearance by Till Eulenspiegel. After two such masterfully executed movements, the Adagio has to deliver; Gergiev makes all the right choices, allowing the Munich Philharmonic to shine in every instrumental department. The supple lyricism of his direction is couched in instrumental strands of the utmost transparency, despite the slightly challenging woolliness of the acoustic. The sun breaks through every time the Dresden Amen is intoned, then the stormy, pounding riposte from the brass and lower strings threatens to overwhelm it, perfectly characterising the struggle the Adagio embodies. The famous D major sunburst at 16:42 is meltingly beautiful – the inverse counterpart to the cry of despair which is the equally celebrated dissonant, dominant thirteenth chord. The coda is magical; apotheosis is complete. Despite wishing for a fourth movement, I found this to be the best performance by far of all the nine symphonies.

These might be live recordings but any slips in ensemble are negligible and there is virtually no audience noise; the only aural distractions come from the conductor himself and some faint ambient hiss more noticeable on headphones. While I am not necessarily in favour of interventionist conducting – especially in Bruckner – for me there is a residual feeling about most of this cycle that Gergiev often plays the scores so straight and carefully as to render them faceless. The playing is very fine, the timings and proportions unexceptionable, but the end results are often somehow unmemorable. Too many symphonies here follow the same pattern of inconsistency, delivering for the most part an unadventurous account of the music, punctuated by moments – or even whole movements - of real grandeur before defaulting to “safe mode”. In an age where there is absolutely no shortage of complete Brucker symphonies, this set does not stand out; apart from sets such as Karajan’s which have been long-established in the catalogue, even the most recent comparable live cycle from Wakasugi on Altus, which I reviewed towards the end of last year, seems more involving. To sum up, I do not share my fellow-reviewers’ enthusiasm for this. I have to conclude that Gergiev and Bruckner are not ideally matched and while I concede that there are definite highlights, such as the Sixth and the Ninth, but two unqualified success out of nine do not the complete Bruckner conductor make. I would by no means go so far as to echo the verdict that they are “glorified sight-readings”, otherwise “frequently routine” would be a fair description of the cycle as a whole; it is certainly far from revelatory – but that Ninth is a beauty.

Ralph Moore

(Commissioned and reproduced here by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal)

Details
Symphony No. 1 in C Minor WAB 101 [50:48]
1877 Linz version - ed. Nowak
rec. 25 September 2017
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor WAB 102 [55:32]
1877 version - ed. Nowak
rec. 24-25 September 2018
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor WAB 103 [55:29]
1888/89 version ed. Nowak
rec. September 2017
Symphony No. 4 in E Flat Major WAB 104 [68:30]
2nd version of 1877/78 with the 1880 Finale - ed. Nowak
rec. 26 September 2017
Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major WAB 105 [80:33]
Original 1878 version ed. Nowak
rec. 23-24 September 2019
Symphony No. 6 in A Major WAB 106 [58:38]
1881 version. ed. Nowak
rec. 2-25 September 2019
Symphony No. 7 in E Major WAB 107 [71:34]
Original 1885 version ed. Nowak
rec. 25-26 September 2019
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor WAB 108 [80:44]
1890 version. ed. Nowak
rec. 26 September 2018
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor WAB 109 [62:43]
Original 1894 version. ed. Nowak
rec. 25-26 September 2018
All live, Stiftsbasilika, St Florian




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