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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 3 in D minor “Wagner” (First Version, 1873, ed. Nowak) [61:02]
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major “Romantic” (First Version, 1874, ed. Nowak) [60:33]
Symphony No 6 in A major (ed. Nowak) [51:41]
Symphony No 7 in E major (Second Version, 1885, ed. Nowak) [55:11]
Symphony No 9 in D minor (Version 1894, ed. Nowak) [51:59]
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR/Roger Norrington
rec. live, 2007-2010, Beethovensaal, Liederhalle, Stuttgart
SWR MUSIC SWR19528CD [5 CDs: 280:24]

We seek to play our Bruckner Symphonies as nearly as we can to how the composer might have expected to hear them. We are a modern orchestra, of course; the instruments were slightly different in 1870, but we use the numbers of players Bruckner expected, the Viennese seating plan, the bowing, phrasing, and articulation of the period, and the latest information on the tempi of the works. Equally important, of course, is the use of “pure tone”, without the  encrustation of 20th century vibrato. The Vienna Philharmonic appear to have played like this right up to 1938.

Sir Roger Norrington’s booklet note is guaranteed to infuriate some listeners and to amuse others. For those readers who have encountered the conductor’s Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Schumann, his arguments will be familiar. The modern approach to string playing – specifically the use of continuous vibrato – is anathema to Norrington. In his many jeremiads on the subject, Norrington often refers to the playing of the 1938 Vienna Philharmonic as a sort of last stand for “pure” tone, the implication being that their embrace of “impure” tone began shortly after 1938. (The performance he references is the live Mahler 9 conducted by Bruno Walter, recorded shortly before the Anschluss.)
Norrington may or may not be purposefully drawing some sort of parallel between sinful vibrato and the Nazi annexation of Austria; either way, his argument is questionable. There is plenty of audible vibrato throughout the 1938 Mahler 9 record, but you don’t have to take my word for it; as Tomoyuki Sawado points out in a compelling online essay [available here], a quick reference to films of major European symphony orchestras from the 1920s and 1930s reveals that the string sections are visibly vibrating away under a number of different conductors including Bruno Walter.

As part of his indictment of continuous vibrato, Norrington also regularly cites the example of the longtime concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, Arnold Rosé, to further his argument. There are a number of recorded incidents of Rosé frowning upon the vibratory excesses of colleagues, and in one case, allegedly chastising an auditioning violinist for his indulgent “bleating.” A survey of Rosé’s numerous solo recordings from as early as 1909, however, shows that he used significantly more vibrato than Norrington permits in his modern orchestras. Rosé’s vibrato was not modern in the Kreisler or Heifetz sense, being closer to a pure finger vibrato than to a wrist-induced vibrato, but it was present and audible.

Norrington is wrong about vibrato in Bruckner, and the ability of most listeners to enjoy these discs will hinge upon their feelings on that point. For this listener, the climaxes are consistently underwhelming, weakened fatally by the lack of resonance in the strings. Although Norrington has a virtuoso brass section at his disposal in the SWR Orchestra, the brass chorales that thrill in typical performances here don’t have anything approaching the power and grandeur they would if they were supported by a vibrant string section. Furthermore, poignant moments such as the Adagio of the 7th Symphony or the first movement of the 9th are completely robbed of their throbbing emotional content. Instead of heartbreaking cries from the depths, we get a neutered string tone that comes across as thin-lipped and prim, puritanical rather than spiritual.

Tempi are also fast, sometimes ridiculously so. To use an American phrase, Norrington “books it” in every one of these symphonies. The English conductor’s Sixth Symphony flies by in a cool 51 minutes, 11 seconds. To compare to a few other performances of the Nowak edition, Wolfgang Sawallisch clocks in at 57’41”, while Günter Wand offers a similar timing at 57’33”. Georg Solti, not famous for his luxuriant pacing, takes 61’06” to traverse the score. Norrington’s other symphony recordings similarly shave six to eight minutes off of conventional playing times. There are moments when Norrington’s choice of swift tempi has its own logic and seems absolutely natural. Many other conductors could learn from his willingness to let the music move forward, avoiding the deathly stasis (“profundity”) of some Bruckner interpretations. At other times, however, Norrington rushes, and in those moments, his frantic momentum defies the needs of the music. This inappropriate haste is especially noticeable in the slow movements; the Adagios of the Seventh and Ninth symphonies suffer the most in this regard. To be fair, Norrington does occasionally confound expectations; the scherzo of the 9th symphony is significantly slower than the frenzied scherzo found on the classic wartime Furtwängler recording.

Although the lack of power in climaxes is a huge demerit, listening to these recordings is akin to hearing muscular chamber versions of the scores. Musical strands that lay dormant in other recordings here bubble their way to the surface, and at times I found myself captivated against my will. The almost unnatural amount of musical detail present on Norrington’s discs is their main selling point. Every single dynamic, articulation, phrase shape, and balance has been carefully thought through by Norrington, and his musical desires are painstakingly carried out by the orchestra. Listen to the opening movement of the “Romantic” symphony, performed by Norrington and the SWR in the first edition of 1874. The string tremolos are truly pianissimo, a state of affairs maintained by Norrington until the notated crescendo in m. 22. (Many conductors give up and allow a loudening effect long before.) Bruckner’s printed dynamic scheme ca. m. 40-50, with the numerous crescendi followed by sudden softer dynamics, has been followed to the letter. The little woodwind licks at m. 79 are audible (!), even as brass or strings play their primary melodic lines with no diminution in volume. Every single chordal section has been carefully balanced as a pianist might balance the chords in a single hand. In addition to his attention to detail, Norrington makes decisive and distinctive interpretive choices. For example, in the first movement of the “Romantic” at m. 201, Norrington has the concertmaster play the first violin line alone, rather than allowing the full section to play (as Bruckner wrote). Instead of a lush but forgettable transitional passage, a waystation en route to a later climax, this section takes on a Mahlerian feel, with the rustic solo violin sweetly intoning a light melody as a single trumpet plays an insistent dotted rhythm that becomes a harbinger of strife to come.

It’s difficult to avoid perceiving Norrington’s Bruckner as anything other than a missed opportunity. In his quest to rid these Romantic-era scores of their perceived Romantic excesses, Norrington turns his back on the most important aspect of Bruckner’s music: its ability to communicate incredible depth of feeling. This is unfortunate, because Norrington not only possesses a vivid musical imagination, but also shows an admirable willingness to spend time on notational minutiae that less gifted conductors gloss over without a second thought. If Norrington had resisted the urge to indulge in his anti-vibrato crusade, I believe that these CDs would be among the most notable of modern Bruckner recordings. As is, they are curiosities that will never be anyone’s first, second, or even third choice in these works.

A quick note on the orchestra and recordings: Roger Norrington was principal conductor of the Stuttgart band from 1998 until 2011. What was the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra merged with the Baden-Baden/Freiburg-based Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2016. The new orchestra is named SWR Symphonieorchester. This 5-CD set is on the “SWR Music” label, but the recordings were made before the merger. These are the same discs released individually on the Hänssler label in the early 2010s. If you already own those and enjoy them, you won’t need this set.

Richard Masters

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