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Bruckner FOCD9852

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (1889 version ed. Nowak) [57:30]
Symphony No. 4 in E Flat Major (1886 version ed. Nowak) [69:18]
Symphony No. 6 in A Major (1881 version. ed. Nowak)] [58:11]
Symphony No. 7 in E Major (1885 version. ed. Nowak) [69:30]
Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra/Taijiro Iimori
rec. 18 January 2001 (3); 28 May 1998 (4); 9 January 2003 (6); 25 February 1999 (7), Tokyo Bunaka Kaikan (3 & 6); Sunitory Hall, Tokyo (4 & 7)
FONTEC FOCD 9852-55 [4 CDs: 254:29]

I must confess that while my admiration for Japanese conductors and orchestras in Bruckner has been growing exponentially over the last few years, I had not previously encountered Taijiro Iimori, celebrated though he may be.

These live recordings of four middle-period Bruckner symphonies are not new; in fact, they were all made around twenty years ago and more. Iimori plays the conventional, Nowak editions (opting for the Third without the coda) and is recorded in first-class sound, recorded at quite a high level, the engineers being aided by the excellent acoustics of the Sunitory Hall.

I immediately like the drive, purpose and energy of the opening of the Third Symphony and Iimori gauges the pauses neatly, too – but I also instantly register what for me is an increasingly prevalent and ill-disciplined habit among conductors, which is to grunt and groan along with the music, an issue which goes back to Barbirolli, became maddening with Colin Davis as he aged, and presumably dates from the time when recording techniques and microphone placement became sufficiently sensitive to enhance our pleasure but also pick up on extraneous noise. That distraction is admittedly at first only intermittent and tolerable in a performance of such quality as this; the orchestra plays with such precision, confidence and positivity as at first to disarm my complaint, and I am especially impressed by the prominent and fearless contribution of the timpani. This is not subtle Bruckner conducting but goes to the heart of the heroic thrust of the music. In truth, I could do with more restraint and nuance, but Iimori knows what he wants to do with it. After that, my tolerance both for the vocalise and the relentless gung-ho approach starts to wane. The Adagio is short on tenderness and long on conductorial vocalism; for me, it rather lacks the long, flowing lines the music craves and comes across as unfeeling and even galumphing, especially around the mid-point, where Iimori’s obbligato is also at its most obtrusive. Rather than being seduced, the listener is bludgeoned into submission – yet the “Dvořák’s New World Symphony” theme in the conclusion is elegantly delivered; go figure. The Scherzo is as red-blooded as one might expect given the character of the two preceding movements and goes really well, combining a lilting joyfulness with more than a hint of manic aggression. The trio is very deliberate and insistent with more than a touch of the wooden leg in the dance. The finale is likewise massive, even ponderous, in manner and some intonation problems among the violins are apparent during the exposition of the second, “slow foxtrot” theme and there is some lack of delicacy in the playing but the reprise of the first, driving ostinato is exciting – as Mr Iimori lets us know by underlining it very audibly – and the timpanist again lets rip in the final bars.

The Fourth Symphony opens with some atmospheric horn-playing tastefully embroidered by the conductor’s groans and a full-blooded orchestral ensemble ensues, accompanying our soloist who “di-di pom-poms” very nicely during some passages and positively serenades us at the climaxes. In case you think I am exaggerating, let me suggest that you listen with headphones from 9:00 onwards for a couple of minutes, halfway through the first movement. The quality of orchestral playing continues to be grandiloquently excellent but I find the intrusions insufferable. For goodness’ sake, he even sings along with the horn’s climactic valediction and begins the Andante the same way with his cellos. Again, the playing lacks finesse and makes me wonder whether that would have been remedied had the conductor concentrated more on dynamics and phrasing than having a good time. And so it continues in the weighty Scherzo with its rather lugubrious Trio. The opening of the finale is a mighty sound and for the most part drowns out Mr Iimori – but he still manages to double the cymbal climax neatly at 2:33. I find some of his changes of gear in tempi and dynamics too abrupt, in keeping with a certain heavy-handedness that characterises his conducting in general. The climaxes within the movement can approach crude noise but the conclusion is undeniably thrilling.

I cannot keep belabouring the point; suffice it to say that it persists from the outset of the Sixth, which is nonetheless straightforwardly executed and indeed because so much of the first movement is played forte, the intrusions are negligible. Iimori’s no-nonsense progress through the music seems also to resolve satisfactorily the question of how to balance the relationship between the tempi indicated for the different sections in the first movement; I find that it all goes very well. Again, it is not subtle but it is propulsive. The Adagio is similarly unfussy and at first relatively uninterrupted but the crooning soon becomes very noticeable and the fierce Scherzo is likewise punctuated. The finale is an alternately raucous and stately affair but…well, you know the rest…

Finally, if your endurance holds out, on to the Seventh – and in fact it is worth persevering. The shimmering opening with nicely graded dynamics is marred by grunts but from then on, the Tokyo orchestra make an opulent sound mostly without blemish and I find myself able to enjoy the music undisturbed for virtually the whole movement, even if I could wish for a more affectionate phrasing. The glorious sunrise ending is beautifully realised. The Adagio unfolds serenely despite a bit of grunting and the cymbal clash is satisfying. The Scherzo is crisp and urgent with an urbane, even relaxed, Trio; only in the finale do we again hear too much from the rostrum but I like the pacing and shaping of the music. Why we should be mostly spared grief during this symphony, I am unsure, but it is my impression that not only is the conductor on better behaviour but the recorded sound is somewhat more distanced from the source of the disturbance – indeed the sound is slightly muted compared with the immediacy of the recordings of other three symphonies.

Behind the irritations, lurk good, solid, if not especially inspired, performances of these four symphonies, especially the Seventh, for obvious reasons. If I do not provide more detail here regarding their execution, it is because I lose patience with how often the merits of the recording are masked by the noise issue. Perhaps now I understand why its release was so long delayed. Put simply, my problem with masters of the podium who get so carried away with their interpretative involvement that they cannot restrain themselves from providing a vocal accompaniment, is that I, as a paying guest, have attuned my ears as finely as possible to the sounds being made in order to appreciate them fully, so I no more want to hear them sing and groan along than I want to hear unmuffled coughing, stertorous breathing, whistling hearing aids or the unwrapping of sweets in crackling cellophane. Is that so unreasonable?

Ralph Moore

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