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Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphonies 1-9
Berliner Philharmoniker/Various conductors
rec. live, 2009-2019, Philharmonie, Berlin
9 CDs + Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc + 3 Concert Video Blu-ray Discs in High Definition

The MusicWeb Editor-in-Chief John Quinn comprehensively reviewed this own-label special edition in early 2020, well over two years ago after its release in November 2019 and I refer you to his thoughtful, trustworthy and elegantly written assessment of its many merits. This is my own first encounter with the set and as a Bruckner enthusiast I merely add my observations to his for the interest of any prospective purchaser, as it is still readily available from many of the usual outlets.

The Berlin Philharmonic has had a long association with playing Bruckner under a host of famous conductors beginning with Nikisch and reaching its zenith in Bruckner playing with Furtwängler and Karajan. The selection of conductors here in these nine symphonies recorded live over a decade is made from a more recent era but includes some equally distinguished names. Only Bernard Haitink, however, has the honour of conducting two symphonies here, nos. 4 and 5.

I should first say that I have previously quite rightly had my wrist lightly slapped for referring to sets of Bruckner’s symphonies 1-9 as “complete”, given that we are now widely accepting of the idea that any truly comprehensive survey should include the two earlier works, the Study Symphony and Die Nullte, making a total of eleven, rather than nine, as per the sets from Gerd Schaller and Simone Young in my “Shortlist of Bruckner Symphony Recommendations”. For some, the earlier symphonies still do not merit the appellation of “proper” or “mature” Bruckner and their interest in his symphonic output begins only with the mighty Third, but I take great pleasure in nos. 1 and 2 and find considerable interest in the other two early works – but let that pass; here we have the traditionally accepted canon of The Nine.

Ozawa gives us a surprisingly fiery and energised account of the original 1865/66 ‘Linz’ version of the First Symphony. I have in general a slightly higher opinion of the symphony than John and, as he remarks, the author of the notes. Perhaps greater familiarity with it more readily reveals its charms, but there is no doubting that it has its weaknesses as a composition. Nonetheless, Ozawa really makes the most of its material, starting with a perky, but vaguely menacing march which picks up pace arrestingly; the first climax which starts to build from three minutes in is highly dramatic, as is the second crescendo beginning at the ten-minute mark and heralding a thrilling, full cavalry charge to the finish – apart from the whimsical little break at 12:08 featuring the flute. For once, I am not irritated by the conductor’s exhortatory grunts there, as Ozawa really gets results. The stately Adagio is already in mature Bruckner mode but it is without the melodic memorability or metaphysical underpinnings of that movement in later symphonies; nonetheless the expertise of the orchestral playing and Ozawa’s dedication to maintaining a flowing pace closer to Andante help to sustain the listener’s interest. The spiralling figure dominating the final three minutes is inspired and somewhat akin in mood and content to the conclusion of the Traumpantomime in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel – so it’s a pity that Ozawa’s Barbirolli-like groaning is often too audible. The restless Scherzo is similarly energised and the performers do justice to what is evidently the most successful and recognisably Brucknerian movement the composer had penned up to that point. That drive is carried through to the finale, helping to paper over some sense of the movement being fragmentary and lacking inspiration; certainly the symphony, such as it is, could hardly receive more persuasive advocacy than here.

Paavo Järvi conducts the 1877 version of the Second Symphony edited by William Carragan. Despite the rather disparaging comments about it by Richard Taruskin, the writer of the notes, I am fond of the “Pausensinfonie”, especially in Giulini’s recording with the VSO. Järvi attacks the scurrying opening measures with an almost breathless haste which I find invigorating; the ensuing Andante second subject is similarly pressed quite hard then accelerates to thrilling effect. Järvi clearly decided that he should head off any chance of his audience experiencing potential longueurs in the music by embracing propulsiveness – and I think it works. That seems to be his guiding principle when conducting Bruckner; he applied a similar style to his live performances with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. The range of colours achieved by the BPO’s brass section is especially admirable, from the brash and raucous to the lyrical and emollient. The slow second movement is, I think, almost the equal of those in later symphonies and although Järvi is again swift, he is never perfunctory; as such, he is in fact following Bruckner’s combined instructions of “feierlich, etwas bewegt” (i.e. solemn, stately, but still moving) and the conclusive horn calls over undulating strings are beautifully done. The Scherzo is predictably jovial and rumbustious, but Järvi pulls back sensitively for the light-footed little waltz of the Trio. The finale is a delightful succession of melodies, which to my ears has an almost Berliozian element in its juxtaposition of the tumultuous brass chorales with tenderly intimate themes, culminating in a blazing conclusion. Järvi keeps it all together, presiding over what seems to me to be as good a performance of this symphony as any other.

Herbert Blomstedt elects to plays the original version of the Third Symphony. As with Järvi, momentum without compromising grandeur is the key to his reading and that mighty, mysterious opening to the symphony is as imposing as one could wish – and here is where the sonority of the orchestra really comes to the fore; I don’t think I have ever heard as monumental a build-up to the first climax four minutes in, before the lyrical, descending string theme, which is meltingly played. It is quite extraordinary that a ninety-year-old-conductor could galvanise his orchestra into giving such a titanic performance; Karajan would have approved. The Adagio is serene and long-breathed, beautifully sculpted phrasally, and dynamically very refined. The outer passages of the Scherzo are suitably demonic with pleasingly prominent percussion, neatly contrasted with a genial, Ländler Trio. Blomstedt has no trouble melding the potpourri of themes and tunes of the finale into a coherent entity and the pace of drive are again phenomenal, building to a stupendous climax.

I have too belatedly come to the realisation that Bernard Haitink was often a great Bruckner conductor and this performance of the Fourth Symphony confirms that; the mood is right from the off and I can do no better than to quote, with his permission, my MusicWeb colleague John Quinn who has expressed everything I want to say about this recording better than I could say it:

“The symphony’s opening emerges magically; there’s an air of hushed expectancy. The expectation is more than fulfilled, for Haitink leads a reading of the movement that is distinguished in every respect. He controls the performance marvellously and seems to me to have a completely sure sense of where the music is going; indeed, there’s a sense of inevitability. The tuttis blaze thrillingly but the delivery of the more lyrical passages is just as satisfying. Much of the slow movement is relaxed and lyrical, though the relaxation is tempered by a consistent sense of purpose. The climaxes rise majestically from time to time, rather in the way that mountains might rise from a rural landscape. The last climax is especially impressive. The ‘hunting’ Scherzo is full of vitality and the Trio, when it arrives, is genial – the gentle shading of the woodwind solos at the start of the trio is a special delight. The Finale is splendid. Again, Haitink evidences a firm grip on the music’s architecture. It’s a performance of contrasts, varying between episodes where the music – and the way it is played – is delicate and very refined, and other passages where the effortless full power of the BPO is unleashed. In the long build-up to the final peroration the entire orchestra plays with sovereign control of dynamics and tension until the symphony ends in great majesty.”

Haitink’s performance of the Fifth Symphony three years earlier is similarly masterly. The majesty of the orchestral sound in combination with Haitink’s attention to shading dynamics make a profound impression. The precision and coordination displayed in the pizzicato passages are complemented by the energy and attack of the chorale sections; Haitink embraces all the facets of this most cosmic of symphonies. It really is sad to think how Bruckner never got to hear it performed by an orchestra at all – let alone as well as this. Wave after wave of climactic sound washes over the listener, ideally served by impeccable sound engineering, but despite the implacable grandeur of Haitink’s conception, it never becomes ponderous or self-conscious. The Adagio is massively dignified, shot through with a kind of noble melancholy and resignation; the string arpeggios in the concluding minutes are so elegantly and delicately executed in shapely fashion before an almost diffident, fading conclusion. The Scherzo is anything but: a bold, cocksure charge, punctuated only briefly by brief bucolic intervals and momentary pauses, all beautifully judged by Haitink. The finale is an extended fugal and contrapuntal riot crowned by an overwhelming brass peroration. This is surely the highlight of the set.

Mariss Jansons’ Sixth Symphony begins in urgent style, with him pressing on the beat such that I wonder if he really is heeding Bruckner’s admittedly vague instruction “Majestoso” – but urgency is the hallmark of many of the Bruckner performances in this set, perhaps reflecting a modern tendency to eschew any hint of stasis. I prefer rather more stateliness – but these things are subjective matters of taste and there is no doubt that Jansons’ approach is consistent and coherent. Furthermore, his interpretative choices are reinforced by playing of such power and radiance from the BPO that it seems churlish to quibble, especially as the conclusion of that first movement is so grand. I have no such questions regarding Jansons’ playing of the Adagio which expands gloriously then concludes sublimely. The Scherzo is taut and fierce; as my colleague remarks, the instruction “Nicht schnell” always seems misleading if not downright redundant and Jansons has no truck with it; as result, the contrast between the outer sections and the slow, dreamy Trio seems right. Nervy restless mood of the opening of the finale feels just right, as does the ensuing pastoral passage. The movement as a whole is such an odd, changeable amalgam that it calls for a light, subtle touch as well as reserves of power, and Jansons rises to that challenge, finding all the flexibility required, managing to make what is, compared with Bruckner’s two preceding symphonies, an almost abrupt conclusion sound apt.

Christian Thielemann is still something of an enigma to me. Some of his recordings really hit the spot, others seem laboured. He is here given what is, along with Bruckner’s Fourth, the most popular symphony in the canon – the Seventh - even if aficionados would always first plump for the Eighth. The beautiful playing of the BPO may be taken for granted but for me he is one of those conductors who aims for effulgence of sound over drama and I cannot help thinking that his tempi are edging towards the lugubrious and I do wish for more a bit more impetus despite the sumptuousness of the orchestral sound. Nonetheless, the climax of the first movement is absolutely glorious – a great symphony orchestra in full flight – and the Adagio sustains that sense of exaltation. The rich, singing tone of the BPO and Thielemann’s firm grip on its pulse move this wonderful music along seamlessly to culminate in a colossal outburst at 18:50 - the true climax of this symphony – followed by the tenderest of conclusions on a serene F major. The Scherzo is fast and furious and I like the way Thielemann manipulates tempi to generate maximum tension before easing into a lazy Trio. This is one of the tightest, most succinct of Bruckner’s Scherzos and is ideally delivered here. The finale, too, is the least diffuse and most lyrical of those of the later symphonies and Thielemann encourages the brass and lower strings to deliver their hieratic pronouncements with huge weight and depth of sound. The final bars could not be more impressive.

As is the case while listening throughout this collection, I am struck by the beauty of the orchestral sound in the Eighth Symphony, here under Zubin Mehta. The playing is simply immaculate and the sonority stunning – helped by the fact that again, throughout this set, the engineering is flawless in terms of balance, depth and clarity. Given those advantages, I am not as much concerned as other reviewers as to whether Mehta puts any particular personal mark on the score; it seems to me that he and the BPO are delivering everything in it to a supreme level and the hushed conclusion to the first movement leaves me eager to move on to the wild ecstasy of the Scherzo. In truth, I have heard those outer sections played with greater intensity; it is a little too civilised here. The Adagio, however, is played with such gentle, patient restraint that when finally the big moments are unleashed they have all the greater impact. That refinement allows us first to hear the contributions of the subtler instruments such as the trio of harps before the horns and Wagner tubas take up their noble theme for the first time at 8:06. The greatest climax, so artfully prepared by a false trail suddenly cut off at 20:45 then released in all its splendour at 21:40, is one of the great moments in Bruckner and if you wanted to choose one movement in this set which best showcases this orchestra’s prowess, this is it – but the finale is by no means anticlimactic, either; it matches the Adagio for grandeur but the fast sections are infused with a febrile energy, culminating in a magnificent paean.

A decade ago, I very favourably reviewed Simon Rattle’s live composite recording of the Ninth Symphony on EMI, declaring it to be “the finest thing he has done with the Berlin Philharmonic to date” and nothing he has done with the BPO subsequently has prompted me to revise that opinion. This live performance took place over six years later and is his fastest by a considerable margin – but not unreasonably so in comparison to various classic recordings by such as Karajan or Walter. He again uses the fourth movement completion by Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca in its “Conclusive Revised Edition” of 2012. I have confessed to being no great fan of Rattle at the helm of this orchestra but once again I am genuinely impressed by this performance which brings out the best in him and the BPO.

There is no sense of undue haste in the mysterious, even ominous, introduction and the sheer weight of the BPO’s sound lends it all the gravitas you could wish; the first climax two minutes in is huge but just occasionally I sense that he is pushing the tempo when I would like a more measured, considered approach. The second climax half way through is equally massive and there is abundant evidence that Rattle, who can be a fussy, fidgety conductor, has here turned his ear for detail to good effect in sculpting so many telling phrases. The movement ends upon the same baleful note of suspense and uncertainty – a maelstrom of menace, carried over into the goblin march of the Scherzo, hammered out with power and precision and balanced by the insouciant, filigree lightness of the Trio. The Adagio has the requisite otherworldliness; there is a kind of spareness and purity about many passages, especially those where the flute predominates, which contrast with the aureate glow of the strings and brass in their long, lyrical lines. The tutti passages underscored by percussion are enormously imposing and the A major “sunburst” at 15:12 is magical – but of course the climactic moment is the dissonant furore which erupts from nineteen minutes in before the music subsides into the transcendent coda; all of this is perfectly realised here.

There will always be doubts and objections regarding the suitability of appending a fourth movement to what Bruckner was unable to finish. I quite understand why some object but am increasingly tolerant of such enterprises and it is not as though the intrepid reconstructors have nothing to go on; the surviving sketches do supply some actual and conjectural basis to work on, even if the conclusion to any such reconstruction is going to be complete guesswork. The SPCM completion is to my ears sufficiently Brucknerian and diverting to justify inclusion without necessarily surpassing Gerd Schaller’s revised completion, which I believe to be the best to date. There are moments of blandness but also some thrillingly authentic moments of echt Bruckner inspiration and I thoroughly enjoy the triumphant coda; those who are unhappy can, of course, simply stop listening after the Adagio.

Rattle’s concept of this symphony does not get lost in detail; he instead sustains a vision which is all of a piece and his execution of the putatively Brucknerian completion conforms to his predilection for dynamism.

This is not a bargain set and the presentation is appropriately generous; the 108-page booklet in German with English translations contains colour photographs, two long, informative essays, biographies, premieres, orchestration, etc. Oddly, versions are specified by year but not the editions used (see the contents list below for that). In addition to the nine CDs, there is an audio Blu-ray containing all the symphonies and there are three Blu-ray video discs, the first of which contains the conductors talking about their respective symphonies. The audio and video Blu-ray discs offer both 2.0 PCM Stereo & 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio as options. I listened on regular stereo CDs and was very impressed but my understanding is that the Blu-ray discs are even better; a code is also supplied for downloading.

A final thought: not every performance here is necessarily the finest you could find of each individual symphony, but they are all first class and the best of them – the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Eighth – are outstanding. Considered as a whole, the package is formidable. It has been my perception that the BPO has been in slow decline under its new intendants over the last three decades and very little of its recorded output has struck me as having the same quality as it had under Karajan in its glory years. While I appreciate that the recordings assembled here are highly selective, drawn from a decade of performances of the symphonies of only one composer, on this showing, the BPO has every claim to be considered as fine a Bruckner orchestra as the VPO and indeed still the finest orchestra in the world; these live performances – incidentally, utterly unblemished by any audience noise - are testimony to the existence of a perfect aesthetic symbiosis in a triumvirate of orchestra, conductor and composer.

Ralph Moore
(This review reproduced here, in slightly modified form, by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal.)

Previous review: John Quinn

Symphony No 1 in C minor (1866 ‘Linz’ version, ed. Nowak) [49:18]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Seiji Ozawa
rec. 29-31 January, 2009
Symphony No 2 in C minor (1877 version, ed. Carragan to remove the Haas anomalies) [56:38]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Paavo Järvi
rec. 23-25 May, 2019
Symphony No 3 in D minor (1873 version, ed Nowak) [63:25]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. 8-10 December, 2017
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major ‘Romantic’ (1879/80 version, ed. Haas) [68:30]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink
rec. 13-15 March, 2014
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major (ed. Haas) [74:42]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Bernard Haitink
rec. 10-12 March, 2011
Symphony No 6 in A major (original version, ed. Nowak) [54:18]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Mariss Jansons
rec. 25-27 January, 2018
Symphony No 7 in E major (1885 version, ed. Nowak) [70:32]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. 15-17 December, 2016
Symphony No 8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Zubin Mehta
rec.15-17 March, 2012
Symphony No 9 in D minor (1894 original version, ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs) [77:09]
With the completed performance version of the 4th movement by Samale-Philips-Cohrs-Mazzuca (1985-2008, rev. 2012)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 26 May, 2018
9 CDs:
Recorded in 24bit/48 kHz
1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc:
In lossless studio master quality - Sound options: 2.0 PCM Stereo - 24bit/48 kHz & 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, 24bit/48 kHz
3 Concert Video Blu-ray discs including documentary video: ‘The conductors talk about Bruckner’s symphonies’ [37:00] + Download code for high resolution audio file of the entire album + 7 Day Ticket for Digital Concert Hall
In High-Definition Video Picture Format: Full HD 1080/60i – 16:9
Sound options: 2.0 PCM Stereo & 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)

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