Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bruckner's symphonies

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the first instalment, I re-examine the symphonies of Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896). I am skipping his two unnumbered early symphonies ("0" and "00"), simply because I do not have them.

My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1982, 50 min)
Many first symphonies are of lower quality than the later ones, and Bruckner is no exception to the rule - even though he was already over 40 when he wrote it. A good work, but nothing stands out here, and for me this is one of the least important works in his symphonic oeuvre.

My version: Saarbruecken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Wakasugi (Arte Nova, 1992, 61 min)
I was pleasantly surprised hearing this one again. The heavy-handedness that characterizes so much of Bruckner's work is much less dominant here, yet there is sufficient typical Bruckner in the score that no-one could mistake it for a work by anyone else. I especially like the 17 min Andante, which never outstays its welcome and creates an almost pastoral atmosphere.

My version: Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Chailly (Decca, 1985, 55 min)
The Wagner symphony, dedicated to the grandmaster of opera. The first symphony by Bruckner where lyrical passages foreshadow Mahler to my taste. The symphony as a whole leaves me in two minds: there are many wonderful parts, but there are also too many repetitive heavy brass-rich passages that serve little purpose, and the first movement is definitely too long for its content at almost 21 minutes.

My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (EMI, 1971, 70 min)
Known as the "Romantic", there is a reason why this is one of his most loved symphonies - as well as the first one to be really successful at its premiere. The somewhat excessive Bruckneriana are still there, but with strong melodic overtones over the fanfares. The first and last movements last over 20 minutes each, and manage to keep the listener spellbound throughout. The scherzo is traditionally a weaker point in a Bruckner symphony, but this one rocks. My second favourite Bruckner symphony.

My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1977, 81 min)
This symphony has its moments, without reaching real greatness. A case in point is the Adagio, which would stand out in the symphonies of many of his contemporaries as a great movement, but which suffers in comparison to similar movements in his most successful symphonies. In the end, worthwhile, but falling behind the others in the 4-9 bracket.

My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/von Karajan (DG, 1980, 57 min)
Of the later symphonies, the sixth probably gets the least exposure, it has even been called the ugly duckling of the lot. I beg to differ. Upon hearing it again, I like it very much, right from the characteristic first notes. It is highly melodic and has perhaps a wider variety of styles than most of his work, with passages that could also have been composed by Brahms. Yet the total is still very much Bruckner.

Symphony 7 in E major (1883)
My version: Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin/Chailly (Decca, 1985, 69 min)
One of his four most popular symphonies, and one of the best received in the composer's life time. The opening movement of 23 minutes is spellbinding and beautiful, and the following 23 minutes adagio offers some of the greatest melodic lines Bruckner ever composed. It is ironic that, had the composer been unable to finish the symphony after these two movements, I would probably have ranked it as one of the best ever, on par with Schubert's two movement unfinished 8th. As is, the scherzo is not bad, but still a bit of a let down after those marvellous first two movements, and the same holds for the finale.

Symphony 8 in C minor (1887/1890)
My version: Berliner Philharmoniker/Jochum (DG, 1964, 74 min)
Although not a success in Bruckner's lifetime, his 8th has steadily grown in appreciation, and in a recent thread at the Talk Classical forum, it even turned out to be the most popular of his oeuvre. I don't quite agree, although it is definitely one of the highlights in his oeuvre. The opening movement relies too much on the typical Bruckner brass dominated fanfares to my taste, lacking originality. On the other hand, for the first time, the composer switched the usual sequence of scherzo and adagio, which has a refreshing effect. The adagio itself is surely one of the most beautiful movements ever composed, over 25 minutes of sheer bliss. The finale is genuine Bruckner, with fanfares creating an almost Wagnerian apocalyptic vision.

Symphony 9 in D minor (1896)
My version: Concertgebouw Orchestra/Haitink (DG, 1981, 63 min)
Bruckner's final and unfinished symphony, and before this exercise, a clear choice for me to list as one of my 3 favourite symphonies of all time (the others being Schubert's Unfinished 8th, and Mahler's 4th). Did it stand my test of time? Well, the first movement blows everything he had composed before straight out of the water. Over 25 minutes of pure magic, beautiful melodic, different and yet echt Bruckner. As in the 8th, he puts the scherzo second. Personally, I think scherzo's were not his forte, but this one is easily the best in his repertoire. The Bruckner fanfares appear more to the point here than usual, and it includes intriguingly subdued moments as well. Keeping it at 10 minutes, less than half the length of the other movements, helps. The final Adagio is heartbreakingly beautiful, right from the first two notes until its whispered coda 26 minutes later. After this glimpse of heaven, the originally planned choral fourth movement would probably have been an anti-climax: the symphony is perfect as it is, in its three movements.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: 9
Essential: 4,8
Important: 6,7
Good to have: 2,3,5
Not required: 1