February 06, 2014


Bruckner: Symphony No. 9. Berner Symphonieorchester conducted by Mario Venzago. CPO. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphonies Nos. 00 and 0. Sinfonieorchester Aachen conducted by Marcus Bosch. Coviello Classics. $19.99 (SACD).

     One of the most intriguing Bruckner cycles of recent years continues to fascinate with Mario Venzago’s recording of the three-movement version of the Ninth Symphony with the Berner Symphonieorchester. Venzago’s cycle is unique in the conductor’s deliberate use of multiple orchestras in an attempt to match the sound and emphasis of each symphony to an ensemble that is particularly well equipped to bring them out. Thus, the Berner Symphonieorchester is used here and was also featured in Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6; the Tapiola Sinfonietta – a fascinating choice – delivered Nos. 0 and 1; the Northern Sinfonia played No. 2; and Sinfonieorchester Basel performed Nos. 4 and 7. Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8 have yet to be released, but it is already clear that Venzago’s sonic gamble is paying off wonderfully. Each of these symphonies really does sound different – from the others and also from Bruckner as performed by other conductors. Venzago argues persuasively that the monumentality and denseness usually accorded Bruckner are overdone and in many cases simply wrong – that the composer’s Schubertian elements, for example, can profitably be brought to the fore, along with much greater transparency of texture than is usual in Bruckner performances. As a result, Venzago, a particularly thoughtful conductor, is delivering Bruckner in a way that not only places the composer firmly within the Schubertian tradition but also shows ways in which his orchestration looks ahead to that of Mahler – not in gigantism but in sensitive use of instrumental groups and inner voices. Bruckner has not sounded like this before, and the experience is exhilarating. It is also somewhat peculiar, and no more so than in Venzago’s reading of the Ninth. This is a very speedy performance, lasting only a bit more than 50 minutes – the three complete movements of this symphony often take an hour, and do not seem to plod at that pace. Venzago takes chances throughout this rendition, emphasizing rhythmic detail that rarely comes forward in other performances, making climaxes very climactic indeed, and taking the Scherzo at such a headlong pace that the mere fact of the orchestra’s ability to keep up is something of a marvel (especially in the pizzicati, which are nearly unplayable even at a much more moderate tempo). This is a nervous, fraught performance, one that emphasizes the bleakness of much of the music as well as its forays into extreme dissonance. There is an aura of doom hovering over much of Venzago’s reading – one that is never satisfactorily resolved, because this recording makes it clear just how incomplete the Ninth is with only three movements. Bruckner never intended this: he worked hard on the finale and completed a great deal of it, but not enough to allow performers to agree on what to do with it, with the result that the Ninth has become generally accepted in three-movement form. But it is a shame that Venzago offers it this way, because his three movements are so striking and unusual that they cry out for a summation and resolution to a greater extent than do those of other conductors. Venzago has promised to present a possible solution to the “finale problem” as an appendix to his Bruckner cycle – but it is too bad that his answer, whatever it might be, did not appear on a second CD as part of this release. Venzago raises so many interesting questions with this Ninth that it would be fascinating in the extreme to hear some of his answers. For now, the questions themselves stand on their own and are intriguing in the extreme.

     At the other end of Bruckner’s symphonic production lie the two uniquely numbered symphonies designated Nos. 00 and 0, which receive strong and knowing readings in a live recording of performances by the Sinfonieorchester Aachen under Marcus Bosch. These are straightforward, well-modulated readings that present the music with strength and understanding, breaking no new interpretative ground but giving the symphonies their due. What they are due is somewhat different in the two works. No. 00, called the “Study” symphony, is an early work that does not sound particularly “Brucknerian”: the composer wrote it in connection with his studies with Otto Kitzler. Much as other composers created uncharacteristic first symphonies to show their mastery of the basics of their craft – Charles Ives’ First for Horatio Parker, to cite just one example – Bruckner here shows that he has mastered the musical language of Mendelssohn and Schumann and is adept at scoring a full-scale symphonic piece. There are already a few characteristics of later Bruckner here, notably the triple-themed first movement and three-part second. And the Scherzo already has some of the sound that would become familiar in the composer’s later works. As a whole, though, Symphony No. 00, although scarcely a work of juvenilia – Bruckner was 39 when he wrote it – sounds, even in Bosch’s sensitive performance, more like a preparatory work for the future than like anything highly original. Symphony No. 0, “Die Nullte,” is another matter. This was written after Symphony No. 1 but discarded by the composer for unknown reasons. It already possesses many aspects of the “Bruckner sound,” beginning at the very start of the first movement and continuing in the use of a first-movement chorale theme, the creation of another characteristic Scherzo, and a finale that begins slowly, builds on the first movement, and eventually joins its three themes for a triumphant conclusion. These are all elements to which Bruckner was to return again and again in later works, and if those later symphonies were more unified and polished than this one, that is mostly a matter of the composer’s increasing skill at putting across what he wanted to say. The message is already there in Symphony No. 0 – and it is a message communicated very effectively by Bosch and the Aachen ensemble, of which he is music director. Bruckner’s progress from the “Study” symphony to No. 9 was both deep and extensive. Hearing first-rate recordings of the very early and very late symphonies shows how far the composer traveled – but also shows that in many ways, the road he set out on was to be the same one that he took to the end of his life.

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