December 16, 2010


Bruckner: Symphony No. 5. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Bernard Haitink. BR Klassik. $16.99 (SACD).

Bruckner: Symphony No. 6. London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. LPO. $16.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Rafael Kubelik. BR Klassik. $12.99.

Bruckner: Symphony No. 8. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

     The canard against Bruckner used to be that he did not so much write nine symphonies as write the same symphony nine times. We now know that Bruckner wrote 11 symphonies (including Nos. 0 and 00), and the casual dismissal of his accomplishment is grossly unfair. But like most biases and clich├ęs, it contains a smidgen of truth. Bruckner did like to reuse themes and sections from symphony to symphony: for example, the main theme of the Fifth shows up on woodwinds in the Trio of the third movement of the Sixth, and the coda of the Adagio of the Eighth reappears in the Adagio of the Ninth. The great Bruckner conductors find a way to make the composer’s massive symphonies both individual expressions and parts of a magnificent cathedral-like Weltanschauung that is uniquely Bruckner’s.

     Bernard Haitink’s new recording of Bruckner’s Fifth confirms his position at the pinnacle of modern Buckner conducting. The performance, recorded live in Munich in February 2010, simply glows. This is a symphony pervaded by quotations from Mozart and from Bruckner’s own F Minor Mass, and also incorporating a gigantic fugue that leads to an ecstatic conclusion. Yet there is not a whiff of program music here, except in the general sense of religious redemption so common in Bruckner’s works. Haitink paces the symphony superbly, letting the three major Adagio sections (the introductions to the first and fourth movements, and the main pace of the second) breathe and expand in long, long lines, while moving the faster parts of the work quickly enough to produce and sustain drama – but not so speedily as to undermine the organic growth of the whole. The Bavarian Radio Symphony, one of the world’s great Bruckner orchestras, plays wonderfully from start to finish: the strings sweep and glow, the burnished brass provides beautifully rounded tone, and the woodwinds and percussion add piquancy and a deep underpinning, respectively, to a very thoughtful and emotionally expansive performance. The SACD sound is clear, bright and transparent: there is nothing turgid about this performance. And Haitink’s overview of the symphony results in its building, seemingly inevitably, from the themes that appear individually early in the work to their contrapuntal combination in the finale. This is Bruckner at his most rousing and resplendent.

     Christoph Eschenbach’s Bruckner Sixth is, in contrast, rather pale. The London Philharmonic plays very well for him, and the last two movements, in particular, are well paced and often quite dramatic. But the first two tend to drag and lose their way: the 60-minute performance seems longer than that of Haitink’s Bruckner Fifth, which runs 76 minutes. The Eschenbach CD is another live recording – dating to November 2009 – and the sound is quite good, although not at the level of the BR Klassik SACD. But Eschenbach does not appear to “take” to Bruckner very naturally; nor is the orchestra as imbued with the composer’s warmth and religiosity in the way that the Bavarian Radio Symphony seems to be. For example, the dotted notes that recur throughout this symphony initially appear in the second part of the first theme of the opening movement, and provide connective tissue for the whole work; but Eschenbach sometimes brings the rhythm to the fore and sometimes leaves it in the background, so the symphony seems to meander. And there is not as much contrast as there could be between the flowing second theme of the Adagio and its funeral-march-like third theme. Eschenbach really seems to get interested in the music only with the third movement, almost as if someone threw a switch and everything suddenly picked up in sensitivity as well as tempo. This movement and the finale – the latter especially when the brass becomes more and more prominent – are quite effective, and the performance as a whole gets a (+++) rating, largely on the strength of the symphony’s second half.

     Bruckner’s last completed symphony, the massive Eighth, presents challenges even beyond those of his earlier ones. Rafael Kubelik and Marek Janowski rise to those challenges in somewhat different ways – although, interestingly, their readings differ in total length by only a minute and a half. Kubelik’s (++++) performance is yet another live recording, appearing in the BR Klassik “Archive” series: it dates to May 1977, at which time Kubelik had been the Bavarian Symphony’s Music Director for 16 years and had turned the orchestra into one of the world’s most polished. Both Kubelik and Janowski conduct the 1890 version of the Eighth, although the Kubelik CD misidentifies the version as that of 1887 (that first version is rarely performed: the Georg Tintner recording for Naxos belongs in every Bruckner lover’s collection). There is also a third version of this symphony, prepared by Robert Haas in 1939 and incorporating elements of both earlier ones. All three forms of this work have elements to recommend them, but on balance, the one that Kubelik and Janowski use is the most satisfactory. Certainly it is wonderful as Kubelik directs it. This conductor had such amazing rapport with this orchestra that there seems to be near-intuitive understanding of everything Kubelik wants his players to do. The result is that transitions within movements flow gorgeously, without any of the awkwardness that can turn a Bruckner structure into something episodic. Kubelik’s recording sounds weighty, but not heavy: there is great clarity in individual lines, with the result that (for example) the bleak and quiet ending of the first movement, on low strings and low winds, pulls a listener inexorably downward (Bruckner created this soft conclusion for the 1890 version, and it is the only quiet ending of a first movement in any of his symphonies). Kubelik gives a sense that everything in the symphony is there from a kind of inevitability, making the work a whole more than equal to the sum of its parts, but whose parts fit together exactly as they should. Kubelik’s Bavarian Radio Symphony of 1977 is not, player for player, identical to the one Haitink conducts in 2010, but the way the orchestra continues to excel in Bruckner over decades show just how deeply permeated by the composer’s spirit it seems to be.

     The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande does not have this same Bruckner tradition, but it is quite a fine ensemble in its own right, and Janowski pulls from it both excellent massed sound and sensitive individual voices, such as the lovely strings in the first movement. The woodwinds are a particular strength of this orchestra, as the brass is at the Bavarian Symphony. Thus, Janowski’s reading tends to sound somewhat lighter and more transparent than Kubelik’s, although there is still plenty of power in the climaxes. The excellent PentaTone studio-recorded SACD provides a very wide range of sound – even the quietest passages are crystal-clear – and helps Janowski’s detail-oriented performance come through effectively. This recording too merits a (++++) rating, but it is somewhat outside the mainstream of today’s best Bruckner performances, with Janowski paying a great deal of attention to individual elements of each movement and less to the symphony’s grand overall structure. Janowski is also somewhat less emotional than Kubelik: the first movement’s conclusion, for example, is less depressive. Some of Janowski’s emphases work particularly well: the brass and harps in the Trio of the second movement, for example. In other parts of the symphony, his interpretation is less effective: the slow movement is filled with lovely details, but there is little sense of overall emotional progress or development from start to finish. The finale, though, strides forth boldly and with highly impressive brass and timpani, and the highlighting of individual instruments (clarinets, for example) melds nicely with the full-orchestra sections to produce an impressive conclusion – the very end of the movement is exceptionally dramatic. All four of these new Bruckner releases have elements worth hearing, and all four add to the continuing growth of the reputation of a composer whose symphonies remain among the grandest ever written – and among the most difficult to comprehend with just one hearing, or even a few. Having well-played recordings that illuminate different elements of these works is therefore a particular pleasure.

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