Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Ozawa, Järvi, Blomstedt, Haitink, Jansons, Thielemann, Mehta, Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR 190281 (4 discs)
Classical - Orchestral
Bruckner: 9 Symphonies
Seiji Ozawa (1, Linz 1865/66)
Paavo Järvi (2, 1877)
Herbert Blomstedt (3, 1873)
Bernard Haitink (4, 1878/80; 5)
Mariss Jansons (6)
Christian Thielemann (7, 1885)
Zubin Mehta (8, 1890)
Sir Simon Rattle (9, completed Samale-Phillips-Cohrs-Mazzuca)
Anton Bruckner is a composer with an unmistakable musical language: darkly glowing, overwhelmingly beautiful, but also energetic and innovative. For the Berliner Philharmoniker, this music has been part of their artistic identity for over a hundred years. The orchestra now presents Bruckner’s symphonies in an exclusive edition, recorded over the last ten years together with some of the foremost Bruckner interpreters of our time.
Bruckner’s symphonies are a universe of immeasurable tonal, expressive, and metaphysical dimensions. It is precisely the changing perspectives of different conductors that make it possible to explore this diverse wealth. The edition is moreover a document of a successful artistic collaboration with highly esteemed partners of many years’ standing: Herbert Blomstedt, Bernard Haitink, Mariss Jansons, Paavo Järvi, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Christian Thielemann and Simon Rattle. The high-quality hardcover edition presents the recordings on nine CDs as well as pure audio and video recordings on Blu-Ray. The extensive booklet contains an essay by the renowned musicologist Richard Taruskin plus portraits of the conductors, introductions to the individual symphonies and numerous photos.
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- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, WAB 101
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, WAB 102
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 3 in D minor, WAB 103
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, WAB 104 'Romantic'
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, WAB 105
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 6 in A major, WAB 106
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 107
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, WAB 108
- Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, WAB 109
Review by John Broggio - January 5, 2020
A welcome release of the main canon of Bruckner's output in hi-res sound (and vision).
There are no shortage of individual releases of Bruckner's symphonic output and there are seven complete cycles. Two of which (Bruckner: 10 Symphonies - Haitink and Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Jochum) include '0'; Bosch also includes '00' whereas Haitink the Te Deum. Haitink’s and Jochum’s (Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Jochum) cycles are rightly considered classics of the LP era. Bridging the analogue-digital divide is the curate’s egg that forms Karajan’s cycle (Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Karajan).
Of the modern digital recordings of the 9 symphonies, Blomstedt’s cycle (Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Blomstedt) is arguably finest and will be the main source of comparisons below. This wonderful cycle is regrettably now hard to source and commands a hefty premium on resale. A very good alternative complete cycle from Janowski (Bruckner: 9 Symphonies - Janowski) which is available as a set that includes the third Mass and also as individual discs.
There is an incomplete cycle from Wand (Bruckner: 5 Symphonies - Wand) which was also derived from concert performances that deserves comparisons. There are some “overlaps” between the current cycle and other accounts:
- Järvi has also released the second symphony with one of “his” orchestras (Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 - Järvi)
- this set has the second hi-res releases of Haitink in 4 & 5 (Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 - Haitink, Bruckner: Symphony No. 5 - Haitink)
- Jansons has already recorded 6 with the RCO (Bruckner: Symphonies 6 & 7 - Jansons)
- Rattle has already released 9 in its four-movement form (Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 - Rattle) but only in stereo from 2012
From the Digital Concert Hall era, there are some Bruckner symphonies of which the Berliners have performed for just the one set of concerts (1 & 2); the others had a number of competing accounts for them to choose from and the choices made are not always what might be considered “received wisdom”.
In the third symphony, Blomstedt (2017) is selected in preference to Nelsons (2016) and Skrowaczewski (2011). In the fourth symphony, Haitink (2014) is preferred over Janowski (2017) and Thielemann (2012). In the fifth symphony, Haitink (2011) is preferred over Harding (2018). In the sixth symphony, Jansons (2018) is selected instead of Blomstedt (2010), Chailly (2013) and Janowski (2019). Thielemann (2016) gets the nod ahead of Haitink (2019) and Rattle (2013, 2014) for symphony number 7. In the eighth symphony, Mehta (2012) is preferred to Blomstedt (2015), Rattle (2017) and Thielemann (2008). In the ninth symphony, Rattle (2018) is preferred to his three-movement accounts (2008, 2011) and the three-movement accounts of Haitink (2015) and Mehta (2014). Whatever else may be deduced from these choices, the Brucknerian “stars” don’t always win out and these are the sort of difficult artistic choices many labels would like to be faced with!
The first symphony is conducted by Seiji Ozawa in the earliest recording (January 2009), shortly before he had to drastically scale back his work for health reasons. Although not a frequent Brucknerian, Ozawa doesn't pretend that this is mature Bruckner which serves the music well, with the woodwind solos exquisite throughout. The Schubertian undertones discussed in the notes are frequently to the fore, bringing to mind Schubert: 8 Symphonies, Masses 5 & 6, Alphonso & Estrella - Harnoncourt at times. The account of the scherzo is as fine as one could wish for and the orchestra and Ozawa clearly point the way to more mature Bruckner in the finale, with a far weightier string tone in the climaxes. Both Ozawa and Blomstedt favour the Linz version of 1866 (ed. Novak) and the only notable interpretative divergence is the broader conclusion from Ozawa.
The second symphony is the most recent of the performances (May 2019) under the baton of Paavo Järvi. The tempo choices are remarkably consistent with his account released in 2016 (Bruckner: Symphony No. 2 - Järvi), with perhaps a slight willingness to tease out the pauses more in Berlin than in Frankfurt. Järvi conducts the 1877 revision (Blomstedt opts for the 1872 version both ed. Carragan) which swaps the order of the middle movements and, through excision as well modifying markings, is arguably further away from later Bruckner. As for Ozawa, the orchestral response is magnificent, with the horns joining the woodwind in superlative playing.
The third symphony, under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt, is also a “remake” of a recent recording which hails from 2010 performances of another remarkable German orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Blomstedt adopts in a very similar manner on both podiums, separated as they are by ~150km and 7 years. Those listeners favouring a more open, light palette of orchestral timbre may wish to seek out the earlier performance; there is no lack of audible detail but the Berliners more “muscular” tone makes climaxes formidable in a way that foretells Bruckner’s final symphonies. If a snippet is heard in isolation, this orchestral response may strike some as (momentarily) overbearing but these are not outbursts without proper context. For example, the delightful lightness of timbre in the Trio is very similar to that in Leipzig, which makes the dramatic contrast all the more intense. (It should not surprise listeners that Blomstedt uses the same edition – 1873, ed. Novak – in both performances.)
The fourth symphony sees the first of two accounts from a long-standing Brucknerian, Bernard Haitink. The timings of this 2014 account and with his LSO Live account from 3 years before are almost identical; in both readings, Haitink opts for the 1878/80 (ed. Haas) version. What tells most against the earlier recording is that the Berliner’s engineering team was much more successful than the early efforts in the Barbican in capturing a pleasant acoustic patina around the orchestral playing. Haitink is notably more expansive in the opening movement than Blomstedt (Novak), Karajan (Haas) and Wand (also Haas). Despite this, the playing is far less imperious than for Karajan and any impression of majesty is purely Bruckner’s doing, not welding on a quasi-Teutonic, heroism. In the second movement, Haitink (with Blomstedt) is more relaxed than Karajan but moves the argument forward more swiftly than Wand; this “middle ground” gives the music time to breathe without ever feeling pressed. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, little in terms of approach in the Scherzo and Trio but the more modern recording afforded to both Blomstedt and Haitink weighs heavily in their favour; as with the rest of the cycle, the intensity of the Berliners’ playing may be too much for some listeners in comparison to that of their Leipzig cousins. That is not to say that the Leipzig response is too lightweight or that the Berliners is unsubtle but there is a fundamental difference in the physicality of the sound world created in Berlin. Fortunately, the excellent engineering teams in both halls allow listeners to get the best from each orchestra. The finale from Blomstedt, Haitink and Wand are all audibly more expansive than the tempo Karajan pursues; the dramatic effects for Karajan are heightened but the approach from Wand, Haitink and Blomstedt are more humane. The great crescendo in the final coda is still a thing of wonder and the hi-resolution recording really tells in favour of Haitink over that achieved for Karajan and Wand in the same hall.
The fifth symphony again falls to Haitink (ed. Haas); Blomstedt opts for Nowak (as did Haitink in Bavaria), Karajan and Wand also opt for Haas but this is the one Bruckner symphony where the performing edition used has least effect for listeners. Haitink is slightly more expansive in tempo cf. Blomstedt in the first movement but they are evenly paced otherwise. In the second movement, the richness of the Berliner strings tells at the climaxes but there are few complaints to be levelled against Blomstedt’s Leipzig orchestra. This is the one performance of his cycle where Karajan unequivocally stands out from the crowd in a positive way (although Janowski comes close at times). Here, Karajan is some 4-5 minutes slower than most rival accounts. This is daringly slow without tipping over into Celibidache territory, grasping the attention of the listener in a way that makes most other interpretations seem rushed in the way that HIP performances appear to those viewing music through a decidedly (post-)Romantic lens. What allows Karajan to bring this off successfully is that this is fully integrated into the rest of the performance; the slight “kick” afforded to the final outpouring of joy is in one of Karajan’s most emotive and triumphant achievements. Wand’s recording is only stereo for this symphony and the earlier provenance tells in favour of Blomstedt and Haitink, most especially in the complex fugal writing in the finale. In the finale, Haitink is level-headed, eschewing any increase of speed into the extended, glorious final peroration, wonderful though the orchestral response is from the Berliners. Blomstedt here allows his heart to at least consider competing with his head, so that the conclusion becomes an emotional as well an intellectual climax.
Jansons takes the podium in the sixth symphony and is remarkably consistent in pacing with his other hi-resolution recording from Amsterdam. Compared to Karajan’s one interpretative take, his protege takes a far more humane view of the score and doesn’t try to project a feeling of aggrandisement on it. Jansons is audibly more lithe in both the opening Maestoso and following Adagio than Blomstedt; it is to the credit of the Berliners and Jansons that they “just” play the notes so that the extra speed is not conveyed as haste. Where Blomstedt’s account of the fifth symphony is arguably just ahead of this set, here the tables are perhaps turned in Jansons’ favour.
The choice of Thielemann for the seventh symphony presents an account that is ever so slightly more expansive than Blomstedt’s approach. Compared to Karajan’s wonderful swansong (CD only), the differences in pacing occur mainly in the first two movements (3m and 1m slower, respectively). Unless listened back-to-back, these differences are almost unnoticeable such is the care all three conductors and their orchestras lavish on this marvellous score. Compared to Blomstedt, some listeners might find Thielemann prioritises the golden sonority just ahead of the musical argument. The rebalancing of the weight of the score’s structure allows for the Scherzo and Finale to feel relatively more tautly delivered without pressing the orchestra – an effect which is pure gain. Although the pacing is more relaxed (including “breathing” at pauses), this is far from a sluggish account and the phrasing gently moves the musical argument forward inexorably. As a demonstration of Thielemann’s craft (and the Berliners tonal lustre), this is enormously impressive in this high-Romantic repertoire; it wouldn’t be to this listeners taste in the music of Brahms or before though!
Perhaps the most noteworthy choice in this set is that of Zubin Mehta for the eighth symphony; this listener, at least, does not readily associate him with Bruckner. But any fears on the wisdom of including this account are misplaced for this is arguably the most “alive” of all the performances in the set, with a wonderful sense of experience being married to discovery in the fast movements. The sheer musical commitment from the Berliners casts aside any doubt about the orchestra believing in Mehta’s conception. The great Adagio is a few minutes quicker than Blomstedt but isn’t far away in timings from Karajan’s wonderful account from Vienna or the steel-plated gloss of his Berlin cycle. At no point does the pace feel forced; at worst it is flowing (but not in the sense that, say, John Eliot Gardiner conduct’s the Adagio from Beethoven’s ninth symphony). Ultimately, as with every symphonic journey, the most important assessment is how convincing does the whole feel as the final note dies away. Here, one is completely captivated and the final tutti declamations feel both inevitable and exhilarating.
For the final ninth symphony, Sir Simon Rattle returns to a work that he has conducted extensively in its usual three movement form. Rattle is now a convert for the four-movement completion (as he is for Mahler’s tenth symphony) that he has previously recorded on a stereo-only release. Six years have passed since the first (2012) account was recorded and has seen a considerable tautening of approach in both the normal “torso” and the finale. Rattle now apparently feels less of a need to make so many overt “points”; the result is a more natural “ebb and flow” to the tension and tempo which is almost all pure gain over the 2012 set. The marginally more flowing tempo in the third movement is necessary to prevent the symphony from “ending twice”. Those who prefer the cataclysmic piling up in the Adagio before the gloriously lengthy coda to end the work will probably wish to turn elsewhere (and likely have several alternative accounts already). For those who are willing to go on a relatively unknown journey, is far preferable musically and sonically to the 2012 account – needless to say that the orchestral response is a joy to the ears.
Considering the wide spread of years, orchestral personnel and seating positions, the aural picture is consistently good. The sound is perhaps one of the best representations of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the Philharmonie on disc. The muscular sonority (often captured as congestion in earlier times) is vividly conveyed and the dynamic range is wide; Blomstedt and Janowski enjoy a more transparent sound but that is as much the different halls & orchestral palettes as engineering teams. The sound, even in stereo, eclipses that afforded to Karajan (that should go without saying for the early digital recordings but applies to the analogue recordings too – although the difference is less marked). Every flicker of a tremolando is caught as part of a cohesive whole and, as Thielemann’s account of the seventh shows, there is still a magical sonority to be captured.
Is it the best cycle of Bruckner symphonies going in hi-resolution sound? For a cycle with a the “torso” of the ninth symphony, Blomstedt and Janowski are both cycles to treasure. If the four-movement ninth symphony is appealing, these performances more than hold their own. The documentation is lavish and the video presentations a vivid picture of this marvellous orchestra. Recommended.
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