Brucknerthon 27 Feb 2010 Part 3

Symphony No 7
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Karajan

I'm very familiar with both Karajan's later recordings of the Seventh: this one which came out on EMI in the early 1970s and I haven't got into it until now. I kid myself that all I need is his DG set for nourishment from Bruckner - but today has revealed many other highlights.

The Seventh symphony is dedicated to a King and it has a royal presence: plush upholstery, courtly steady gait and lofty airs which are a million miles from its predecessor symphony. In the recording venue - probably Jesus-Christe-Kirche in Dahlem, Berlin - was the site of many great recordings by this orchestra. And whilst there's a lovely luminosity to this recording a lot of immediacy is lost - the high winds sound like they're in a room next door. Its all sounds a bit too plush. The first movement proceeds with Karajan's usual qualities of line and breath, the orchestra plays beautifully and if you didn't know of later recordings you might be very happy with this. Its is smooth and serene.

Karajan had been conducting Bruckner's Seventh since 1941 (his first concert performances were in Aachen) and like many of his readings the subtle differences only come out when one is very familiar with them that is to say there aren't many and they're not obvious - in many cases. Some of the major differences come around the recording with venue and company. I have felt for some time that the recordings Karajan made for EMI were slipshod: this is a case in point. The bass heavy recording fills the ear nicely but where are the details, the BPO was such a finely balanced orchestra and yet EMI manage to have me asking one simple but surprising question "Oh where's the f*****g trumpet?". As the Adagio proceeds we have wave after wave of Mantovani like string sound and splendid chorales from trumpets which are seemingly close by. But at crucial points the levels drop and wind instruments become too distant. As my imprint version (i.e. the versions I 'learnt' the work on) its hard to criticise Karajan's reading. It reaches it climax in a blaze of glory supported by string figures carved in sound by the 100 odd BPO string section. And the last page of this movement are a threnody for Wagner - Bruckner's great idol. Karajan delivers this in true Wagnerian style - but suddenly the flute is with us and the artifice increases.

Bruckner Seven was the first of his symphonies I heard in the flesh, following a Proms or Edinburgh performance by the VPO and Abbado in the early 1980s I rushed along when I heard the Halle orchestra were playing it in Sheffield under a Polish conductor who's name I couldn't pronounce (it was Stanislaw Skrowaczeski thankfully - see above) I trotted along. The effect was mind-blowing. Subsequently I stood outside a record shop umm'ing and ahh'ing about whether to invest a substantial sum in Karajan's recording on Deutsches Grammophon - I did and my mind was blown again. He brought beauty and bite: it was awesome. In particular I was taken with the scherzo in Karajan's recording - pin sharp and fizzing with excitement. I wonder if I'd bought this version I would have been quite as thrilled. Here the Scherzo seems blunted by the acoustic.

The orchestral placement seems much closer for the Finale and I don't know whether to laugh or cry about that. The music here is lithe and woodwinds need to delineate their lines to bring it's riches to life. But like the Sixth symphony the finale isn't the emotional heart, but unlike the Sixth this music isn't earthy and so depends a deal of circumspection. When it does rouse itself - with a rudely disruptive brass outburst - it sounds quite stark and modern: though many of the harmonies may well be ancient such as the way this composer worked. We do get more of the restless spirit here and Karajan is generally happy to resist it waiting for the next cool quiet period to take the wind out of the music's sails and emphasise the contrasts. Anyway - the great cathedral of sound Bruckner constructs is admirably summoned up by HvK and delivered by his Berliners. It all feels a bit odd - but its not bad - just not as detailed and lucid as the later versions. And with detail comes interest and quite a lot of dramatic tension. If you have only heard this version - go out and get another - its presents none of the performers at their best.

Symphony No 8
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Furtwangler

This recording is from something of a bygone age. It is made at a time of war (17 October 1944 in Vienna and recorded by the Reichsrundfunk) by an orchestra who's greatest days had disappeared as had many of its greatest players. But the character of the orchestra is still evident and mono recording aside this is well recorded. Furtwangler was often cited as being completely spontaneous in his interpretations though the records he left rather point to this being a myth. His reading here though is fascinating. At a time when many scholars were marking headway unravelling the confusion around the different versions of Bruckner's scores (and some were adding to it) Furtwangler had his own version of the score - loosely based on the Haas edition which has recently fallen out of favour. Furtwangler then took his own Furtwanglerish take on it and pulls and pushes the music in all sorts of directions - some of which is shocking - but it is rarely out of sympathy with the music (which is why Furtwangler was a great conductor). So this first movement moves speedily and with elemental fire towards its climaxes - each more uncomfortable than the last. The crashing three fold climax at its centre - accompanied by the last trump - are more vivid thanks to his speedy dispatch. And the coda dies with the empty hollow feeling of grief not just sadness. It is desolate, joyless, airless and final.

The scherzo of the Eighth got a programme from Bruckner when he was pressurised by naive friends into explaining his music - it can be flatly ignored - it is poppycock. Examine this scherzo not form the view of Mahler or Brahms but from the view of Wagner's later writing or even the maniacal writing of Berlioz and we see a spirit of innovation in Bruckner - it would be laughable to compare him to the serial composers of this and the last century - but not as laughably as comparing him to Brahms. Furtwangler dispatches it all with lightening fast efficiency and yet without losing the massive gait. This Trio has never sounded so potent as in this version - the conductor pushes hard at points but I'm not sure how. Such is the magic of Furtwangler. The scherzo returns and seems even more frenzied than before - its heady stuff and terse too - repeats were limited to save recording time.

The great Adagio - met head on by Furtwangler who just caresses every note out of it. the orchestra understand this music like no others (though at the time Bruckner was writing and trying to get them to play it - he had great problems). This movement is almost perfectly realised Bruckner for me. The score for this movement is still scrutinised and revised - but its essence is not in those details. Despite the sound the essence of the reading comes through: the empty Grosses Saal at the Musikverein in wore torn Vienna adds a haunting quality to the aural image. Furtwangler's reading is timeless and its ease is a real discovery from this day. As the adagio subsides into another of those brass led threnodies, we can relate to the peace that this music brought to shattered lives across Nazi occupied Europe. A reflection on peace is perhaps all Bruckner wanted ultimately, but his quest was for glory so this symphony is destined to rest here. And turning to the next movement - reluctantly leaving this clam behind - we see his quest for glory or glorification for the works dedicatee - the Emperor. Or as composer Alban Berg put it more starkly "lights complete victory over darkness".

The finale of this work has more meat than any by Bruckner: this is Bruckner's attempt to bring Beethoven's structures and Wagner's sound world together. Its not easy and many conductors fail in this movement because they presume faster and noisier is better. Furtwangler is sprightly here but not all of the time and his significant trait is not speed but acceleration (or when necessary deceleration). And those golden moments - such as the one where the clouds part and the flutes usher in a view of some better place are taken at a precariously slow speed....but we trust this conductor not to dally elsewhere and to keep us all on the tightrope - moreover the players have this trust as well. It is interesting to hear how well the lines of this finale are delineated in a recording nearly 30 years younger than Karajan's EMI Seventh. As the frenzy builds in the centre of the finale Furtwangler can ignite any part of the orchestra with frisson - and that includes the strings. They are exultant at times. And yet watch film of him conducting and you'll wonder how they even follow the beat.

So as the music enters it final act - there is no doubt about Bruckner's material here, or his mastery of an orchestra which was scarcely extravagant. The final steps are taken slowly by the conductor - Bruckner brings in the themes from all the symphony's earlier movements - he weaves a tapestry - Furtwangler gives it life. It is impatient and feverish but when it bursts forth it expertly handled. And as quickly as the blaze caught hold, it is finished and over and done. And like a magician we are left wondering how Furtwangler did what he just did in the blink of an eye. Even now, over fifty years since his death, his powers endure and it seems to me that his service to Brucknerians isn't over by a long way.

Symphony No 9
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein

We stay with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for the last work of the day and the cycle. In Vienna in the early months of 1990, Leonard Bernstein - who was dying - came to record this work. It's a work Bruckner never finished because he was dying too this is a torso of a work without a finale. So one might expect this to be a grime recording of a grim symphony suffused the signs of dwindling mortality.

The work's first movement is quite revolutionary esp for Bruckner - essentially the themes are split into eight episodes which are played and repeated and developed. The multifaceted character is remarkably sure footed for a composer who earlier in his career had struggled to come up with a sturdy second subject. And because Bruckner is a more confident composer in that sense (and only in that sense) his score is easier to follow hence conductors generally make a better job of this symphony than others. Bernstein is careful to not to rush these episodes and even within them will loiter around the transitions to make the point. In the repeat section Bernstein takes great liberties with his emphasis - but this is never an obstacle or offence. His loyalty to the broad thrust is unwavering and moreover where he does pause or stretch time it is to allow some natural process in the music to work out. The coda seems to emerge rather like an image appearing on photographic paper: its full splendour is upon us in a blaze from the Vienna brass - still splendid in this music 45 years after Furtwangler's recording. There's nothing moribund about this performance.

The scherzo is massive and yet relatively fleet - the basses - probably not the ones Bruckner was writing for - led a leaden walk around a hideously dark environment. Bernstein's point here isn't to clarify structures to allow them almost to blur and become more densely packed. Setting one loud ungainly effect against another. It is brilliant especially when he presses hard on even those little woodwind songs which when amplified clash with each other. Rhythmically its the complex interpretation of this grisly march I've ever heard. Surprisingly the trio becomes a trot round the park - the ardent sweeping statements fade to nowhere. The flute flecked episode sounds very modern - in fact the whole work does in Bernstein's hands. A highlight for me is that this conductor is a composer of modern music and he is willing to emphasise the modernism of this work. On repeat the scherzo goes from being interesting to being very scary.

This is the last movement in my 35 movement, 9h30m, 3.74 GB (of wav files) journey. Bruckner wrote it with some ideas of what he wanted next but no clear plan (or at least not one he wrote down). This symphony was dedicated to God and he wanted something fitting to end on - and unsurprisingly he couldn't find anything. I'm not bothered by completion, still less interested in tacking the Te Deum onto the end. It is an uneasy movement in its restless nature but it is grounded in some of the composer's greatest melodies - long, earnest and beautiful. Bernstein dwells on every note - it is very moving in many ways. And when he can - as he builds to the uncomfortable climaxes, he punches the dischords home. But this is not a morbid valediction - it is effortful endeavour to reveal glories we haven't fully appreciated before. The climaxes sound out three times - great clarion calls and their replies and then echoes and we know the last of these ends in complete dischord. The journey is held fast by Bernstein - he ushers in the pulsing brass, the arches of long sustained notes build a huge sonic expanses and as it starts to collapse in under its own weight the orchestra just explodes into life. The knock out blow comes in fast. The pause telling and yet the music builds again but this time it fails, it cannot reach that point so it must dissipate that energy some other way. A descent begins- these players know so well having played this music under some of its greatest interpreters - and as the clouds lift, the threads untangle and the lines to our conclusion become clear - the awesome power of before seems limited. Here with strings, and winds and horns Bruckner guides us to a tranquil place. The symphony ends on a static high note - it seems good enough to me. Bernstein was never a conductor associated with Bruckner: but he was fine interpreter of this symphony and this is a splendid record of his skill in revealing things we don't ordinarily hear.


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