Brucknerthon - 27 Feb 2010 - Part 1


Every now and then I take a day and devote it to Bruckner and listen to his symphonies in order.

Each time I do this I try to listen to a mix of familiar and unfamiliar recordings in my collection.

I don't listen to the two early symphonies fancifully titled "0" and "00" - or any of the choral works.

Morning Session

Symphony No 1
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

This was from Barenboim's 1970's Bruckner cycle issued on DG

Its a gutsy, virile performance which befits this early work - Bruckner's confidence was broken down later but here its in full flow. Barenboim notices and delineates lots of fine detail and the orchestral playing is wonderful - esp in the slow movement. The reading progressively feel less and less relaxed until parts of the last movement feel like there is something in the way of the music, a certain tension. Others, notably Oramo, have just swaggered through. Barenboim holds it together but there are times when one's attention begins to wander, By the time we get into the last section Barenboim and his players lead us to a magnificent conclusion.

Symphony No 2
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczeski

This is awesome Bruckner so full of detail you'd hardly know it was by this composer. Stan Skrowaczeski's ear is faultless and his pacing easily the most subtle and dramatic by a country mile. In general playing from radio orchestras is often of a very high technical standard and beautifully balanced - since they are often called on to perform new and difficult works. There are some things that Stan does which I find a bit uncomfortable - the rush to the tape in the first movement for example, but the Andante is just so wonderfully realised that you'd be very hard not to forgive him his indulgences. The Scherzo explodes with all the shock of Stravinsky and it ends with all the fervor of Tchaikovsky. The last movement is more mature than its sibling in the First symphony, but Bruckner gets into problems with his second subject - which is banal. Even Stan struggles here to haul something good out of what is a bit of a symphonic car crash. But overall this is a fine performance full of the kind of drama and local detail many of the anti-Bruckner crowd would be surprised to hear.

Symphony No 3
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Eugen Jochum

Eugen Jochum's first Bruckner cycle was recorded in the early 60s with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the big stuff and Jochum's own Bavarian Radio Symphony orchestra in this and other symphonies.

Jochum is a quixotic but devout Bruckner conductor with a key feel for the pulse and he plays with it quite a lot driving climaxes too hard in my view, so the first movement sounds like an especially evangelical tone poem - full of fire and brimstone at points and a bit preachy at others. There's no middle way with Jochum. That said the orchestra and recording suit the music well, in particular the piquant oboe is distinctive in many recordings of this orchestra in the 60s and 70s and it lifts the texture wonderfully here. The second movement has a hymn-like quality and booms out with the gusto of a cathedral choir or huge organ. Other interpretations have been a deal more Wagnerian in there sound and I prefer that. There's a problem in this work: a series of versions are available to conductors and some - like the original one used by Nott at this year's proms are very lumpy. Jochum was close to the Bruckner scholar Leopold Nowak and its no surprise that his version is in use - but it needs some tolerance if not doggedness to realise. The coda of the Adagio is brilliantly realised though - sublime concentration.

The scherzo is a a visceral dance almost sarcastic - its manic in its realisation with accentuated rhythms and the BRSO brass attacking chords with great aggression. Which make sthe Trio sound even more ridiculous than usual - its tame trotting metres and banal orchestration really sound very out of place here - almost ironic. The irony continues after the fourth movement erupts with Bruckner's ill fated twee second subject. Jochum does what he can, his acid woodwind fail to bring any Viennese swing: that's one of the ways Karajan negotiates this movement so brilliantly. And after all the flim-flam, Jochum's coda sounds decidedly tacked on. His strategies in Bruckner continue to confuse and fascinate: a mix of bland faith, reckless ardour and well disciplined playing don't always work for me: but there are moments when its utterly brilliant.


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