The pun in the title is not entirely intended, but it nevertheless reflects some truth in it. Talking about these 5 'unique' recordings is a diversion from the original topic of my favourite Bruckner recordings. On the other hand, some of these CDs can become something that amuses me when I feel like listening to them.
Let's go through the 'unique' discs listed in episode 7a one by one.
This live recording was made in 1977 when the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin was in that seven-year 'dark' period of not having a single principal conductor. The immaculate ensemble cultured by Ferenc Fricsay in the fifties and early sixties was unfortunately nowhere to be found in this performance, although it was not bad. Richter gave us one of the slowest first movements of Symphony No. 4 at 22'13". To get an idea of how slow it is, it is even slower than Celibidache's on EMI (21'56") and three minutes longer than Wand's with the Berlin Philharmonic (19'11"). Fortunately Richter could usually maintain a long line in this symphony. The second movement was taken as the andante it was intended to be, but the Scherzo was too broad to my taste, even verging on sluggishness. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra were definitely more delectable with its pretty exuberance here. The Finale glided along with a tempo rather disproportionate to the slow tempo of the first movement.
Gerhard Pflüger's was the Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1957. This Bruckner Fifth CD was based on a Urania LP issued soon after the recording was made in 1952. The sound of this CD has a limited dynamic range with quite a significant cutoff in the treble and bass. As a result, the chorale in the Finale becomes underwhelming. The reading is quite orthodox without much personal characterization.
Bongartz's Bruckner 6th enjoyed almost a cult status among some fans, of course with some good reasons.
Without doubt, he gave us a very beautiful Adagio. Here, the music is almost enlivened into a living creature because it can weep and lament (what wonderful oboe playing!) in the first theme, sing in the second and dance and run in the third. It is also endowed with a regular steady pulse, a key attribute of Bongartz. I've more than once in the past played this Adagio alone to my intense enjoyment. If the Adagio is so good why doesn't this recording become one of your favourites, I can almost hear you ask? The problem is you have to go through the inhospitable tempestuous terrain in the first movement before you can arrive at the oasis of the Adagio. The terrain may be inhospitable to me but it has proved to be heaven for others. The first brass outburst, yes outburst, in the first movement is frightening and indeed startling. If it happens once, I may still call it special effect to enhance the excitement, but if it recurs and recurs later in the movement, I can only take it as hysterical, especially after I've listened to the 'normal', beautifully played movement that follows. Bruckner is not a temperamental person after all, is he? Furthermore, compared to the mellow sound Blomstedt honed from this orchestra, you can never tell it was the same Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
If you relish such exciting bombardment in Bruckner Sixth, you've found the right record. You need not look further.
Muhai Tang may be the only Chinese conductor to have recorded a Bruckner symphony. He could maintain a nice long line in this symphony. The cello theme in the opening movement is very lyrical and the third theme beautiful. Perhaps in an attempt to sustain legato throughout, he did not allow adequate space between phrases in the development section. The coda is glorious however. The Adagio has its moving moments despite the feeling that he sounded a little hurried here. The orchestra, its good ensemble notwithstanding, is light on bass and this weakness is more the apparent in the Adagio. The remaining two movements are eloquent enough. I'd say this reading is unexpectedly good and in particular lyricism shines through. Although I didn't include it as one of my favourites, I enjoyed it very much.
It is a special recording. It would not be overstating to say that Delman is an iconoclast in Bruckner. His approach to Bruckner is beyond what one is used to in the many recordings that come before or after his.
In the first movement, the opening is muted, with the string tremolo almost inaudible. The brass playing is acceptable, but just here. In the second thematic group where usually the strings carry the melodic line, Delman changed the emphasis constantly, sometimes to the woodwinds, sometimes to the lower strings and then to the horns. He went on to exert much personal rubato in the third thematic group. His tempo is quite slow in this movement but you don't really feel it this way, because your attention is diverted to different sections of the orchestra he highlighted as the music unfolds. The Scherzo shows the limitation of the orchestra and the ensemble barely keeps itself together in the slower pulse, losing much of the urgency expected. There is no doubt that Delman was much engrossed by the music as he was almost singing along with the orchestra in the Adagio. However he was let down by the inadequate strings, especially the cellos which are so important in this great movement, and the unsteady pulse. It is surely a recording that will satisfy my curiosity rather than my taste. Maybe I'm too stupid because I still struggle to understand the message Delman wanted to tell us even after listening to the disc a couple of times.