23 June 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 9) -- Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Here is the list categorized by the versions employed in the recordings:

1873 version 

[Nowak (1977) edition]
Herbert Blomstedt / Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (3-4/9/1998) (Querstand VKJK 0507 - CD1 of a 5CD set)

If you browse through Bruckner's huge discography, it is indeed quite unusual to see a venerated Brucknerian 'of the old school' and an orchestra with a long history of Brucknerian heritage playing or recording the first versions of the Third or the Fourth. Not so for Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. Georg Tintner, during my interview, asserted that the first version of Symphony No. 3 was the best among all its versions and that each subsequent revision just made it less good. However the acceptance of this 1873 version takes time and its recordings are relatively few compared with the later versions. A glance at Mr John Berky's complete discography will give you an idea (www.abruckner.com).

It is a truly engrossing performance. It is a showcase of the excellent ensemble and mesmerising sound of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. The opening of the first movement exudes a special aura when the trumpet theme is bathed in a sea of rich bass. How beautiful Blomstedt shapes the second thematic group (beginning 4'22"). The final peroration, contrasted with the quiet phrases before it, is so enriching. The violas towards the end of part 2 in the Adagio are riveting (6'29"). The dance rhythm in the Trio (beginning 2'15") just shows us that it is not unique to the Vienna Philharmonic to play it so idiomatically; the Leipzig players are also up to it. In the Finale, the urgency of the third theme (beginning 4'40") contrasts well with the second, a delicate touch not very common in other performances. The heaven opens in the coda, particularly at the moment when the first theme of the opening movement is recapped. The music is followed by a long applause when it ends at 15'10".

1877 version

[Nowak (1981) edition]
Guiseppe Sinopoli / Staatskapelle Dresden (4/1990) (DG 431 684-2)

My encounter with this disc was a strange accident of fortune almost 20 years ago. It has remained a treasure in my mind ever since. A truly memorable recording. The Dresden strings, the East European timbre of the woodwinds and horns, and a detailed yet plush and flowing reading form a wonderful combination that is rarely found in other conductor-orchestra pairings.

Sinopoli's buildup of the crescendo in the first thematic group of the Adagio is a goose-pimples-inducing experience yet to find in other recordings in my collection (up to now 62 B3s).

Michael Gielen /  SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (3-5/5/1999) (Hänssler CD 93.031)

Gielen's reading is lithe and lean, full of details that you cannot hear in many other performances. He makes you aware of the Schubertian and Beethovenian roots in this symphony and here the orchestra plays with an ardour to match. The rhythmic drive is exorbitant but it never sounds hard-driven. It also imparts a sense of modernity to this symphony, looking far beyond the period in which it was written. A pleasant contrast to Sinopoli's.

[Oeser (1950) edition]
Rafael Kubelik / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (30/1/1970) (Audite 92.543 SACD)

Kubelik's antiphonal placing of the violins is a nice and heart-winning touch, not just in Bruckner's symphonies, but also in Brahms', so much evident in his set of symphonies issued by Orfeo. There are always moments of impact, thanks to his expressive fervour combined with a nobility of tone in his sound palette. Constantin Floros has written that "the most outstanding characteristic of the Third Symphony must be the enormous abundance of its contrasts". And Kubelik simply excels in this regard, exhibiting a nice balance of light and shade, particularly in the Adagio. The SACD sound, not to speak of letting us compare the edited and original versions of the recording in different tracks on this disc, is a generous bonus.

1889 version 

[Nowak (1958) edition]
Karl Böhm / Wiener Philharmoniker (9/1970) (Decca 448 098-2)

This famous recording needs no introduction. I've always felt that the truncated 1889 version's Finale needs someone who plays with ardour to gel the rather unconvincing gaps together. Böhm is exactly this person. His Bruckner never disappoints me, from his pre-war recordings of B4 and B5, to his Vienna Philharmonic's recordings in the 1970s and also his miraculous performance with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in 1978 (Palexa CD-522). In his readings of Bruckner's symphonies, you can sense his almost palpable conviction, an attribute that brings life to his studio recordings and an exuberant soul to his live performances. 'Fussy', 'fusty' and 'fuzzy' are not words in his dictionary because he never drags, dawdles or dulls the music of Bruckner.

The playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is full of splendour here, and shows why they are famous in Bruckner. The recording is immediate and vibrant, capturing the full glory of this orchestra. It is almost superfluous to praise Böhm's mastery of the Austrian idiom in the Trio and the polka in the Finale. What else can you ask for?

[Rättig (1890) edition]
Kurt Sanderling / Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (6/1963) (Berlin Classics BC 2151-2)

Sanderling gives us a true misterioso in the first movement. I'm also impressed by the vigour in the reading. There is always a sense of direction, a point almost too obvious and yet unfortunately is lacking in too many readings I encountered. His good use of the Generalpauses adds to the sense of structure so much evident in this recording. The woodwind timbre has a melancholic feel to it. The strings are beautiful, as in the opening passages in the Finale. A vintage choice.

Carl Schuricht / Wiener Philharmoniker (2-4/12/1965) (Medici Arts MM016-2); (EMI TOCE-3404)

Again this recording needs no introduction. Exciting, forward-moving and restrained grandeur are terms I can think of to describe this performance. The Medici Arts remastering is a marked improvement on the Japanese transfer.

1) The catalogue numbers are those of the CDs in my collection. There may be other issues of a particular recording by the same label or even other labels, with a different catalogue number.

2) Not included in the list are those 'sets' I considered en bloc; see episodes 3 (link) & 4 (link).

3) Selections for this symphony are based on a database of 62 distinct recordings, excluding single movements, e.g. 1876 Adagio, and transcriptions.

I welcome your sharing of your favourites. Please leave your comments. Thank you.

(The old Episodes 9a & 9b combined) 

14 June 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 8) -- 'Disclaimer'

When I compiled this list, I tried as much as possible to have no preconceived ideas on any particular conductors or orchestras. I even asked my family to randomly choose some CDs and played them for me as a blind test. This practice had an added fun element in it -- I could try to guess who the conductor or what the orchestra was after jotting down my impressions.

At this point I have to thank my beloved wife Flora for her understanding and adopting a laissez-faire attitude towards my seemingly endless, lavish act of acquiring these CDs one after another.

It is natural that my choices are only restricted to those recordings I've listened to. My collection consists almost entirely of official commercial releases. However, I do have some CDs from pirate labels, but they amounted to less than 30 and were purchased long ago for special reasons, e.g. before the EMI releases of Celibidache's recordings, or recordings from conductors I like very much. They are from Arkadia, Audior, Bells of St. Florian, and a couple more which I cannot recall at this moment. On the other hand, I've never had CDs from labels like Dirigent, Antec Music, En Larme, etc. Apart from that there must be many commercial releases that I do not own. So there is no pretension whatsoever to exhaustiveness.

Everyone knows that all favourite lists are personal. They depend on the taste of the compiler and they differ in 'objectivity' only in a matter of degree. No lists will be purely objective, but some lists can be purely subjective. And I hope mine is somewhere in between.

My list will inevitably include some well-regarded recordings: they are considered as such for good reasons. But my list also includes some conductors who may not be the first names to come to mind as Brucknerians, but their recordings, especially some live performances, are believed to be ones that any serious Brucknerite will beseech.

Remember in episode 2 I mentioned that some conductors were not included in this list because their Bruckner recordings were considered in a league of their own: Furtwängler, Celibidache, Tintner and Wand in his Berlin Philharmonic recordings. 

I'll begin with Bruckner Symphony No. 3 in D minor.

11 June 2011

What I'm waiting for in the second half of 2011

As far as Bruckner recordings are concerned, there are some which I'm eagerly waiting for. Most of them are next installments in their respective ongoing projected cycles.

Blomstedt's on Querstand will have the Third (1873 version) issued in Germany next week (VKJK 1017). After that the Fourth (version 1878/80) (VKJK 1018) should be available in the ensuing months. Blomstedt already had one Gewandhausorchester Leipzig Bruckner Third, with the same 1873 version and recorded in 1998, issued earlier. But that was only available within a box-set of 5 CDs and not separately. It was an excellent live performance of the 1873 version of B3 and it has occupied a firm place in my favourite recordings list. I'm holding my breath for the new one.

I guess Järvi's memorable Bruckner Seventh and Ninth might be followed by the enticing Eighth, which he is going to perform on 29 and 30 September in Frankfurt followed by concerts in Innsbruck, Vienna and Prague. It is just logical to deduce that the next CD in his cycle should be the Eighth. Although he performed the Second in a concert with the hr-sinfonieorchester on 31 March and 1 April this year, this less popular symphony may not overtake the Eighth in the issuing schedule.

Janowski's cycle already had Symphony Nos. 5-9 issued. It is indeed coincidental that he will perform the Third (1889 version) on the same nights as Järvi did for the Eighth, i.e. 29 and 30 September. He will come to the Fourth in January 2012 with a number of performances in Europe.

It may be too early to think that Kent Nagano is about to finish a Bruckner cycle, but Sony will issue two Bruckner recordings of his, the 7th and the 8th (1887 version) two weeks later in Japan and then internationally in July, both with the Bavarian State Orchestra. Nagano has recorded the 3rd and 6th with the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi, and the 8th with the same orchestra on an Arthaus DVD. His recording of the 1874 version of the Fourth on Sony was a nice one and was discussed in an earlier blog entry:
He only has the 5th and the 9th to record to complete a partial cycle, albeit across labels.

Although I haven't listened to Gerd Schaller's Bruckner, I'm interested in the early versions he has chosen for his cycle. I'd take his as analogous to Inbal's pioneering cycle in the 1980s when the latter first recorded many early versions of Bruckner's symphonies. Whether he will create the sort of sensation which Inbal did at that time is something one can only wait and see.

Staatskapelle Berlin has a very distinctive orchestral timbre and palette. I have fond memories of Barenboim's Beethoven symphony and concerto cycles with this orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, London. The web video streaming of his performance of Bruckner's 4th-9th shows what Barenboim is famous for in Bruckner: rich and deep sound, broad and romantic (http://liveweb.arte.tv/fr/tag/barenboim/). I hope Accentus Music will issue this June 2010 partial cycle on DVD or Blue-ray, but when I emailed them their answer was that they didn't know if and when it would be released. Another wait.

09 June 2011

New Recording of William Carragan's 2010 version of Bruckner Ninth's Finale

Gerd Schaller's performance of Bruckner Ninth with William Carragan's 2010 edition of the completion of Finale (Finalsatz-Ergänzung) with the Philharmonie Festiva, on 1 August 2010, will be issued by Profil (PH 11028) coupled with the Fourth and the Seventh. The 4th was recorded on 29 July 2007 and the 7th exactly one year later at the Ebracher Musiksommer Festival.

The 4th and the 7th are in CD1 and CD2 respectively, and the first 2 movements of the 9th are in CD3 (36'54") and the last 2 movements in CD4 (46'47" with the Finale lasting 22'12").

Schaller may not be very widely known but his efforts in the promotion of Bruckner's music are tremendous. Here is the link to his biography on his webpage:

Also the link to the audio excerpts in the recordings:

He is the founder and musical director of the Ebracher Summer Music Festival, which in co-operation with Bavarian Radio has been an established part of the Musikzauber Franken concerts for many years. This year he will perform the new versions of Bruckner's first three numbered symphonies edited by William Carragan:
Friday 29 July 2011, 19.00, Abbey Church Ebrach
      First Symphony in C minor
      version 1866 (Edition: William Carragan) 

Saturday 30 July 2011, 17.00, Abbey Church Ebrach
     Second Symphony in C minor
      version 1872 (Edition: William Carragan) 

Sunday 31 July 2011, 17.00, Abbey Church Ebrach
     Third Symphony in D minor
      version 1874 (Edition: William Carragan) 

A symposium will also be held in cooperation with the Anton Bruckner Institut Linz (ABIL) with the theme Bruckner auf Reisen (Bruckner on the Road).

With the performances this year, it is reasonable to assume that a complete cycle is in the plans as well.

Brucknerites take heart.

06 June 2011

Ruminations in a hot afternoon

Today is a public holiday in Hong Kong, thanks to the Dragon Boat Festival. I was still busy cleaning my old CDs, and the turn this afternoon is my Jochum's Bruckner collection. I took out the DG box-set and only now do I appreciate how well presented it is. Within the thin cardboard box are three jewel-cases housing the symphonies in ascending order, Nos. 1-3, 4-6 and 7-9. A further gem is the CD booklet, with essays by Constantin Floros and Eugen Jochum, in the original German followed by English and French translations. I've always enjoyed reading Floros' analyses. His book on Mahler symphonies is exemplary and has served as a guiding post for my understanding of Mahler's symphonies. His 'new' book on Bruckner, translated into English, is now waiting for a reprint, as the first printing was selling very well. I got this information from the publisher when I tried to order this book. Unfortunately many essays written by Floros in many other CD booklets were not translated into English. Many such essays were written by different authors in their native language and I've seen 4 different authors in a single booklet.

That brought me to think about DG as the leading recording company to issue Bruckner symphony cycles in the 1960s and 1970s to early 1980s. But that was just history after Karajan died. Abbado's early attempts to record a cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic were not continued. Together with the massive changes in the classical music market, that gives me a feeling that the glorious days of DG have almost gone to the winds. If there is any sign of a future DG Bruckner cycle it may well be Thielemann, but apparently his intended cycle with the Munich Philharmonic might come to a premature halt after the unhappy events with this orchestra, and he is going to Dresden anyway.

It is my usual practice to (largely) restrict my attention to official commercial releases only, as the recordings from pirate labels cannot reliably be assumed to be coming from the conductor, orchestra or even date as shown on the CD cover. And very often there is no way to substantiate their claims, at least as far as I am concerned. However I must confess that there were times when I gave in to temptations because the recording was (claimed to be) from a conductor I really care about. One example is Rafael Kubelik. His Bruckner Sixth is one example. As there is yet to be an official release, I could only turn to issues from suspect labels to quench my thirst for it. 

At another moment I was enjoying Kurt Sanderling's Bruckner 3rd. That brought my thoughts to one of his most famous recordings, the mono Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 for DG. So I quickly searched through the piles of CDs in one of the cabinets to take it out for a listen. At the same time I took out his later recording of the same symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra for Teldec. This latter recording is special for a very broad first movement (26'09" !). Some may find the long cut in the last movement (in both of his recordings) off-putting, but there is no denying the intensity and passion of the readings. The music simply breathes. A really enjoyable afternoon.


I've decided to give my blog a new design temple and a new colour scheme, in the hope of making it easier for the eyes. The cosmetic process only took about ten minutes. Any feedback is welcome.