29 July 2011

My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 10) -- Symphony No. 4 in E flat Major -- Reflections

Symphony No. 4 (Romantic) is one of Bruckner's most popular symphonies, and hence it has been copiously recorded. As such it is a Herculean task to choose my favourite recordings of this symphony. In fact most of the recordings are of a high standard, and the choices will very much depend on personal taste. (Please read the Remarks at the bottom of the list as well.)

1874 Version

[Nowak (1975) edition]
Michael Gielen / SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden (4/1994)

(Intercord CD 860.925)

A brief review of this recording together with a brief history of the revisions Bruckner made for this symphony, resulting in the different versions, was posted in Nov 2009:

1878/1880 Version

[Haas (1944) edition]
Herbert Blomstedt / Staatskapelle Dresden (7-11/9/1981) 

(Denon COCQ-84539 HQCD)

(Dal Segno DSPRCD045)

This is Blomstedt's second Bruckner recording made under the cooperation of Denon, Japan and (VEB) Deutsche Schallplatten, Germany, the first being B7 recorded one year earlier. Recorded in the Lukaskirche, Dresden, it benefits from the excellent acoustic of the venue. The Staatskapelle Dresden is luminous here. The string sound is warm and the brass timbre is lovely. Blomstedt is musically expressive, without losing his usual prudence.

The HQCD sounds best among the 3 versions of the same recording that I have. The bass is more solid and the strings are even warmer. The whole recorded sound becomes more engaging and realistic. The Dal Segno CD is satisfactory in sound, but the Denon HQCD's is superior.

Otmar Suitner / Staatskapelle Berlin (1-2/1989)

(Berlin Classics 0011612BC)

(King KICC3533)

It is a digital recording made in Christuskirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, less than a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the former East Berlin. This church is well known for its excellent acoustics and had been at one time used solely as a studio for the VEB Deutsche Schallplatten Berlin before its community function was restored after the reunification of Germany. It should not be confused with the Jesus-Christus-Kirche (or Jesus Christ Church in English) in Berlin-Dahlem, situated in the former West Berlin, where many famous Deutsche Grammophon and Karajan recordings were made. The Christuskirche provides a very warm but transparent sound with good definition of the different instruments as evident in this recording. Otmar Suitner may not be very well-known in the West in the past, but his art has been gaining much appreciation thanks to an easier availability of his recorded legacy in CDs issued by Berlin Classics.

One of the key elements in his art is the naturalness and liveliness he brings to the music. This Bruckner 4th is an excellent example of it. The opening movement is truly "bewegt". There is not a hint of idiosyncracy in the interpretation, yet it is never bland. I'm much impressed by the sound and playing of the brass which is cultured yet also very incisive.  I'm lucky to have attended quite a number of concerts of the Staatskapelle Berlin and I hold the sound of this orchestra dear to my heart: the dark hue of the strings complemented by the sonorous cellos and basses, the Eastern European feel of the woodwinds and the cultured yet incisive brass described above. I affectionately depict its sound in my mind as analogous to amethyst gold. This recording has admirably captured this amethyst gold sound colour of this orchestra. 

When I compared this recording with Barenboim's 15/10/2008 live recording with the same orchestra (in-house label, SKB-0001), the difference is enormous. The orchestra still played superbly in the new recording, but Barenboim's management just verged on mannerism and over-inhibition. In the exposition of the Finale, the music is lively almost to the degree of being exorbitant under Suitner, whereas it becomes lame and lackadaisical in Barenboim's hands. 

A regular reader of this blog, eaquson from Taiwan, has told me the better sound quality of these VEB Deutsche Schallplatten recordings in CDs issued by other labels compared to those by Berlin Classics. This prompted me to try the Japanese version issued by King of this recording. The difference is not very obvious, maybe because my playback system is not up to it, but I can discern a more crystalline sound in the upper frequencies, a more powerful bass and better resolution of instruments in the middle frequencies. As this recording is one of my favourites, I think it is well worth the extra outlay.

Günter Wand / NDR Symphony Orchestra (28-30/10/2001)

(BMG 93041 2; 2-CD)

A certain type of recordings somehow seems predestined to remain in the memory of Brucknerites for aeons. The last studio or concert recordings of many conductors belong to this group. Wand's last recording of his concerts from 28 to 30 October 2001 of Bruckner's 4th Symphony certainly is one of them. Other examples that come to mind include Karajan's last B7, Jochum's last B5, and Sinopoli's and van Beinum's last and only B5.  These are all truly memorable recordings, and in the case of Karajan's and Jochum's, they pluck at your heart-strings that their respective earlier recordings didn't quite manage to do so at such intensity. Wand's BPO recording of B4 is a towering achievement and has become an indispensable part of my collection once I got it. This last recording of Wand's is no less essential. When I listened to it again recently, I was simply speechless with the performance, particularly the Andante where everything seemed so right in place, and I was just like a fool sitting there beaming with perfectly undiluted satisfaction with what I had just heard.

[Nowak (1953) edition]
Claudio Abbado / Lucerne Festival Orchestra (18-19/10/2006)

(Lucerne Festival Edition 120455)

Abbado's previous Bruckner recordings with VPO on DG have received some criticisms despite their merits, and for whatever reasons, his last commercial Bruckner recording was 15 years ago in 1996. After he left Berlin, his cooperation with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra transcended almost all his previous efforts to a sublime artistic level which many marvel at. His "new" Mahler recordings, now on DVD, with this orchestra were lauded as among the best, if not the best.  

This Bruckner 4th is also in the same league. Recorded live in Suntory Hall, Tokyo, and benefitted from its excellent acoustics, the sound is lush and warm yet at the same time limpid. If you agree to William Blake's idea that "exuberance is beauty", then this performance is utterly beautiful because it is a quintessential example of what exuberance is all about, in orchestral ensemble, sound and (Schubertian) colour, in musical expression and commitment, and in sheer radiance and exhibition of positive energy. 

Karl Böhm / Wiener Philharmoniker (19/11/1973)

(Decca Ovation 425 036-2)

This recording really needs no introduction to Brucknerites. The good things about his Bruckner 3rd recording with this orchestra on the same label can all apply to this justly famous recording. Its merits and the joy it brings to the listener are long lasting. 

Eugen Jochum / Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (3-5/10/1955 Mono)

(DG 469 389-2)

This mono recording is not handicapped by the technology of the time. Here Jochum leading his orchestra in the early post-war years has brought us a performance of immense sparkle and a recording in very good mono with fine details. The orchestral sonority has a great nostalgic feel to it, decorated with a sonorous lustre. There are many delicate touches by Jochum here, e.g. in the early part of the development (bars 193-216). The special thing about this recording among Jochum's many is the way he played the music, in a fine balance of blissful abandon and an intensity of spirit, from the pianissimos to the building up of climaxes. It is a joyful musical journey free of the unnecessary brooding that mars many other recordings. It is also a very smooth musical journey devoid of the stop-and-go stigma that was awarded to Jochum by many critics for his later efforts. But above all it is a musical journey that I'm more than happy to travel again and again.

Wolfgang Sawallisch / The Philadelphia Orchestra (3/1993)

(EMI CDC 5551192)

I posted this picture with a heavy heart because of the sad news that The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy just a few months ago -- an orchestra once famous all over the world for its golden sound has now become a failing business. An embittered irony; a disillusionment of the battle between art and business.

The choice of this disc is of course not because of Sawallisch's autograph. In fact it is the other way round. I loved this recording and so I asked him to autograph this particular CD booklet. Compared with their European counterparts, American orchestras (even the "Big 5") do not make many Bruckner recordings, and even fewer truly memorable ones. Not so for this one by Sawallisch. It is a slow burning affair. The first three movements get a no-nonsense treatment but still you can bathe yourself in the golden sound of the orchestra. However when it reaches the Finale, everything springs to life. Great recordings owe their greatness to great moments, and it is exactly the case here in the Finale. A glorious tribute to this famous orchestra.

1) The catalogue numbers are those of the CDs in my collection. There may be other versions 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) and 4 (link). Special mention must be made of Günter Wand's Berlin Philharmonic recording which is my best loved among all his BPO Bruckner recordings. 

3) Selections for this symphony are based on a database of a guilty number of 112 distinct recordings, excluding single movements, e.g. 1878 Volkfest Finale, and transcriptions.

21 July 2011

An ad hoc Blomstedt Bruckner cycle par excellence

If you take a look at my list of favourites for Bruckner 3rd and 4th, you'll notice that Blomstedt has featured in both. In fact although Blomstedt's Bruckner cycle on Querstand is yet to be completed (said to be released on 11 July next year to commemorate his 85th birthday), we can at this moment compile a home-made partial cycle (from the 3rd to the 9th) from his extant recordings. This ad hoc cycle will consist of excellent recordings and will be a sheer joy to listen to one by one.

Ad Hoc Blomstedt cycle (the 3rd is not shown here)

3rd: from the box-set as detailed in My Favourite Bruckner Recordings episode 9.
4th: from the Denon release (the one listed in My Favourite Bruckner Recordings episode 10b).
5th to 8th: from existing Querstand individual releases. His B7 on Denon recorded with the Staatskapelle Dresden has long been a prime recommendation by many critics, but I prefer the newer one in Leipzig on Querstand.
9th: from the Decca release (458964-2).
Apart from the 4th played by the Staatskapelle Dresden, all the others are by Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

Among this ad hoc cycle of 7 symphonies, 5 are included in my favourite list. Those 2 who aren't only miss by a small margin. 

A brief review of some of these discs was posted before.

While his Querstand B3 recorded in 1998 is one of my favourites, I'm still looking forward to his new B3 to be available in 1-3 weeks' time according to one of the web shops. (Update: The release has been delayed till Dec 2011.) The 1998 one is a hard act to follow, and I'm very curious of how the new recording will fare.

The usual norm is that not every individual symphony in full or even partial Bruckner cycles enjoys the highest recommendation. This is the case in the commonly available cycles, e.g. Tintner's, Karajan's, Jochum's two, all of Asahina's, Barenboim's two, Haitink's, or even Wand's Cologne and NDR or Celibidache's EMI cycles. The only three exceptions are all incomplete cycles, one by Wand with the BPO (without the Sixth), another by Sinopoli (again without the Sixth, but maybe I can cheat with the archival recording of the Philharmonia Orchestra's), and the third by Furtwangler (again fate has its way with an incomplete Sixth). Now I think I can have the fourth one by Blomstedt. The added bonus for Blomstedt's is the excellent recorded sound in SACD format. Even if the remaining ones from the Querstand cycle are disappointing, I still have this ad hoc cycle to cherish.

(Revised 26 July 2011)

03 July 2011

Deaths after chiropractic neck manipulations -- The facts

I was asked recently of the benefits of neck manipulations. These manipulations are performed not only by chiropractors, but also by some physiotherapists and doctors practising 'musculoskeletal medicine'. My answer is simple: please don't.

We are now living in an age of evidence-based medicine which, put simply, is evidence based on medical research. It refers invariably to 'evidence' published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

A systematic review of case reports published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in July 2010 stated:
"In conclusion, numerous deaths have been associated with chiropractic neck manipulations. There are reasons to suspect that under-reporting is substantial and reliable incidence figures do not exist. The risks of chiropractic neck manipulations by far outweigh their benefits. Healthcare professionals should advise the public accordingly." (Bold italics mine)

Those contemplating receiving neck manipulations as a modality of treatment for whatever physical complaints please beware.