25 February 2013

In Memoriam -- Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923-2013)

Wolfgang Sawallisch passed away last Friday, 22 February 2013. May he rest in peace.

He was a prolific conductor in terms of recorded music. As far as his Bruckner recordings are concerned, although he did not do a full cycle, all of what he has recorded are very fine, and two of them are among my favourites. Besides the 6 commercial releases in physical products as shown in the picture below, he also has live recordings of B3 and B5 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the form of digital download from the orchestra's official website.

B1: recorded 25-26 & 29/10/1984. Orfeo
B4: recorded March 1993 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. EMI (One of my favourites.)
B5: recorded 28-29/9/1990 and 18-20/3/1991. Orfeo
B6: recorded 13-14/10/1981. Orfeo (A tamed "peaceful" interpretation. The beginning of the recap in the Adagio is so nice, and the coda is truly memorable.)
B9: in the CD booklet, the recording date is printed as 23-23/12/1984. Orfeo
B9: live recording 10/8/1983 with the VPO. Altus

12 February 2013

Bruckner symphonies recordings: Summary CD/DVD Review 2012 (New recordings)

The year 2012 is an unusually fruitful year for Bruckner aficionados as far as new releases, reissues and, in particular, completion of cycles of Bruckner symphonies CDs and DVDs are concerned, although the number of releases is not great compared to previous years.

This is a personal summary review for 2012, and I make no pretensions to being exhaustive in the coverage of releases in this period. For one thing, unofficial releases will not be discussed. And even for official commercial releases, there may still be one or two that I haven't got, for one reason or another. Furthermore I'll choose only the notable ones to discuss.

First, the completion of Bruckner cycles. My favourite modern cycle (from No.1 to No. 9) is without doubt Herbert Blomstedt's on Querstand. I've praised more than once Blomstedt's ongoing efforts in Bruckner's symphonies - in 2009 on his trilogy of Nos. 6-8,  a brief take on his No. 5 in the following year, in 2011 compiling an adhoc cycle par excellence, and then voicing my anticipation of the completion of the cycle last September. The finished cycle does not disappoint. It is easily the best sounding and performance-wise most rewarding modern cycle. It is now also available in a box-set.

Another cycle which saw its completion is Marcus Bosch's on Coviello Classics, but there is always a lingering impression that he is out of his league in Bruckner in parts of this cycle.

Although strictly speaking it is not a Bruckner cycle, the seven Bruckner performances recorded in the Anthology of the RCO are of such historical interest that they should be mentioned alongside any partial cycle.

While partial cycles are touched on, particular mention must be given to the incomplete cycle left by the great Brucknerian Guiseppe Sinopoli. A box-set was issued locally in Japan (Tower Records Universal Vintage Collection PROC1182). Those who have not got these recordings in the past should look no further.

Another cycle which comes near to completion is the excellent one by Marek Janowski on Pentatone. The First and the Third were released in 2012, leaving only the Second and the Fourth to complete a Nos. 1-9 cycle. 

As far as individual new recordings are concerned, Daniel Barenboim's new 7th on DG is really impressive, "an embodiment of tragic beauty and elegiac mellowness". 

Gerd Schaller's B1-3 recordings (Profil PH12022) continue his cycle of versions of Bruckner's symphonies that derive mainly from recent editions by William Carragan. Schaller is a very nice and gentle man, a fact that we noticed when we dined with him in St. Florian last August. The Philharmonie Festiva is a symphony orchestra established in 2008 by Schaller with the core cast of musicians from the Munich Bach Soloists, a soloist ensemble first founded by Karl Richter, and the rest from top orchestras in Munich and other orchestras in Germany. Their recordings are all marked by a dark-hued orchestral palette and sumptuous sound. Their growing reputation is not without reason. In the pipeline is the Eighth which will be released later this year.

When it comes to name the most impressive new recording in my mind, Barenboim's has to give way to Mario Venzago's Bruckner 2 recording. Venzago's ongoing Bruckner cycle on CPO will be a product of his cooperation with different less-widely-known orchestras, a little reminiscent of Georg Tintner: Nos. 4 and 7 with the Basel Symphony Orchestra, Switzerland, Nos. 0 and 1 with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, Finland, No. 2 with the Northern Sinfonia, UK, and the coming Nos. 3 and 6 with the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Switzerland. Venzago has made it clear that he wanted to portray a different character in each of Bruckner's symphonies, so much so that he'd nicknamed every one of them. While the first 2-CD offering (4th and 7th) did not raise my interest much, the second 2-CD offering (D minor and 1st) was very good and began to make me harbour expectations for his future recordings. The 2nd (CPO 777735-2) is outstanding, being a very spirited and uplifting performance, and gives a new handsome face to this seldom performed symphony. It's a pity that he didn't use the 1872 version which was originally advertised for the concerts in November 2011, but there is a very interesting story to this choice....

There are a couple of surprises to come too. Donald Runnicles with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion CDA67916) gave us a surprisingly good Bruckner 7. It is an eloquent reading with smooth long lines and some special touches to minor details here and there. Although I wouldn't say that it'll enter my favourite's list, it's been a pleasure listening to it. Another surprise is the 4th from Shao-Chia Lu and the Taiwan Philharmonic, which although the lower strings have room for improvement, is a product of fine cooperation and commitment.

On the other hand, some new releases are less encouraging. I was a little excited when I found Franz Welser-Möst's CD (Orfeo C868121B) at the Salzburg Festival House last August, well before it was officially released. It is a recording of the 18 August 1989 performance of Bruckner 7 with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester during the Salzburg Festival. By the time I had listened to it, my initial sentiments sagged. Although it is hailed in the back cover: "We hear a new Bruckner here, fresh and full of youthful spirits -- as firm proof of his worldwide recognition in a place synonymous with tradition", I may be too dumb to discern this synonym. Welser-Möst's handling of the piece is more like a bull in a china shop, the sort of youthful imprudence that one can only euphemistically call the performance exciting. As if they are diagonally across the street from each other, Christoph von Dohnányi's Bruckner 4 performance on 30 October 2008 in the Royal Festival Hall captured on Signum Classics (SIG CD256) is a stale routine, even languid at time, despite the excellent playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra. << Please read the comments below for an alternative view from Mr Ken Ward, Editor of The Bruckner Journal. >>

I suppose some would call it a sin if I don't mention for the year 2012 Simon Rattle's Bruckner 9 recording on EMI with the latest completion of the Finale. I firmly believe that this recording has a certain historical significance, in that the attempted completion of the Finale has been endorsed by the Principal Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. But otherwise its significance will stop at that. Artistically, for the first three movements, I can easily recall more than a handful of recordings that can far more emphatically endear me to this incomplete masterpiece and tug at my heartstrings. I'd return to this recording only for a taste of the completed Finale. Sonically, however, the SACD issued in Japan (TOGE-11092-93) is superb.

For DVD/BD, I need to add Abbado's Bruckner 5 performance with 'his' Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Accentus Music ACC10243 on Blu-ray Disc) . It was recorded live at the Concert Hall of KKL Lucern on 19 and 20 August 2011. The players were obviously listening to one another very carefully and the result is for all to appreciate -- it is almost like chamber music played by a full symphony orchestra. Orchestral transparency, cantabile litheness and beautiful subtle nuances characterise this memorable performance. 

Version 1: 12/2/2013
Version 1.1: 14/2/2013 with reference to Abbado's DVD and second picture added
Version 1.2: