24 March 2013

The interesting case of Heinz Bongartz's Bruckner Symphony No.6 recording

Although it was known that Heinz Bongartz had made other recordings of Bruckner symphonies (B7 with RSO Leipzig on 10 April 1948 and the D minor with Dresdner Philharmoniker on 12 Nov 1950), apparently only one is now extant: Symphony No. 6 recorded in December 1964 with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. This recording has been well-known for many years among Bruckner fans, not least because of its scarcity in its original CD re-issue by Berlin Classics (although it is still available in a Berlin Classics box-set, and lately from Klassik Haus Restorations). Some would consider it the "holy grail"of the recordings of this symphony, but others would be less than pleased.

My impression with this recording is one of dissatisfaction with the CD especially its brass outbursts. There can be no doubt that the Adagio is really lovely and moving. However I was not satisfied with this conclusion. I was wondering if so many Bruckner aficionados think so highly of this recording, there must be a reason for it. I wanted to ascertain if it is the problem of the remastering in the CD re-issue that mars an originally excellent recording.

So I turned to the LPs. This recording was originally issued by VEB Deutsche Schallplatten (VEBDS) in the former GDR on 2 Eterna LPs (8 20 540-541). The stereo version from Eterna is 8 25 540-541. Since 1954, Deutsche Grammophone from the former West Germany had started co-operations with VEBDS, and it was followed shortly afterwards by Philips and EMI. One form of cooperation is for these companies to pay VEBDS for the right to distribute an existing VEBDS recording on their own label in the West. Thus came the Philips version of this recording in stereo on 835 388 LY, which has a deluxe gatefold cover with the sleeve holding the single LP between the 2 halves of the cover, and a cloth-bound spine. 

Eterna black label 8 25 540-541

Philips 835 388 LY

The Philips issue is a joy to look at and to hold in hands, but its deficiency lies in the single LP. The Adagio is split onto two sides of the LP: Side One has the first movement and the beginning of the Adagio, and Side Two contains the concluding part of the Adagio and the last 2 movements. It compares poorly with the Eterna release with each side of the 2 LPs holding each movement of the symphony.

What I have suspected but never really anticipated is the effect of the sound difference between these LPs and the CD on the overall impression of the interpretation. The strident and shrilling brass on the CD, particularly in bars 24-28 at the beginning of the first movement, becomes convincingly impactful but never so coarse and harsh on the CD. The timpani, well heard in bar 28 when the brass stops, is solid and distinct rather than the slightly muffled sound on the CD. All the instruments are more "airy" on the LPs. The result is a truly marvellous recording. 

Comparing the two issues of LPs from either sides of the then Berlin Wall, the sound is more lively with a bigger dynamic range on the Eterna LPs, albeit with a little more surface noise, while the sound is warmer, making the Adagio even more lovely, on the Philips release. I won't be tempted to make the difficult choice of which LP version is better -- I'm truly happy to hold on to both.

I don't want to go into the everlasting argument of whether LPs or CDs are better as I naively reckon it is an utter waste of time.

However given this particular experience, I'd suggest that if you want this recording, don't waste time and money on the original CD re-issue on Berlin Classics. Go for either, or even better both, of these LPs and you won't regret.  Now this recording, in its vinyl version, will comfortably sit in my favourite list of this symphony. 


  1. hello horace, just spotted this

    1. Thanks. I noticed it as well sometime ago at another site. I'm interested in buying one. Horace

  2. My impression on Berlin Classics of these classical releases in general is pretty bad. Today we can blame them on early remastering method. The Konwitschny Beethoven symphonies, Abendroth cds, I still have them, but I can't stand the sound now. Back then (late 90s and early 2000s), listeners and collectors were busy comparing.

    I remembered I saw some Suitner east German era recordings remastered on Japanese issues. I always wondered how much they can clean the sound up. $ wise, they are too much.

    1. I agree with you on Berlin Classics's generally unsatisfactory sound. I had the Suitner B4 Japanese issue and found it to be better than that from Berlin Classics, described in more details in my blog entry on My Favourite Bruckner Recordings (episode 10).

  3. Bongartz, on the basis of the only Bruckner recording I have heard from him, which is the 6th, is the greatest Bruckner conductor, even better than Karajan.