A Rare Find: The Bruckner Conductor

Herbert Glass writes regularly about music in The Times.

We don't hear as much Bruckner in concert as we did a decade ago. The Austrian composer, once regarded a hothouse flower, unlikely to bloom outside the German-speaking world, nonetheless enjoyed considerable exposure beginning in the '60s in this country, Britain and France. The reason is easy to pinpoint: Advocacy by venerated conductors of an older generation, nurtured in the patient, monumental, Wagner-based tradition, such names as Furtwangler, Knappertsbusch, Walter, Klemperer, Bohm, Jochum, Karajan--all gone now.

Today's most respected senior Brucknerians, Giulini, Wand, Sanderling (the last, unfortunately, a relative stranger to the recording studio), are all approaching 80. The interests of the considerably younger Barenboim, Mehta and Haitink, once prominently identified with the composer, would seem to be turning elsewhere. And such hot contemporary properties as Muti and Dohnanyi lack the requisite patience and breadth of vision, as indicated by their recent recordings.

Heartening news for Bruckner fans of the '90s may be the increasing mastery over this elusive idiom by Lorin Maazel, a mere 60-years-old, who has recently recording of the Eighth Symphony with the magnificent Berlin Philharmonic (EMI/Angel 49990, two CDs)

Maazel's is a grandly flowing reading (too much so in the scherzo, where edginess and rhythmic bounce are called for) with no minimizing--or exaggeration--of the qualities that make Bruckner anathema to many listeners: the brassy orchestration; the characteristic, arguably bumbling gear-changes at the big cadences; the ruminativeness, the sheer length and massiveness of his structures.

The spreading of the 80-minute-long Maazel/BPO Eighth over a pair of full-priced discs might seem damning in view of the existence of two inexpensive boxes of the canonic Bruckner nine, both led by one of the composer's most celebrated interpreters, the late EugenJochum, each fitting the symphony onto a single disc.

Deutsche Grammophon's set (429648), employing the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic, retails at under $70. The EMI box (62935) comes in at about $10 less.

Jochum is, however, uncomfortable with the Eighth on both occasions, fussing endlessly with tempos and dynamics, failing to project Bruckner's by-no-means self-maintaining tensions.

In all, the Grammophon set--its components recorded between 1958 and 1974--remains a mighty achievement, the result of profound dedication to and affection for these scores, consistently well-executed.

Like most sequels, Jochum II, made between 1975 and 1980, is inferior. The Dresden State Orchestra--over whom the conductor's control is less than perfect--has notable weaknesses, above all its squeaky principal oboe and watery solo horn. Secondly, Jochum here exhibits the slowing and stodginess that almost inevitably come to conductors with advanced age. Thus, this Bruckner often crawls while being beset with more stopping-and-going than even the composer, notorious for changing tunes and speed virtually in mid-phrase, might have tolerated. Finally, EMI's sonics are clotted in comparison to Grammophon's, which remain lucid even in the densest climaxes.

The late Herbert von Karajan's last visit to the studio was in April of 1989, to record the Bruckner Seventh Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. The memorable result of those sessions has just arrived (Deutsche Grammophon 429 226).

While Karajan was no stranger to the Vienna podium, the orchestra was not created in his image as was the Berlin Philharmonic, with whom he produced his most exhibitionistic performances.

His more relaxed, less authoritarian relationship with the Viennese shows in what emerges a remarkably flexible, easygoing, poignant conclusion to the longest, most lucrative and, arguably, most influential career in the history of classical recording.

The principal interest of a new Telarc recording (80244) of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony, the "Romantic," lies in the edition employed. This is not the 1880 Symphony, Bruckner's most popular, but the 1874 original, which would be drastically revised during subsequent years. The most obvious difference between 1874 and 1880 is the famous "hunting" scherzo, of which there isn't a trace in 1874.

This curiosity is decently executed by the Cincinnati Symphony--strong brass and solo winds, thinness in the upper strings when the presure is on--under the efficient baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Otto Klemperer was, with Furtwangler, one of the rare conductors who could--or cared to-- make sense of the Fifth Symphony, a score that sprawls even by Brucknerian standards. Klemperer's mid-'60s recording, luminously executed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, has reappeared on a single, long, mid-priced CD (EMI/Angel 63612). It is compulsory listening for all admirers of the composer.

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