Bruckner Revived, Grandly

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar</i>

In the not-so-distant past, echt Bruckner interpretation seemed to be predicated on dawdling and on reveling in the composer’s gaucheries, above all in his thick instrumental textures, his penchant for piling climax on climax and his grinding gear-changes--ending thematic ideas abruptly and beginning new ones just as precipitately.

Beginning in the early 1960s, largely through the recorded interpretations of conductor Bernard Haitink and his splendid Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, it became apparent that the composer’s textures needn’t be uniformly dense or his rhythms rigid. The notion began to circulate that Bruckner’s grandiose visions needn’t be tied to trying the listener’s patience.

These thoughts are prompted by a recent outpouring of recorded Bruckner that exhibits a variety of interpretive approaches unthinkable in pre-Haitink days, the days of Bruckner the presumed monolith.

A strikingly anti-traditional view comes via a budget-priced Sony “Essential Classics” reissue (53519, two CDs) of the 1969 recording by George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra of the Eighth Symphony, the composer’s longest and perhaps most self-indulgent in terms of stops, starts and brassy, roof-rattling climaxes. Szell showed that it could be played faster, with leaner sonority and more sharply inflected rhythms than were usually employed, without denying the specific Brucknerian grandeur and mysticism.


A lso included in this package is the Third Symphony, de livered by the same artists in similarly low-calorie fashion, in its 1889 edition. (The issue of Bruckner editions will otherwise be ignored here, to spare both writer and reader the attendant tedium.)

Some commentators regard it as far removed from the composer’s final intentions, although Georg Solti hardly enters an eloquent plea for the 1877 original with his hectic, incessantly loud traversal, roughly played by the Chicago Symphony (London 440 316).

The Third is heard in another reissue from the 1960s, which purports to be of the same edition as Szell’s but sounds more ungainly in the hands of Kurt Sanderling and the Leipzig Gewand-haus Orchestra (Berlin Classics 2151, mid-price).

Octogenarian Gunter Wand, directing the Hamburg NDR Symphony, offers a slowly unfolding, massive and sonorous performance of the Ninth Symphony (RCA Victor 62650)--not markedly different in approach from the two previous Wand-led performances of the Ninth in the RCA catalogue: an extreme example of the label’s curious repertory multiplications.


Although it would be unfair to regard Wand as stodgy, there is infinitely more color in the Ninth Symphony as presented by Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony in a reissue of their 1977 recording (EMI 65177, mid-price), a magnificently sensual account of this sublime score, rich in dynamic nuance and melodic flow.

O n the other (Italian) hand, Giulini’s Italian compatriot Claudio Abbado has shown a decidedly Germanic ponderousness in his recent work. In the Seventh Symphony, however--not with his own Berlin Philharmonic but with the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 437 518)--Abbado projects a welcome relaxation and lyric expansiveness, particularly suited to one of the composer’s smoother-textured symphonies.

The old-time chunky approach is favored by Wolfgang Sawallisch, who leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Fourth Symphony, a reasonably popular work even before the general acceptance of the once-esoteric composer (EMI 55119).

Sawallisch does nothing here to dispel the damnable portrait of Bruckner as an inspired clod, incapable of separating his climactic peaks with contrasting lyric valleys.


Recently arrived too is the mid-priced reissue of the aforementioned Haitink-Concertgebouw set of the nine canonic Bruckner symphonies and the early work known as “No. 0" (Philips 442 040, nine CDs).

Much of it remains remarkably fresh, perhaps unsurpassed in its dashing energy. The most durable are Nos. 3 (1877 version), 4 and 7, and a Ninth as effective in its slender, tightly organized way as Giulini’s is in its quasi-operatic richness.

There are two major failures in the set: the Sixth Symphony, hobbled by insensitive engineering that obliterates the timpani figurations that define the first movement’s ferocious rhythmic drive, and an Eighth that barely survives the conductor’s uncharacteristic lack of organization.*