bruckner symphonies blomstedt accentus

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No 1 in C minor ‘Linz’ WAB 101 (1877 Linz version with revisions, ed. Leopold Nowak 1955)
Symphony No 2 in C minor WAB 102 (1872 version, ed. William Carragan)
Symphony No 3 in D minor WAB 103 (1873 version, ed. Nowak 1977)
Symphony No 4 in E-flat major ‘Romantic’ WAB 104 (1878-80 version, ed. Nowak 1953
Symphony No 5 in B-flat major WAB 105 (1875/77, ed. Nowak)
Symphony No 6 in A major WAB 106 (1879-81, ed. Robert Haas)
Symphony No 7 in E major WAB 107(1881-83, ed. Haas)
Symphony No 8 in C minor WAB 108 (1890 version, ed. Haas)
Symphony No 9 in D minor, unfinished WAB 109 (1887-96, ed. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs 2000)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Herbert Blomstedt
rec. live, 2005-2012, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
Accentus Music ACC80575 [10 CDs: 587]

This is a set I’ve long wanted to hear. It was available previously on the Querstand label but the set has long been deleted – although copies are occasionally advertised on the internet at absurdly high prices. The Querstand version was in SACD form, whereas Accentus here offer the recordings as standard CDs.

I’ve previously heard a few Blomstedt Bruckner recordings. There’s his very fine account of the Third, recorded live in 2017 with the Berliner Philharmoniker and issued as part of a multi-conductor set of all the symphonies on the orchestra’s own label (review). In the early 1980s he recorded the Fourth and the Seventh with the Staatskapelle Dresden. I’ve heard those in their first incarnation on the Dal Segno label but recently they were reissued by MDG (review). Blomstedt also made a recording of the Ninth for Decca back in 1995; that was with the Gewandhausorchester and I reviewed it in 2021 when it was licensed by Presto Classical. He also recorded the Fourth and Sixth symphonies in San Francisco for Decca, though I’ve never heard those discs. All my previous experience of this conductor in Bruckner’s music greatly whetted my appetite to hear Blomstedt in all nine of the symphonies, so this reissue is greatly to be welcomed.

Blomstedt was principal conductor of the Gewandhausorchester between 1998 and 2005. I recall an interesting point made in the booklet accompanying the very distinguished Beethoven symphony cycle that he recorded with the orchestra between 2014 and 2017 (review). Apparently, a point that came up in Blomstedt’s negotiations to take up the conductorship was the seating of the orchestra. He wanted to change the orchestra’s seating arrangements by dividing the violins left and right, and he got his way. We are told that his successor, Riccardo Chailly, retained the arrangement and now the orchestra “even require their guest conductors to accept the German arrangement in their contract”. Naturally, this seating arrangement applies in these recordings and it’s very beneficial.

As I’ve gone through the set I’ve been impressed by its sheer consistency. First, Blomstedt is an excellent and trustworthy guide to Bruckner’s music. Secondly, the playing of the Gewandhausorchester is peerless in every respect. (Incidentally, one thing I learned from the booklet was that this orchestra was the first to mount a complete cycle of the Bruckner symphonies; that happened in 1919/20.) Thirdly, the recorded sound is superb. All the performances were recorded at concerts in the Gewandhaus and recording engineer Evelyn Rühlemann and producer Matthias Behrendt have captured the sound of the orchestra expertly.

The recordings were made at concerts over a period of several years. The first to be performed in this sequence was the Eighth. That was in July 2005, the month in which Herbert Blomstedt celebrated his 78th birthday. The last to be performed was the Second, in March 2012, by which time Blomstedt was 84. I mention his age because it is – and isn’t – a factor in these recordings. It’s a factor because the performances reflect the long experience and deep acquired wisdom of Blomstedt’s extraordinarily long conducting career. (Happily, he is still actively conducting with great distinction at the time of writing – March 2023 – a matter of months before his 96th birthday.) However, no one should fear that Blomstedt’s age has any negative implications for these performances: on the contrary, wherever Bruckner requires it – the Scherzo movements, for example – Blomstedt injects great vitality into the music-making.

In fact, vitality is well to the fore in the performances of the First Symphony (June 2011) and the Second (March 2012). Confession time: though I’m a Bruckner enthusiast I’ve always found the first two symphonies less interesting than the rest of the nine. Though he already had a symphony to his credit by the time he completed the First in 1866 – the so-called ‘Study/no. 00’ symphony – I don’t feel he’d really found his authentic voice by the time of his first two officially numbered symphonies. Blomstedt made me think again. He makes the opening movement of the First exciting – though not in any superficial sense – while the Adagio second movement benefits from the conductor’s patent, controlled approach. The Scherzo is full of vigour, while the lyrical Trio offers excellent contrast. In the finale, Blomstedt does the lyrical episodes very well, but it was the blazing tuttis that really made me sit up as I listened. This splendidly played performance gets the cycle off to an impressive start.

The Second is no less successful. In my listening notes for the first movement, I’ve written “controlled urgency”. That’s not the full story, of course; there are a good number of passages where Bruckner relaxes. Blomstedt gives those episodes proper value, but it’s noticeable that even then he maintains momentum. In this respect there’s a telling contrast with the more recent cycle in which the Gewandhausorchester plays for their current Chief Conductor, Andris Nelsons. I’ve reviewed several of the performances in that cycle – and have purchased the others. I’ve noted a recurrent trait on Nelsons’ part to slow down in more reflective passages, as if admiring the view. The results can be beautiful – especially when a band of the calibre of the Gewandhausorchester is involved – but I think it weakens the structure. That’s a trap into which Blomstedt never falls. His account of the third movement, an Adagio, is a winner; the phrasing is marvellous and the performance, while completely natural and flowing, is clearly the product of scrupulous attention to detail. I’m sure Blomstedt would be the first to say that the cornerstone of the performance is the burnished sound of the orchestra; the playing is wonderfully refined. Given that the accounts of the other two movements are just as good, it’s no surprise that, at the conclusion of the symphony, the Leipzig audience responds with a warm ovation.

For me, Bruckner finds his authentic voice in the Third Symphony. It’s this symphony which forms Blomstedt’s contribution to the aforementioned Berlin Philharmonic symphony cycle. His performance there is a highlight of the set as a whole and he’s accorded magnificent playing by the Berlin orchestra. That said, the members of the Gewandhausorchester yield nothing to their Berlin peers when it comes to quality of Bruckner playing. Here, the first movement of the Third offers an excellent example of the satisfyingly firm – but not cumbersome – foundation that the Leipzig cellos and double basses provide for the overall orchestral sound. In addition, the unforced power of the orchestra in the tuttis is deeply impressive, as is the case throughout this cycle. Climaxes develop sonorously, but you always feel there’s something left; this orchestra has no need to do anything excessively. Furthermore, I noticed how, time after time, the music really sings in the lyrical passages of this movement. Blomstedt also shows his mastery in the way he makes the pauses count for something; their timing is always expertly judged. In reality, all those comments could apply to any movement in these nine symphonic performances. The Adagio of the Third is distinguished by glorious playing and Blomstedt gets the pacing and the sense of line just right. His reading of the finale is often urgent and when he and the orchestra reach the major-key reprise of the theme with which the symphony began it’s a marvellous moment of arrival and fulfilment

I’m familiar with Blomstedt’s view of the Fourth from his Dresden recording. This later performance, given in October 2010, is on another level, I think. The symphony represents another advance for Bruckner compared to the Third; for one thing, I believe it’s structurally tighter. The very opening gives us a fine example of the quality of the recorded sound; there’s a very satisfying sense of aural space around the horn call – and, a little later, the answering woodwind figures are ideally and realistically placed vis-à-vis the horn. Meanwhile, everything is cushioned on a soft bed of tremolando strings and the whole ensemble is expertly balanced by conductor, musicians and engineers. I think Blomstedt paces this movement ideally, achieving the grandeur that Bruckner wrote into the music but always maintaining momentum. The ‘hunting horn’ Scherzo is full of life; the energy contrasts with the rustic ease of the Trio. Just into the finale, the first great tutti (1:20) is terrifically imposing and it proves to be the first of several such moments. Blomstedt leads the listener unerringly through Bruckner’s long finale until the moment when the final build up begins (18:27). Hereabouts, the music is full of noble tension which is finally released in a golden peroration at the end.

The performance of the epic Fifth was give a few months before that of the Fourth; it dates from May 2010. In the big first movement Blomstedt displays excellent grasp of structure and expert control; his is a sure hand on the tiller. He paces the slow movement intelligently; the pace is measured, as it should be, but not so slow that life is drained out of the music. The wide dynamic range of the orchestra is faithfully reproduced by the engineers. I was struck by the warmth and nobility in the climaxes. The huge finale, here playing for 24:48, is a great test of any conductor. For me, Blomstedt nails it in a highly focused reading. It probably doesn’t need saying by now, but the playing of the Leipzigers is magnificent. In the final minutes, majesty and momentum are ideally combined, the sound of the orchestra simply glorious.

The Sixth was set down in September 2008. I often think that Bruckner’s marking at the head of the first movement – Majestoso – is not the most helpful to interpreters, and over the years I’ve heard a wide range of tempi adopted by conductors. Blomstedt uses the insistent violin rhythm at the start to impel the music forward at a pace that strikes me as well-nigh ideal: it’s full of life but not rushed in an unseemly way;. We hear a genuine allegro though the second subject is, rightly, given much more breadth. There are many places during these performances where one feels the benefit of the left-right division of the violins; this movement offers a case in point. The Adagio movement is marked Sehr feierlich (very solemn) and Blomstedt invests the music with due solemnity and dignity. The keening oboe melody, heard near the start, introduces a note of tragedy but it should be patrician tragedy, as is here the case. The tempo marking for the scherzo is Nicht schnell and that injunction is obeyed, yet the rhythms are full of energy. The horn section has a key role in the Trio which they play with distinction. Every aspect of the finale seems to me to be expertly judged. Here is another example of Blomstedt delivering Bruckner’s music with genuine vitality.

The Seventh was an early element in this cycle; it was set down in November 2006. The very opening could be said to provide a microcosm of the virtues of this set. The long-breathed melody positively glows, the playing enhanced by a beautifully judged recording. Blomstedt sets a pace that is just right, blending breadth and purpose. Throughout the cycle he proves to be a master of Brucknerian transitions and here the move to the second subject is seamless. The whole movement is splendidly done and the radiant, expertly built coda sets the seal on this very fine performance. The Adagio is spacious and patrician, the playing glorious. When the main climax is reached, after a patent build-up, there is no need for percussion (other than timpani); the climax is simply majestic. Blomstedt makes the Scherzo exciting and then treats us to a deeply satisfying account of the lyrical finale, which is crowned by a noble peroration. This is a distinguished account of the Seventh.

As I said earlier, the monumental Eighth is the earliest of these performances (July 2005) and though the performance is very fine indeed, the recorded sound, though very good, doesn’t quite match the exalted standards elsewhere in the set. The recording is balanced just a bit more closely than in the other recordings and, as a result, not only do the instruments sound closer to the listener but, crucially, there isn’t the same sense of space around the orchestra. Perhaps as a result, the sound seemed a bit bright to me. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a very good recording but this, I think, is an example of the excellent being the enemy of the good. I noticed one other thing. In the recordings of the other symphonies there’s a generous gap between movements, something which I very much appreciate. Not in the Eighth, though. There are just three or four seconds between the first and second movements, while the finale follows the Adagio virtually attacca. Now, it’s possible that this is how Blomstedt performed the symphony, though I rather doubt it. It’s a bit of a blemish by comparison with the other performances, especially when the first and third movements end so quietly.

All that said, there’s much to appreciate and admire in the performance itself. Blomstedt generates suspense at the very start; this gives way to craggy grandeur at the first big tutti. He never allows the music to sag; there’s always a sense of purpose, even when Bruckner pauses for reflection. Overall, it’s a dramatic and potent reading and at the climaxes the Gewandhausorchester unleashes awesome, but never overblown, power. The Scherzo features drive and strong rhythms as well as a beautifully shaped Trio. The great Adagio is given a very expansive performance. Blomstedt takes 29:41 to play it. By the imperfect measure of the clock this is comparatively leisurely. By comparison, Karajan took 26:07 in his 1975 Berlin recording and 25:13 in his 1988 Vienna traversal. Haitink took 29:12 in his 1981 Vienna recording and his live Dresden performance, given in 2002, plays for 27:52. However, as I said, the clock is an imperfect measure: Though his conducting is patient and very spacious, Blomstedt maintains concentration through this long span, as do the players. The performance held my attention throughout. The climaxes rise up like mountain peaks while the extended coda is elegiac. The performance of the finale, which begins boldly and proudly, is a vivid one; the music-making is full of purpose. I admired this account of the Eighth.

The Ninth, recorded in November 2011, is memorable. At the very start, Blomstedt and the orchestra convey great tension – the horns seem to call across a vast landscape. The first climax, when it arrives, is simply titanic, though the impact of that musical peak is more than matched when the movement’s final climax is reached. Throughout the movement Blomstedt evidences a mastery of pulse – but that has been a trait common to all the performances in this set. His traversal of this imposing movement is magnificent in every respect. He ensures that the Scherzo is rhythmically taut, while the Trio scampers along dexterously, the music very light on its feet. The third movement is marked Langsam, feierlich and Blomstedt obeys those injunctions to the letter. In a seamless account of the movement, he brings out the nobility of Bruckner’s conception. It seems to me that his conducting blends perfectly the elements of momentum, spaciousness and tension. In realising Bruckner’s vision, Blomstedt is aided by sovereign playing by the Gewandhausorchester. The final climax, achieved after an ideal build-up, is shattering, after which the coda glows gently. I’ve heard completions of the unfinished finale that Bruckner left behind but, while applauding the scholarship, I’ve never been wholly convinced and after hearing an account of the Adagio such as this present one, I simply don’t want to hear any more music.

Before summing up, I should say a little more about the engineering. Earlier, I made passing reference to the quality of the recorded sound. I ought to expand on that because it seems to me that the sound is outstanding. There is a wide, though not exaggerated, dynamic range. The engineering imparts warmth to the sound but this does not in any way compromise the clarity with which all sections of the orchestra can be heard. The dynamic range is especially apparent when Blomstedt and the orchestra patiently build one of Bruckner’s great crescendi; when the climaxes are reached they open out with marvellous fulness. Listening, you get a very good sense of the ambience of the hall; there’s a very natural resonance. Audiences were present at each performance but how disciplined the Leipzig concertgoers are: I heard no distracting noises during the music but I like the fact that between each movement just the right amount of time is preserved and in these periods you can hear a little bit of quiet shuffling, mainly on the platform, I think; that just adds to the atmosphere. At the end of each performance there’s about a minute of very warm applause, but – and this is the crucial point – on each occasion the audience maintains a respectful silence for several seconds; these are not Proms-style instant – and intrusive – ovations. As I usually do when reviewing, I listened to these performances using both headphones and loudspeakers. Often, I find that headphones are preferable because they enable me to focus closely on the music and hear inner detail. That’s true of these recordings, too, but on this occasion, I preferred using loudspeakers because then I got a real sense of the ambience of the hall

It’s time to sum up. I said at the outset that this was a cycle I’d long wanted to hear – indeed, I had coveted it. Did it live up to my expectations? Most certainly it did. This is a deeply satisfying cycle of the nine numbered symphonies of Anton Bruckner. I have several single-conductor Bruckner symphony cycles in my collection. All the cycles I own have much to commend them and they add to our appreciation and understanding of Bruckner’s symphonic output. I’d unhesitatingly say that this Blomstedt cycle can be ranked among the very best. I referenced to consistency a moment ago and that’s what you get in spades from Blomstedt. The orchestral playing is peerless, the recorded sound is superb (albeit with a small caveat over the Eighth), and Blomstedt is an insightful and highly reliable guide to the music.

In the booklet there’s a lengthy and interesting essay by Hagen Kunze about Herbert Blomstedt’s approach to these works. I read it before beginning my listening and one comment particularly caught my eye: “Bruckner’s symphonies are strenuous alpine hikes, and Blomstedt is a mountain guide who not only has the next fork in the road in mind but knows every stone on the path before the group has even started.” Returning to that comment at the end of this particular Bruckner “journey”, I felt it was a very apt summation. Throughout these symphonies I felt I was in the hands off a wise, experienced and perceptive guide.

This cycle has been issued once before and became unavailable. I hope it will stay in the catalogue for much longer under the Accentus Music imprint but I urge Bruckner devotees who have not already heard it not to let it slip through their fingers again. It is an important and impressive contribution to the Bruckner discography.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore (May 2023)

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