Bruckner Sym 1-9 Blomstedt Accentus ACC80575

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]

My colleague and Editor-in-Chief John Quinn has already reviewed this set and I refer you to his review for more background information and his informed opinion. Suffice it to say that a fair degree of homogeneity might reasonably be expected from a cycle recorded over a relatively short period of six years by a conductor at the height of his mature powers, with decades of experience upon which to draw and a firmly established reputation in music of the Austro-German Romantic repertoire. The only caveat is that unlike most, more recent, “complete” sets of the Bruckner symphonies, this does not include the ‘Study’ (“00”) or ‘die Nullte’ (“0”); otherwise Blomstedt employs what are now the conventional, most often performed versions and plays the Ninth unfinished. Previously released in SACD on the Querstand label, now deleted, this set has been re-issued by Accentus Music in excellent, standard CD sound.

The beauty of both that recorded sound and the orchestral playing is immediately apparent from the opening trudge of the First Symphony, especially the depth of the bass. Anyone’s concern that we are to hear “old man’s Bruckner” is dispelled by the sense of drive and momentum Blomstedt brings to the music. In addition, a performance of this kind of stature brings into question what is by now the rather tired assertion that Bruckner “did not find his voice” until the Third Symphony; there is plenty about the First which is already redolent of the massive dignity of Bruckner’s symphonic style and Blomstedt ensures that he neither rushes nor underplays it. Even the quirky little tune forming the first subject looks forward to the cheeky solo clarinet interjections at the start of the finale of the Fifth and the strength of Blomstedt’s purpose constantly reminds us that Bruckner was already highly skilled as an orchestrator and melodist. The Adagio is not the tightest or most memorable of Bruckner’s essays in that form, but Blomstedt’s sustained patience and concentration in combination with the seamless lyricism of the Leipzig strings give it the strongest advocacy and cumulatively it delivers. I have long thought its Scherzo to be the equal of many in the later symphonies and it is here played with maximum, demonic vigour. Blomstedt does not try to duck a certain raw crudeness about the finale but gives it full scope for thrills.

I have always liked the Second Symphony – in reality, Bruckner’s fourth – ever since discovering Giulini’s recording with the VSO and this account by Blomstedt is equally appealing. The gaps in the “Pausensinfonie” are nicely gauged and he never loses momentum. The glory here is the sonority of the orchestral playing and the concentration of Blomstedt’s direction results in another performance of supposedly “immature” Bruckner which convinces the listener that the work as rightly belongs in the canon of his major works as any subsequent symphony. The Scherzo – played second, as per the original version – is fleet yet menacing and the Trio lilting and bucolic while retaining mystery; the conclusion is violent and arresting. The Adagio is simply sublime – elegant yet impassioned, its hushed, gentle ending so delicately managed. The finale is vital and flexible and the conclusion stupendous, warmly applauded.

I reviewed the composite Bruckner set by the BPO on their own label directed by eight different conductors last year; that collection included Blomstedt’s Third, which I characterised as having “momentum without compromising grandeur” and the same is true of this account. Its monitory opening is my favourite of all those of Bruckner’s symphonies and Blomstedt gets the speed and sense of suppressed menace absolutely right, setting the tone for the whole performance. Once again, the sheer power and warmth of the Gewandhausorchester are an enormous asset and the exceptionally good balance means the listener misses no detail despite the sense of being enveloped in a halo of aureate sound – but I would pick out the violas and cellos for their richness of tone, followed by the smoothest and silkiest of brass-playing. The first great climax exactly halfway through the first movement is a real event, almost as grand as anything Bruckner subsequently wrote, then the ensuing reposeful passage from 14:05 to 15:30 is delicate, refined and restrained before a thrilling reprise of the opening theme. There is simply no question of Blomstedt just serving up a serviceable account; this is magnificent playing, alive to every nuance in the score. The same virtues inform the delivery of the remaining three movements; I find no fault anywhere. The Adagio is mighty and measured, the Scherzo tripping and uplifting, the finale as compelling, lyrical and exciting as any other recording I know, even if it always emerges as a little diffuse and episodic, no matter how firm the grip of the conductor – as Blomstedt’s certainly is, here.

It is the same story with the Fourth, which again benefits from impeccably broad, spacious sound and propulsion; it has a tighter structure than the Third and Blomstedt maintains a tight hold on its over-arching shape, never letting the tension drop and ensuring that the frequent tremolando string underlay can be heard; it is simply a perfect rendition. The Andante is just that – a brisk, strolling pace which still provides time to admire the scenery in passing and rises to monumental heights. The “Hunt” Scherzo is driven and invigorating; again, ideally controlled. The momentum generated by the Scherzo spills over into the urgent opening of the finale which is mesmerising in its intensity and elicits rapturous applause.

My listening notes as I worked my way through these recordings were consistently positive about Blomstedt’s pacing and timing, the instrumental balances, the quality of the orchestral playing and the sound engineering, such that to all intents, reiteration of the merits of each performance becomes redundant. The Fifth displays all those same virtues, testament to the degree with Blomstedt is clearly a natural Brucknerian; his direction never sounds applied or self-conscious and proceeds from his affinity with the music, his ability to communicate his vision to the orchestra and their capacity to realise his intention. In many ways the Fifth is the most idiosyncratic, abstruse and mystical of his symphonies and Blomstedt’s rendition of it could hardly be more persuasive. The magnificence of the Gewandhausorchester’s sound is especially impressive here; it might have been recorded in the concert hall, but there is more than a hint of lofty cathedral spaces about the acoustic. The Gesangsperioden of the Adagio are mighty and lyrical, the aborted climaxes around five, seven and fifteen minutes respectively are all cunningly managed and make their full impact before the whimsically etiolated coda – which is nicely contrasted against the rumbustious Scherzo.

The fugal finale is very measured and builds inexorably to the great climax; interestingly, a glance at the volume pattern readout if, for example, you download this via Dropbox, indicates how scientifically – presumably by musical instinct – Blomstedt gauges the peak volume so that each time it increases a little more, which is why the final outburst around 22:50 is loudest and so satisfyingly overwhelming.

Bruckner’s “Majestoso” instruction at the beginning of the Sixth has long prompted much scholarly debate and various “solutions” regarding the correct speed and the tempo relationships between the ABA sections have been propounded and enacted with results differing widely in recordings from such as Rattle and Klemperer. Once again, my own feeling is that Blomstedt nails it with an opening pace slightly faster than most but still mightily imposing – as always abetted by the sheer sumptuousness of the orchestral playing and the division of first and second violins enhancing the sense of space. The relaxation for the second subject sounds apt but not slack, as tension is maintained. The noble Adagio is truly tragic and yearning in affect and the lyrical second subject really expands gloriously and the transcendent sense of repose at the close is magical. Blomstedt clearly takes the instruction “Nicht schnell” to heart and indeed with the exceptions of the idiosyncratic and controversial Klemperer and Ballot, his Scherzo is the slowest of the many in my collection, but there is no sense of lethargy about it – quite the reverse; it is very powerful, with especially striking horn ensemble playing in the Trio. The finale is arresting from the very start, teasing the listener by constantly shifting; Blomstedt captures its restless, protean fascination perfectly.

The Seventh follows the happy pattern of the preceding performances in that everything unfolds grandly without undue haste, lyrical passages sing and balances among groups of instruments are ideal. On first hearing, I was surprised to hear a solitary cough in the first movement and another at the end of the Adagio, reminding me of what I had momentarily forgotten – that these are all live performances. The sudden, searing outcry of pain exactly halfway through at 10:50 bites deep and the coda is grandiloquent. The bitter-sweet melancholy of the Adagio is profound, but for the first time I find myself wondering if Blomstedt’s pulse is not just a little limp – and timing comparison with other favourite versions reveals him to be slow. Furthermore, I do miss the cymbal and triangle at the climax, rousing though it is. A ghoulish, dark-hued Scherzo encapsulates a similarly sombre Trio and the finale never falters; as with the finale of the Fifth, you notice how carefully Blomstedt controls the volume levels in order to generate maximum intensity in the closing bars.

The core of any cycle for me is the Eighth as I consider it to be the greatest of all symphonies – not just Bruckner’s. In his review, JQ suggests that the performance – the earliest recording in this series, hence perhaps the engineers were still finding their way – is rather too closely recorded, slightly reducing the sense of scale of this most expansive of symphonies of demands. I can hear that, but can disregard it in the context of the quality of the playing and the set as a whole. Blomstedt is invariably quite expansive in his various recordings of this symphony but not excessively so and the spaciousness allows us to hear what a Rolls-Royce of an orchestra he has at his command. The succession of surging climaxes during the fifteen minutes of the opening movement is masterfully controlled, seamlessly weaving together the three disparate subjects and concluding with the bleakest of soft codas – beautiful playing. The Adagio shimmers, swoons and sings but never sags, and the mellifluousness of the bank of horns is once again to the fore. The first great climax at 8:40 is sublime, as are the second at 13:00, the third at 19:57 and of course the final cataclysm at 23:47; the phenomenon I remark upon several times above of how cunningly Blomstedt builds successive high points is amply demonstrated here. The reprise of the opening theme is meltingly beautiful, yet this is no smoothed-over account; the strings positively scream in searing pain at 16:26.

The Scherzo is aggressively vital, but nuanced, and Blomstedt embraces the whole panoply of moods in the substantial Trio. The finale could hardly be more exhilarating; the brass and timpani excel and Blomstedt’s firm grip on the structure of the movement is always in evidence. The coda is spine-chilling, then bathed in a glorious sunset glow. Blomstedt was 78 in the month of this recording, yet this is no old man’s reading; he, as much as any conductor I know, brings out the epic, “Wild West” character of this music.

I am one who likes to hear one of the many completions of the Ninth Symphony now available, but fully appreciate why others are content to let the music drift away into the ether after the exalted Adagio. It would have been an unpleasant surprise indeed, after so many grand and noble performances, had Blomstedt not nailed the massive, dignified enigma of this symphony, but he has its measure in full. This was the penultimate recording in this collection; only the Second was left to record and it forms a fitting conclusion to the survey. The sheer lyricism of the playing is striking – I only wish Blomstedt had not followed several other conductors by rushing that little downward figure on the cellos around the five-minute mark and again at 18:51; I am sure that is metronomically correct according to the score, but interpretatively the phrase seems to cry out for more latitude and elsewhere Blomstedt is more generous in his phrasing. Let that pass; this is otherwise a majestic account, lyrical, mysterious and gnomic. This symphony is a summation of everything that is best about Bruckner’s music and Blomstedt delivers it with passion, but not bombast.

The Scherzo is another of those “goblin dance” fantasies we hear in the Seventh, given enormous, pounding weight and menace by the Gewandhausorchester, sandwiching a tripping, elvish 6/8 frolic, light as thistledown. The upward-leaping threnody which opens the Adagio sets the tone for the emotional profundity of the next twenty-four minutes. Singing through tears, striving against adversity, glimpsing transcendence are all qualities patently discernible and the great, precisely central climax – there is so often such a point in Bruckner’s symphonic movements – at 11:47, underpinned by thunderous timpani – is stunning, as is the “sunburst” change of key at 14:54. The final, dissonant climax nineteen minutes in puts the seal on an ideal realisation before the radiant apotheosis of the coda. A full thirteen seconds elapses before applause breaks out.

The discipline and respect of the Leipzig audiences throughout these recordings is remarkable; there is virtually nothing to be heard to distinguish these from studio accounts apart from a handful of discreet coughs, a slight rustling between movements and the enthusiastic applause beginning after a decent interval. I should add that the entire series of public concert recordings was a co-production of MDR (Leipzig Radio) and the Querstand label, and amply demonstrates the expertise of the MDR engineering team.

This set has already been designated a “Recommended” and one of last April’s five “Recordings of the Month” and I can only further endorse its status as one of the finest now available in terms of both sound and performance – although Bruckner aficionados will regret the absence of the ‘Study’ and the ‘Nullte’ symphonies.

Ralph Moore

(This review reproduced here in slightly adapted form by kind permission of The Bruckner Journal.)

Previous review: John Quinn

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Rec. dates: June 2011 (No 1); March 2012 (No 2); September 2010 (No 3); October 2010 (No 4); May 2010 (No 5); September 2008 (No 6); November 2006 (No 7); July 2005 (No 8); November 2011 (No 9)