Thursday 30 July 2015
Bruckner - The Symphonies: box set review on MusicWeb-International
"Is it worth purchasing? Most definitely yes. Nothing here will seriously disappoint and much of it is absolutely top class."
These recordings have already been issued separately but I believe not all reviewed on this site (see end). The set poses a problem for those who have purchased more than two or three earlier, but if this is not the case then Pentatone's pricing is a bargain, especially if one searches online for the best price. Not all of the symphonies are present, the early pair in F minor and D minor are missing, and of course we could also worry about alternate editions and about the 9th with, rather than without, the completed finale as here. I am not doing any of those things. Probably only a Bruckner enthusiast is going to buy this, though it is remotely possible that somebody who owns no Bruckner will see it as a job-lot for exploration. Is it worth purchasing? Most definitely yes. Nothing here will seriously disappoint and much of it is absolutely top class. The recordings are uniformly excellent, all made in Geneva's Victoria Hall, home of the orchestra, and though one does not associate the Suisse Romande with this repertoire, they play it with the skill and enthusiasm one expects from one of Europe's best bands. Janowski has a long pedigree in large scale music making, having recorded The Ring twice to start with, and by-and-large does not put a foot wrong. Pentatone have packaged the ten SACDs in card slip-cases along with a booklet and an offer for downloads, in a smart, thick card box with a lid on top. Each slip-case is identified with a number and title that is (just) readable. The whole thing will, thankfully, fit on your CD shelving, unlike some of the wilder fantasies from DG and the Berliner-Philharmoniker. The booklet, though nicely produced, is not a success. The notes by Franz Steiger are really not very helpful and a serious Brucknerite should have Robert Simpson to hand along with William Carragan's useful summary 'The Bruckner Versions, Once More', available online. It is not that Steiger always gets it wrong, he adds whimsical titles and leaves out things, I suspect he is also doubtfully served by his translator. I soon stopped referring to the booklet. These recordings are best heard from the 'sweet spot' in your setup, in which position it is all very clear as well as spacious with excellent orchestral balance and no spotlighting at all.
A few brief notes on each symphony. The Symphony No.1 is as lively a performance as any I can remember, it positively whips along. It is not actually much quicker than anyone else so it must be to do with Janowski's rhythmic vitality. It is all very refreshing. The Symphony No.2 is much criticised and did cause the composer much agony. The experts will tell you he never really got it right. Janowski moves events along and it does not outstay its welcome. The Scherzo of the Symphony No.3 is crisp and incisive, strings and trumpets are vigorous and exciting to hear. Overall this is a vital performance with wind solos in particular making their presence felt. The horns are lovely at the start of the Symphony No.4 though not as resounding as the Pittsburgh orchestra in their recent triumphant issue. The string playing in the slow movement is gorgeous: Janowski seems particularly fond of the string lines here, the trio being served up with the utmost delicacy. There is a lot of rubato in the finale but to my ears it aids the flow of the music such that the end managed to sound both grand and relaxed at the same time - a superb performance.
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The Symphony No.5 is given a balanced and consistent performance, everything Janowski does seems completely acceptable with well chosen tempi in a work that can tax the listener, as well as the players! The OSR are a very even orchestra, strings, wind and brass cohere most convincingly. The wind impressed me repeatedly during my epic listening sessions to this set, they are characterful and force one to listen closely to what they are playing. The coda of this difficult symphony has splendid inevitability. Number 6 has a particularly good slow movement at a very broad tempo but the finale is surely too fast, it positively rushes along and the steadiness that characterises Janowski's conducting elsewhere seems to desert him. The tempi are not only too fast, they are unstable. Alone amongst these performances this is not of the finest, go to Karajan or Klemperer to hear what this work is all about. The Symphony No.7 has a long drawn opening of great beauty. The strings seem to play the counterpoint like a series of haloes around the lyrical line - lovely! There is a tendency to speed up at climaxes but it is not excessive. The broadening of the first movement coda is handled to impressive effect. There are cymbals in the slow movement. The contrast between the scherzo and trio may be a little too much, the trio sounding like a mini slow movement at the centre. All is well in the finale which has a grand ending. The Symphony No.8 proceeds much as it usually does, somewhat faster than Karajan but not by much. The Adagio and Finale are particularly excellent with careful attention to detail without disturbing the massive cumulative effect of these two startling movements. The coda leaves one in no doubt that a case can be made for this being Bruckner's and maybe the 19th century's greatest symphony. Number 9 caused me some doubts. It has a deliberate opening, sounding, as it should, like the start of an epic. Janowski does increase his tempi with the dynamics, a tendency he exhibits elsewhere but rarely disruptively. This movement does achieve more impact in the hands of other conductors. It was hard to hear just what caused this but I suspect the slight 'lilt' he gives to the rhythm makes it sound a bit too relaxed. Furtwängler has always been 'the man' for this fearful first movement. Bruckner comes close to a loss of faith and the music is anything but relaxed. The scherzo is a bit too Mendelssohnian for me, again Furtwängler's demoniac approach is more suitable. The performance of the slow movement seems to get less tense as it goes. It is certainly lyrical and solemn but it lacks tension. It comes over as too easy. The characteristics displayed earlier are all here, the detailing and the well defined woodwind lines are still present. The dissonant final outburst is much more intense than what leads up to it and indeed what follows. That said the very end is intensely beautiful and rounds off a fairly impressive performance.
Finally the Mass in F minor. Robert Simpson suggests that with the exception of the E minor Mass, Bruckner's mass settings are in the classical tradition of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, in contrast to his symphonies which are altogether more original. This mass dates from around the period of the 1st and 2nd Symphonies, and he quotes part of it in the 2nd. The opening Kyrie is solemn and very beautiful. There is no sense of the theatrical; this is all deeply religious in sentiment, the music of supplication, not of display. The Gloria, with splendidly rich singing from the Berlin Radio Choir is still somewhat restrained but helped by Janowski's crisp rhythms. The Credo contains a lovely violin solo from the leader. The Crucifixus is awestruck music, not so much sad as just stunned. For the et resurrexit Bruckner composes a typically radiant climax and at this point the music is very characteristic of the symphonist. The Benedictus is quite gorgeous with lyrical lines of great beauty, it is hardly surprising he wanted to reuse some of this material in the 2nd Symphony. In the classical tradition this might be, but it is a supremely impressive contribution to the genre.