Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Anton Bruckner

The symphonies of Anton Bruckner are a major challenge for any conductor. Which is probably why so few maestri succeed in convincing us. Bruckner's symphonies have dynamic textures that rise and fall; the time signatures and tempi within movements change frequently. The individual movements are often long. A great conductor can sweep us along and convince us we are moving towards a logical and inevitable point; a conductor who is less than great risks losing us amongst the seductive by-ways. Above all, the Bruckner symphonies need a strong, underlying pulse.

By any reckoning, Bruckner's 9th symphony is a great work. There are great recordings of it by Furtwängler, Horenstein and Klemperer, with Furtwängler's 1944 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic being particularly incandescent and one that keeps you riveted to every note until the final long-held chord of the great concluding adagio. Yesterday I listened to Günter Wand conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (1996) in excellent sound and with a superb orchestra (all the best Bruckner seems to come from either the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic orchestras). Under Wand, the adagio comes off marvellously. The scherzo is less “evil” than with Horenstein. The first movement seems longer than with the other three great conductors. In other words: I have three great recordings (Furtwängler, Klemperer and Horenstein) plus one truly excellent one (Wand).

Simon Rattle has just recorded Bruckner's 9th with a “completed” finale, making it a four-movement work. The reason for doing this escapes me. All symphonies in the nineteenth century had to have four movements, so adding a finale was often a necessary formality rather than something demanded by the musical logic. Bruckner – like many others – rarely wrote finales that were inevitably and intrinsically a culmination of his symphony. I think the long-held chord at the end of the Adagio of the ninth symphony is a superb ending to a superb work; like a fantastic, high-level dinner, we just do not need an extra course!

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