Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On disc: Bruckner, differently

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 ("Romantic") – Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (BIS 1746)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 – Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi (RCA Red Seal 88697389972)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 – Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi (RCA Red Seal 88697542572)

The customary aural vision of Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, as bequeathed by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Eugen Jochum and other German Brucknerians of the early and mid-20th century, is expansive in tempo, declarative in tone, "mystical" (or, at least, mystique-susceptible) in conception. These new discs alter that sound-picture in significant ways.

The first interpretive choice that a conductor makes with Bruckner is textual: Which of several editions, or what combination of them, will be used for the performance?

For his Minnesota Orchestra recording of Bruckner’s Fourth ("Romantic") Symphony, Osmo Vänskä chooses the third version of 1888, long derided as "inauthentic" by musicologists but lately receiving more positive appraisals. Paavo Järvi, meanwhile, uses an edition by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs in his recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. The Järvi-Frankfurt disc of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony uses the familiar Leopold Nowak edition.

What these choices mean, for the non-musicologist listener, is that the conductors opted for tightly constructed (well, tightly for Bruckner), less thematically rambling versions of these symphonies.

Not that we’re talking no-surprises Bruckner. Vänskä and the Minnesotans pace and articulate the Fourth almost as if it were Schubert – or even, at times, as if it were Haydn! This is one of the most vividly animated performances of a Bruckner symphony ever recorded; consequently it will strike some listeners as sounding less "romantic." The work stands up well to this brisk, rhythmically precise treatment, much better than Bruckner’s Third Symphony fared in a comparably crisp, animated reading that Vänskä recorded 10 years ago for Hyperion.

I wouldn’t make this my reference interpretation of the Fourth, but I’ll be tempted to make this BIS Super-Audio disc my reference recording of Bruckner in general. Järvi's Frankfurt discs are also Super-Audio, but not as strikingly "super" as the BIS recording.

Järvi and the Frankfurters – known at home as the HR (Hessischer Rundfunk) Sinfonie Orchester – gravitate in a slower, gentler direction, sublimating meter and treating long-breathed phrases, including brassy ones, with a high-romantic sighing character, more commonly heard in Wagner or Tchaikovsky. Järvi also tends to blur contrasts between fast and slow tempos, giving these symphonies a tone of voice that's more dreamy than dramatic.

This approach is more successful in the Seventh, which could have been called the "Romantic" had Bruckner not already given that title to the Fourth. The pronounced influence of Wagner on this symphony, both in phrasing and motific writing, is accentuated in Järvi’s interpretation. The Frankfurt horns breathe wondrously in the longer-than-usual notes and phrases required of them.

The notes for Järvi’s recording of the Bruckner Ninth say nothing about the Cohrs edition being used. Cohrs is a conductor and musicologist, co-editor since 1995 of the Anton Bruckner Complete Edition, of which this score, from 1998, is part. (He also participated in a "completion" of a final fourth movement for the Ninth Symphony, not played on this disc.) I haven’t parsed this version in comparison with others, but I hear no startling differences.

I do hear Järvi’s brand of expansiveness, and the orchestra’s refined and blended tone, sapping this music of much of its emotional intensity.

From ArkivMusic (Bruckner Fourth):

From Amazon.com (Bruckner Fourth):

From ArkivMusic (Bruckner Seventh):

From Amazon.com (Bruckner Seventh):

From ArkivMusic (Bruckner Ninth):

From Amazon.com (Bruckner Ninth):