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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

  • Symphony "#0" in D minor (1869 - Fassung)
  • Symphony #1 in C minor (1866 - Linz)
  • Symphony #2 in C minor (1877)
  • Symphony #3 in D minor "Wagner" (1877)
  • Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic" (1880)
  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major (1878 - Nowak/Haas)
  • Symphony #6 in A Major (1881 - Haas)
  • Symphony #7 in E Major (1883 - Haas)
  • Symphony #8 in C minor (1890)
  • Symphony #9 in D minor (1894)
  • Te Deum in C Major, WAB 45 2,3
  • Psalm 150 for Soprano, Chorus & Orchestra 1,3
  • Helgoland 3
1 Ruth Welting, soprano
2 Jessye Norman, soprano
2 Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
2 David Rendall, tenor
2 Samuel Ramey, bass
3 Chicago Symphony Chorus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 4779803 10CDs
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Bruckner is a tough sell. Of all the major composers of his generation, he's the most overtly religious from a symphonic and vocal perspective. Everything about his work reflects a deep Roman Catholic faith that – while sincere by all accounts – doesn't tend to get people excited about his music. He was an organist, a hopeless Wagnerian, and classical music's own country bumpkin. All of this made him awkward and unpopular, and so it remains. If you hate any of the above musical qualities (church and organ music, Wagner, or general Romantic excess), Bruckner usually has little to offer you.

That makes this set's relative obscurity all the more surprising. These are powerful and relentlessly unsubtle accounts of these massive symphonies. Daniel Barenboim had yet to establish himself as a conductor of the classics, and we hear that in these recordings that span the 1970s into the early 1980s. There are hints of crudeness, of callousness that his later (more boring) accounts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra do not have. And yes, the conductor does seem to miss some of the more devotional or mystic qualities of these works. However, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra provides its legendary brass section, and a tremendous amount of excitement that compliments these generally propulsive readings.

Compared to Georg Tintner on Naxos 8.501205 (a cycle reviewed thrice on the site), Barenboim is far less concerned with editions and differing thoughts on these monumental scores. Whereas Tintner opens our eyes with revelatory versions of the composer's first or second thoughts, casual listeners (and amateur Bruckner listeners like myself) will find little here that puzzles or confuses them. Barenboim also has the superior orchestral forces, though I hesitate to proclaim him as the "better" advocate in this music. Where Barenboim has the edge – for me anyways – is in the most popular works, namely 4, 7, 8, and 9. In the "lesser" works, Tintner is so persuasive and unique that its hard to argue with the results he obtains.

Barenboim's 4th is one of the hottest out there. The Chicago Symphony simply blazes, and not just in the brass. It's a magnificent conception that probably could have used a little more grace. Even people who don't care for heavy Bruckner may raise an eyebrow at the explosiveness of the outer movements. The other symphonies operate in the same vein; lyrical, yet not especially graceful. The symphonies as a whole are brass dominated, which works fine for this composer. Still, you might wish for a little less of an "in your face" kind of feeling, despite how legendary this section is. Lest we forget, the other sections of this orchestra are equally fine, and a little more attention to them would not have gone amiss. Still, the Chicago Symphony Chorus proves invaluable in their selections, and the soloists are all heard here in their prime. While I would suggest Eugen Jochum or Wand for introducing yourself to Bruckner, listeners tired of the more "religious" or quasi-spiritual nature of these works ought to try this immensely powerful achievement.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman