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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

DGG 4793198
  • Symphony #1 in C minor (1890 - Vienna) *
  • Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic" (1878 - Nowak)
  • Symphony #5 in B Flat Major (1875 original - Nowak)
  • Symphony #7 in E Major (Nowak)
  • Symphony #9 in D minor (Nowak)
* Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Deutsche Grammophon 4793198 5CDs
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Throughout his long career, Claudio Abbado was more closely associated with the music of Gustav Mahler than that of Anton Bruckner. He performed – according to the notes – none of the other symphonies not included here, but had an almost unique love for the First Symphony. The late conductor was certainly a great talent in many areas (less so in others) but seems to have had a genuine feeling for this composer. Included here are his Vienna Philharmonic recordings, save the aforementioned First, heard here on a live recording from the Lucerne Festival licensed from Accentus Music.

Both orchestras play beautifully, although the Lucerne forces can't match the Vienna Philharmonic for sheer tonal luster. The First isn't a work that requires great beauty or profundity anyways, and the Festival Orchestra follows Abbado well. This is in my mind one of his better late recordings, and certainly reflects a lifetime of love for this particular work. The other unquestionable standout is the Fifth, which features an unusually excitable Abbado presiding over an unusually energized Vienna Philharmonic. To my ears, the recording level is a little low, but the music making is unquestionably great, and clearly superior to some of his weird (or just plain boring) Mahler.

Elsewhere the results are less happy. Karl Bohm's exceptional Decca recording with this same orchestra is in no way challenged by this beautifully soft-grained performance. The Seventh has its moments (with no small credit going to the orchestra) but it's a good effort as opposed to a version of reference. It's a gorgeous reading, with the strings and winds really singing. Abbado tends to gloss over small details, and again there is a feeling of lightness that may not be to all tastes. Abbado's Ninth has always attracted divided opinions, and this particular version shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of the Fourth. Namely, the playing is lovely, but there is very little tension and not quite enough of Bruckner's emotional range on display. Compared to any of Wand's 345 (approximately, anyways) versions of the piece, this is seriously lacking and is probably the least convincing reading in the box.

What we have here is a fine set for Abbado's many fans. These performances have never been collected together, and this box is unquestionably cheaper than trying to track all of those full priced issues down. For causal listeners and fans of the composer, the First, Fifth and Seventh all have insights and beauty worth hearing. In the Fourth and Ninth, there are simply better recordings with this orchestra for these symphonies. So there you have it. Nothing here is ever less than professional, and certainly there are listeners who have appreciated these recordings more than myself. Whether you want to seek out the best performances here individually or indulge in the whole package is a choice you'll have to make for yourself.

Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman