Two Bruckners that will shut your eyes

Two Bruckners that will shut your eyes


norman lebrecht

April 27, 2018

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

… The Gewandhaus can play this stuff in their sleep and sometimes it sounds as if that’s just what they are doing. There is a lack of momentum in the fourth symphony that is close to soporific and, though the seventh comes to life with those big slow-movement crescendos, it’s hard to feel that real Schwung is sustained to the end. A booklet picture of the conductor having a nap with a Bruckner bust does not help matters….

Read on here.


And here.


  • Rob says:

    Wow, does he need a shoulder to cry on ?

  • Jon H says:

    When the Bruckner 7 was done in Boston – I’m sure it was his first season there – it was a very understanding account given his age. So maybe this isn’t his last say – but with him it’s worth waiting and seeing.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Jon, that’s a very diplomatic response and I commend you for it. I’ll be more blunt–I thought his Bruckner 7 in Boston was unsuccessful. It was way too pulled apart and the interpretation failed to develop the longer line or internal momentum that is there for the taking. And I agree with you, give Andris Nelsons time, and he is likely to become formidable in Bruckner. He’s not there yet, nor should he be at the age of 40. The great Bruckner performances we all think of generally come from conductors in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

      I’ve heard all of Nelsons’ Bruckner in Boston, and for me, his B6 was the best of all. It was a magnificent performance and the best live performance I’ve heard of the 6th anywhere. B3 was also very good, albeit with the wrong edition–I’ve come to the conclusion that the original 1873 edition makes the most sense, although none of the choices are ideal because the 3rd is a deeply flawed work.

      • JRHartley Esq says:

        Gunter Wand disagreed, he went for the last revision on the grounds that it was the most likely version Bruckner approved of. In the case of Bruckner 3, the first is better the other two rehashes do not make it better. In the case of Bruckner 8 however the 1890 2nd version is better with triple woodwind and 3 harps, however then its a toss up for Haas or Novak, the latter has the cuts in parts 3/4.

  • Andrew Powell says:

    Yes. Exactly.

    The Leipzigers have equals but no betters in this rep, as Blomstedt’s magnificent recent set proves (ASIN: B0094BDO9A, 2005-12).

    But Nelsons, for all his fame and fancy label, is making one mistake after another, from the editions he is using to his structuring and pacing.

    • Ben says:

      God bless you – truly to the points.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      What is a “wrong” edition? Is there such a thing as a right one, then? Really? . . . I would take a good performance of a ‘wrong’ edition over a mediocre one of a ‘correct’ version, any day.

      I know people who are far more expert about Bruckner editions than I am (and probably you as well), who say that the Schalk and Levi versions are just as valid as any of the other ones.

      • mr oakmountain says:

        I like to think of the different versions of Bruckner Symphonies Nos 1-4 and 8 the way that some Queen songs came in Album, Single and Live edits. None of them was right or wrong. Different ways of presenting the material. Why not? The only versions I am less than impressed with are the Schalk/Loewe/etc versions of 4, 5 and 9 that may not reflect Bruckner’s wishes (as far as we know, but the jury is out on 4) and include ludicrous edits and re-orchestrations. They are still interesting – Like “cover versions” by other artists. (The edit in the finale of the 1889 version of the 3rd symphony – sanctioned by Bruckner – is a bit painful, but I can just about live with it.)

        • mr oakmountain says:

          Did I use the word “edit” correctly? I meant it like in cut a bit out (with a pair of scissors) and tape the remains together, like on analogue tape.

      • Andrew Powell says:

        www .mwv .at
        www .digitalconcerthall .com/en/interview/51082-3

        The third version of the Third Symphony (1889, Nowak 1959, explore top link) cuts and disfigures it. AN chooses this and then hopelessly misjudges its first movement.

        HB, in the Berlin link, explains what is right about the first version (1873, Nowak 1977).

        • mr oakmountain says:

          I agree that the cut in the finale is bordering on disfiguration (especially if you like things like structure and form). Saying that, many emotionally very satisfying recordings use the 1889 version and get away with it: Schuricht, Böhm, Karajan, Wand, … they even make the truncated finale work. Especially Karajan makes the edit points completely seamless.

  • Derek says:

    Sorry Norman, I just don’t rate your review and would trust more expert views than yours on these recordings.

    I have listened to the Bruckner 7th and think it is a very good performance as was the 3rd symphony. Andris Nelsons is still young for Bruckner interpreters and his view will develop more with time.

    I cannot comment on the Bruckner 4th yet but have heard very good reports from Bruckner aficionados who seem delighted.

    I must say that I am surprised by your rather mean comments, based on the performances I have heard.

  • Sue says:

    I always have the same response as Andris in that photo – Bruckner puts me to sleep.

  • Rob says:

    The finest Bruckner 7 ever recorded is Haitink’s Concertgebouw 1966 version.

    • YR says:

      Hans Knappertsbusch conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, live at the 1949 Salzburg Festival.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Hard to talk about “the best”, but Haitink’s Bruckner cycle is generally highly regarded and I haven’t heard comments about immaturity – quite unlike with Nelsons. And yet Haitink also recorded his first cycle before age 40.

  • Kundry says:

    So if Nelsons is too young for Bruckner, or he needs more time to develop , or…. so many caveats…. why do we need the whole recorded Bruckner cycle from him at this time ( or at any time , in my opinion) ? He can do as much Bruckner as he wants in live concerts , mature, get some time, get more structure , line , understanding etc etc. and only then try to measure, on a recorded cycle, with the great Bruckner conductors and some of them were indeed formidable !

    • Derek says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. You may well be right (especially for cycles) but Nelsons is doing it now so we will see how these turn out. Other conductors have done multiple recording versions before and that is their choice to make.

      I am not a Bruckner expert and I haven’t heard so many of the well known recordings but have attended a good number of live performances.

      I have heard Nelsons perform Bruckner 7th with the CBSO in 2014 and thought that was excellent, although it seems (from comment above) that the Boston performance was not a success.

      Further, I like the new Bruckner 7th from the Gewandaus and would be interested in others views which is, after all, what this topic is about.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Kundry, you make some great points. When I heard that DG was going to record a Bruckner cycle with Nelsons/Leipzig, I thought it was ill-advised. While I believe Nelsons has real talent, from what I’ve heard he does not fall into the conductor genius category, and so there’s no real reason to believe he would produce in his late 30s/early 40s a cycle that would measure up to the great ones by seasoned Bruckner conductors such as von Karajan, Jochum, Skrowaczewski, etc., all of whose cycles were recorded when they were in their 60s, 70s, or 80s.

      Based on what I’ve heard in his live performances of Bruckner in Boston, nothing fundamentally challenges this opinion. I’ve enjoyed hearing Andris Nelsons conduct Bruckner, and of the four symphonies he has done so far (3,4,6,7), we heard a GREAT 6th, a very good 3rd, and the 4th and 7th were unsuccessful performances in my opinion. That’s not so bad! Next season we will hear the 9th.

      Do I believe Nelsons’s name will one day be mentioned with the great Bruckner conductors of all time? I can’t say for sure, but I’d say the odds are 30/70. I suspect that when Karajan and Jochum were performing Bruckner in their late 30s and early 40s, their performances were more successful than the ones I’ve heard from Nelsons. But who knows, maybe he has some great interpretive leaps ahead of him and it won’t be a linear path to reaching his peak Bruckner. But my best guess is that he is simply not that caliber of conductor when it comes to Bruckner, although he clearly has an affinity for Bruckner’s music. There are no other conductors of his generation who I’d rather her performing Bruckner though, that I can say. Not YNS, not Dudamel, not…

      So why is Bruckner so hard to perform, unlike, say Brahms’s symphonies? Well, I think it’s because the music is not linear, it’s modular in construction. I think this is the single greatest reason why so many musically-inclined people don’t “get” Bruckner. Most symphonies are written note by note, so a linear line emerges, even melodies or tunes, if you will. Bruckner’s symphonies in contrast are modular in design, written in blocks. If you listen note by note, it just won’t make any sense. The “action” in a Bruckner symphony comes from stringing the modules together, which take the listener on a journey to transcendence. So producing an interpretive line through the modules (and keeping them in proportion to one another, which is essential), pacing it all in a way that taps into the inner pulse of the music (which great Bruckner conductors like Karajan, Giulini, and even Celibidache have shown us is very much there, even at slower tempos), is no easy feat. It takes a lot of thought over a lot of time, technical skills, and philosophical communion with the world Bruckner takes us to, to make it work. Very few conductors can, and even the ones that do, don’t necessarily do it in all symphonies. And when you consider the best ones out there today who often can, such as Haitink and Blomstedt, tell me what they have in common? They’ve both approximately 90 or older, and both have been playing this music all of their lives.

      I believe there is no greater guide to Bruckner than Herbert von Karajan. His DG cycle is quite simply one of the greatest recorded legacies in all of classical music. If Bruckner interests you and you just haven’t quite gotten it yet, just obtain the Karajan cycle and listen. The only performance in that cycle that I don’t care for is #1 (Jochum’s DG performance of #1, on the other hand, is so definitive that there’s no point listening to anyone else’s). What sets the Karajan cycle apart are Karajan’s astonishing interpretations which go right to the soul of this visionary music, the other-worldly playing from the Berlin Philharmonic, who achieve balance, beauty, and perspective in a way that seems impossible, and the fact that nearly every performance in the cycle is among the greatest ever recorded of the respective symphonies, and many of them are in fact the very best out there. In my opinion, the cycle sets a standard that will never be reached, let alone exceeded, by anyone else. And it’s cheap these days–about $35 (I paid nearly $100 when I bought it in the early 1990s–and that was still a bargain as far as I’m concerned).

      No one has ever explained Bruckner better, let alone in just one sentence, than Hans-Hubert Schonzeler, whose biography of Bruckner is mandatory reading for anyone interested in Bruckner and his music: “Bruckner has been called ‘God’s Own Musician,’ and it has been said that each of his symphonies is in reality one gigantic arch which starts on earth in the midst of suffering humanity, sweeps up towards the heavens to the very Throne of Grace, and returns to earth with a message of peace.”

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        Interesting that you point out the 6th as being an exception with Nelsons. I heard him do the 6th with the Vienna Phil. in a concert where he stepped in for, I believe, Maazel (somebody) in Berkeley, Ca. Anyway, it was a truly very solid and satisfying performance of the 6th. I haven’t listened to his Leipzig recordings so I can’t offer an opinion on those. How bad can they be?

  • Kundry says:

    Well said, Herr Doktor !

  • Hans van der Zanden says:

    Dear Norman,

    I have not heard the recording yet – but I would appreciate to hear your thoughts about a review by Christian Hoskins in Gramophone who presents a detailed and very positive analysis, concluding: ‘…..Nelsons offers a faithful and well-structured interpretation of Bruckner’s score’.

  • Freddo says:

    I fear that Nelsons conducting already suffers from middle-aged spread. I saw the timings of his 4th and 7ths and couldn’t be bothered listening.
    All this talk about Bruckner conductors having to mature and getting better with age is just an excuse (IMO) for performing Bruckner in a ponderous and “spiritual” manner. It also ignores the fact that many Bruckner conductors, as they get older, get significantly quicker. Conductors like Tennstedt and Leinsdorf, in their prime, used to knock over the 8th in about 70 minutes! Bohm adopted a similar tempos in his 80s. The greatest danger in any Bruckner performance is sluggishness and pomposity which breaks the back of the music and turns it into a series of episodes and gives the music no momentum when the climaxes are reached.
    Give me a firey young conductor of Bruckner over a “spiritual” old hand any day.

  • Marie-Christine says:

    The most boring I have ever listened to : Bruckner 4 with Nézet Seguin and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

  • Freddo says:

    There is no music on the planet as exciting as the first movement as Bruckner 4th. I have got recordings of it by Inbal (Tokyo) and Pretre ( to name just a few) who, in their late 70s (!), rip through it in about 16.30. Rogner, live, turns it into an inferno. Yet Nelsons, half their age, meanders along for almost 20 minutes. Why bother!
    Inbal and Pretre (at the same venerable age) dispatch the first movement of the 7th in about 18.30. Nelsons takes a young fogeyish 21.41! How does anyone stay awake!

  • Andrew Matthews says:

    Why do people judge a recording by minutes and seconds? Music is all about the suspension of time. What really matters is the rhythmic pulse and not minutes and seconds.

  • Marco says:

    It’s very strange but here in Europe, especially Germany, this interpretation got rave reviews. But I guess Americans really understand the Bruckner legacy, much better anyway than us fuddy-duddy Europeans. Honestly, I can’t take anyone seriously who finds fault with this interpretation.