On the series of BSO subscription concerts beginning Thursday April 13th is included Bruckner’s seldom heard Symphony No. 6, written between 1879 and 1881 (following pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Mozart’s mysterious, stormy D-minor piano concerto K.466). According to Tony Fogg, Nelsons intends to do a Bruckner symphony each season. He announced this publicly in Symphony Hall in June 2013, and has kept his word, evincing his affinity with that composer. He’s also recording the entire cycle for DG, with the Gewandhausorchester
Austrian composer Anton Bruckner was of the generation before Mahler and died just a year before Brahms did. BSO publications director Marc Mandel writes, “And though his approach to symphonic composition is rooted in the Viennese tradition of Beethoven and Schubert, Bruckner in his symphonies expanded the four-movement form to a size his Classical predecessors never envisioned with regard to scale, conception, and instrumentation. Completed in 1881, Bruckner’s seldom heard Symphony No. 6 was the one he apparently considered his boldest. At about 50 minutes in length—about the length of Beethoven’s Eroica—it is his shortest mature symphony, and never suffered the sort of confounding alterations inflicted upon several of the others.
“Like all but his unfinished Ninth, the Sixth is in four movements, with two fast movements framing a deeply felt, slow second movement and a third-movement scherzo. Also typical in the Sixth is Bruckner’s approach to harmonies and key areas, whereby local harmonies that seem to wander in an exploratory manner aim toward, and ultimately enhance, important thematic, harmonic, and structural arrivals not only within each movement, but even across the entire symphony. Unusual in the Sixth—and this is one of the things that immediately draws the listener in—is the pacing of the first movement, in which the thematic units develop not only quickly but in quick succession, in a manner one would expect in a Bruckner finale, as opposed to the more expansive unfolding characteristic of his first movements elsewhere. Following the solemnly devotional Adagio (Bruckner was deeply religious), the third-movement Scherzo and Trio serves mainly as a sort of intermezzo before the finale, in which Bruckner picks up multiple harmonic and thematic threads from earlier in the symphony to bring us triumphantly home.”
The upcoming BSO performance of this symphony prompted an avid reader to hold forth on Bruckner’s appeal. To some this composer is a country bumpkin who tipped an established conductor a few groschen, while for others he expands time and amplifies the spiritual. BMInt reader and blogger David Balekdjian is in the latter group. His much-extended pre-comment receives pride of place.
by David Balekdjian
Here in the US, few composers ignite such passionately divergent opinions as Anton Bruckner. Many of his admirers fervently believe Bruckner’s symphonies are among the very greatest ever written by anyone—the pinnacle of symphonic art. Some even feel Bruckner is the greatest composer of all. By contrast, others can’t bear to sit through even a single symphony and are utterly mystified at how anyone can derive pleasure from any of them. Richard Wagner said, “I know of only one composer who measures up to Beethoven—and that is Bruckner.” Yet Brahms called Bruckner’s compositions a “swindle”, “symphonic boa constrictors”. However, today in Germany and Austria it’s accepted, not even open to debate, that Bruckner was the second-greatest composer of symphonies.
This article seeks to explain Bruckner to those who want to gain an understanding of his symphonies. My approach is subjective, speaking about the music on a personal, emotional level, because I believe it’s impossible to understand the essence of Bruckner with an exclusively objective discussion.
In one sentence
German conductor and musicologist Hans-Hubert Schonzeler, in his outstanding biography, distills Bruckner into one sentence: “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.”
I don’t believe one needs to be Catholic, which Bruckner fervently was, or Christian, or even a person of faith to “get” Bruckner. I think the essential ingredient is a belief that in the vast universe, humans are not the be-all and end-all. Even many of those who don’t share Bruckner’s faith—including atheists—will tell you that Bruckner taps into something real that’s profoundly moving.
A personal take
Above all else, what I hear in each of Bruckner’s symphonies is a life-affirming journey that reaches for and then achieves transcendence, with an essential message of encouragement, reassurance, and hope in a troubled world. Along the way, each symphony covers a vast emotional spectrum, from negative infinity to positive infinity, showing us beauty, joy, visions of the ultimate good, trials and tribulations, loneliness, perseverance, and ultimately achieving transcendence. The essential message I hear Bruckner saying through his music is: “Hang on. You do matter. Life throws at you all sorts of trials and tribulations. We all have them and you just have to get through them—and it’s never easy. But if you remain true to yourself and all that is good, and above all else don’t give up, I promise you, it will work out and you will be fine.”
I’m not naïve enough to believe that everything in life works out. But I’ve learned in my years that when things don’t work out, often when one adjusts one’s perspective and looks at a larger view, they can look quite different. Consider that we’ve all heard people say (or said it ourselves), “That was a blessing in disguise.” Above all, Bruckner’s music requires a belief in possibilities. If you’re a confirmed pessimist and think it’s always going to end badly, then Bruckner’s music perhaps will never touch you.
How to listen to a Bruckner symphony
Don’t expect to comprehend a Bruckner symphony on a first or second listen. It’s just not possible, because so much is going on. To really get any of his symphonies, you need to hear the symphony a number of times, to get your arms around all the notes and Bruckner’s unique style and approach, before you can fully grasp the content and what he’s doing. But the effort will produce great rewards. Here are some tips that may help you better navigate this music:
Bruckner in recording
Bruckner has been well-served in recordings, particularly by the conductors Herbert von Karajan, Eugen Jochum, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Carlo Maria Giulini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, and (more controversially) Sergiu Celibidache. A number of others are highly regarded for their Bruckner if not at the same consistently outstanding levels, such as Bernard Haitink, Herbert Blomstedt, Hans Knappertsbusch, Klaus Tennstedt, and Gunter Wand. We’ve been fortunate to hear many of them in Boston over the years, and in fact there’s an outstanding DVD of Bruckner’s Seventh performed by Klaus Tennstedt and the BSO in 1977 that captured a truly great performance.
To these ears, the unambiguous first choice is von Karajan. He is arguably the greatest Bruckner conductor of all, and there’s good reason his cycle on DG is considered one of the greatest recorded legacies in all of classical music (costing less than $30 these days). What makes the cycle so exceptional are three things: (1) Karajan’s astonishing interpretations of the symphonies that go right to the soul of this visionary music, (2) the otherworldly playing from the Berlin Philharmonic that simply makes the jaw drop with its astonishing orchestral balances and sonorities, and (3) the fact that nearly every performance in the cycle is among the greatest performances of that symphony ever recorded (the only one I don’t care for is No. 1). I never had any particular affinity for Karajan as a conductor until I heard his Bruckner, but once I got to know it, it completely changed my opinion
Where to start
If you are new to Bruckner and aren’t sure where to start, there’s an easy first choice: the Seventh. It is one of Bruckner’s grandest symphonies, and is a much-loved, mature work. My favorite recording is von Karajan’s first (of three) with the Berlin Philharmonic on Warner (formerly EMI). But sure to get the remastered version, because the sound quality is greatly improved. While the second recording (included in the DG box set) is also excellent, I prefer the earlier Warner/EMI one because it is a bit slower and achieves a greater hushed intensity than the performance in the box set. You won’t go wrong with either.
Recordings of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony
There are some excellent recordings of the underperformed but likable Sixth Symphony, which the BSO will be performing in mid-April. I love von Karajan’s recording from his box set (although for some this would be a controversial choice), but given the cost of the individual disc, it would be more affordable to spend a few dollars more and get the whole box set. Blomstedt’s recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra (his second of this symphony) is a wonderful performance in excellent SACD sound. Horst Stein’s performance of the Sixth with the Vienna Philharmonic is also deservedly well-loved. Two other performances are wonderful but not available as standalone recordings: Heinz Bongartz and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (albeit in vintage 1964 Eastern Bloc sound), and Eugen Jochum and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (included in Jochum’s first Bruckner cycle on DG).
(* denotes a definitive performance)
1*: Eugen Jochum, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), DG: A legendary performance that deserves its accolades, and that still makes the jaw drop 50+ years later.
2*: Herbert von Karajan, BPO, DG: The greatest performance this symphony will ever receive, revealing a profound, deeply moving masterpiece that most others just miss.
3*: Remy Ballot, Altomonte Orchester St. Florian, Gramola: An extreme interpretation of the original 1873 version (running nearly 90 minutes), not universally beloved, yet which stuns me.
4*: Herbert von Karajan, BPO, DG: There are many great Fourths out there, but Karajan gives us a reading that is perfect and profoundly moving. Listen to the BPO play—wow!
5: (tie) Herbert von Karajan, BPO, DG and Eugen Jochum, Concertgebouw (live 1986), Tahra: Both are truly great performances of this monumental work. Unlike most, they nail the key second movement.
6: (tie) Heinz Bongartz, Leipzig Gewandhaus (various labels) and Herbert von Karajan, BPO, DG: I have yet to hear a perfect Sixth, but both of these come closer than any others.
7: Herbert von Karajan, BPO, Warner/EMI (remastered version): Karajan’s first recording stands apart due to a slightly slower tempo that produces greater intensity, and impressive sonics in its remastered sound (recorded 1971 in the Jesus-Christus church in Berlin).
8: Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic (VPO), DG: From the mid-1950s onward, Karajan performed the Eighth (his favorite) every single year, somewhere, until he died. This recording of it, made in Vienna just months before he passed away, is perhaps the best.
9*: Carlo Maria Giulini, Vienna Philharmonic, DG: Yannick Nezet-Seguin, among others, has called this the greatest recording of any work ever made by anyone. It is a performance for the ages of the horrible, beautiful, magnificent, disturbing, profound journey that is Bruckner’s visionary Ninth Symphony. But to be sure, the work is not recommended as a starting point into Bruckner. Come to it only after you’ve digested several others, including at least the Seventh.
Balekdjian works in the life sciences industry in Boston.