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Bruckner: Lofty Soul or Bumpkin?


Mitsuko Uchida to play stormy concerto

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.

Bruckner 101: Bruckner for Nonbelievers

by David Balekdjian

In Otto Bohler’s drawing, Bruckner is being greeted in heaven by  Liszt, Wagner,  Schubert,  Schumann,  Weber,  Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn,  Handel, and  Bach (at the organ).

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 has a unique sound world: Bruckner’s symphonies sound like no other. He does not aim much of the time for a blended, homogenous orchestral sound like Brahms or Mozart. Rather, he often contrasts sections of the orchestra against one another—strings, woodwinds and brass—to create different blocks of sound, which often delineate structure (particularly in the later symphonies). While Bruckner was a multi-instrumentalist, he considered himself as an organist above all, and was regarded as one of the greatest organists of his time. When you think about how an organ sounds, with the organist often changing stops at a moment’s notice to alter the sound so you suddenly hear great contrasts in both type and volume, that’s exactly what Bruckner does with the orchestra in his symphonies. He superimposes the concept of the organ onto the orchestra, which is something no other composer has done before or since. Once you understand that, it’s sonically thrilling to listen to.
  • Modular, not linear construction: Almost all tonal classical music is linear in construction: One note leads to another and then another, and a linear line or melody emerges. Yet Bruckner composes modularly, in sections, that build on one another. If you simply try to hear the “action” in a Bruckner symphony note by note, rather than understand the real action is module by module, it won’t make sense. I suspect this is the single greatest reason why many otherwise musical people don’t get Bruckner—because they’re listening to notes exclusively and linearly, rather than hearing and following the modules. Many Bruckner detractors criticize the symphonies for their absence of tunes. But again, tunes are a consequence of linear construction, and Bruckner is doing something altogether different. It’s been said that Bruckner builds cathedrals with his music, an apt metaphor. Each module is a building block. And as time goes on and Bruckner lays the modules down one after another, you can “see” a great edifice—the cathedral—emerging right in front of you.
  • Think of mountains: Bruckner was from mountainous Upper Austria, and once you’ve seen it, you can hear in the music the mountains, the awe-inspiring vistas, and the gorgeous vast landscape. Bruckner symphonies are all constructed in a way that steadily build upward (even if at a slow pace—one doesn’t run up mountains). But if you’ve hiked or climbed a mountain, you know that one does not go straight up. You sometimes go sideways, or have a steep climb followed by a period of slight or no incline or sometimes even decline, before resuming. Thrust ahead, pause, maybe retreat a bit, but then continue. That’s what happens in a Bruckner symphony, while the unmistakable longterm direction is consistently upward.
  • Thrilling brass moments: Bruckner obviously loved the sound of brass, and he writes some of the most thrilling music for brass in orchestral history. If you enjoy gorgeous brass sound alone, you will probably love Bruckner’s symphonies. Not only is the brass highly prominent in every symphony (and dominating in some), but in a number of symphonies the “brass moments” delineate fundamental structure. When well-played, the effect is truly exhilarating.
  • Different scale of time: Above all, Bruckner operates on his own time scale, that’s truly disconnected from our own frantic sense of it. Indeed, as composer Robert Simpson says in his extraordinary book The Essence of Bruckner, Bruckner’s music is fundamentally about patience. The voyage is never quick, but that’s the point—the best things in life don’t happen quickly. Bruckner’s music takes the long view, but it’s not long just to be long, but rather because each symphony leads the listener on a journey that has to be taken to reach transcendence. One must see and do, and endure, much along the way before getting there. And once you understand what’s going on, the lengths of a Bruckner symphony seem entirely appropriate. The music is intended to have its own timespan and internal clock, so you’ll be most receptive if you don’t impose your own on it. Let the symphonies unfold at their own pace and trust that there’s a reason for it—because as the greatest Bruckner conductors, like von Karajan, have shown us, if done right, there is a steady pulse over the long span that makes immense sense. You can immediately hear a change in the concept of time in the openings of his symphonies. Many open with a hushed tremolo on the strings and the music quietly emerges from nothingness (4,7,8,9), while some open with some baseline rhythm or motif for a brief period that sets the stage for the main action or theme (1,2,3,5,6).
  • Bruckner’s symphonies are big in every way. Bruckner’s symphonies are the ultimate in “big”—and if you don’t care for ambitious art that works on a grand scale, they won’t be for you. His music takes on big ideas over a long duration, makes big statements, shows big emotions, has big sound (and its complete opposite), and demands your complete attention. It’s not for everyone. But for those who are open to art on this scale, Bruckner delivers big rewards.

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).

My picks

(* 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.


7 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “… and never suffered the sort of confounding alterations inflicted upon several of the others.”
    (Symphony no. 6). But the Decca recording of Blomstedt playing the Sixth is titled “edition Nowak.”
    What’s the story?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — April 8, 2017 at 5:55 pm

  2. Bruckner himself never revised his 6th Symphony much, and the 1951 Nowak edition reproduces Bruckner’s original score. Thus, it includes a repeat in the 3rd movement’s Trio that his former student Cyrill Hynais had deleted in preparing the manuscript for publication some three years after Bruckner’s death – a deletion preserved in the 1935 Haas edition, if I remember correctly.

    As far as I can tell, Nowak is the edition commonly used ever since – it immediately adopted by Karajan and Jochum, for example. I don’t see any details in the BSO’s notes for its upcoming performances, but I’d be a little surprised if Andris Nelsons chooses otherwise.

    Comment by nimitta — April 9, 2017 at 11:39 am

  3. Missing from this otherwise exhaustive list is the Boston Symphony recording of the 6th with William Steinberg. It’s an outstanding performance, and sadly has never been issued on CD in this country.
    RCA/Sony has been issuing the complete Reiner/CSO and Munch/BSO. One can hope that Steinberg’s RCA recordings will someday appear on a 2 CD set: a great Schubert C Major Symphony; the Bruckner 6th; Strauss’ Til Eulenspiegel (with a jaw-dropping solo from then concertmaster Joseph Silverstein); and short works by Dukas, Saint-Saens, and Mendelssohn. Consider this an advance recommendation.

    Comment by Brian Bell — April 9, 2017 at 10:13 pm

  4. Someone reissued years ago the William Steinberg Brahms symphonies, which were very solid and musical even if the upper string sound was on the harsh side. In his WSteinberg obituary in the Phoenix, Michael Steinberg mentioned some of his Bruckner work, I believe, and also Strauss that lifted the roof off of SH, and I don’t recall that he was referring to Til.

    Comment by david moran — April 10, 2017 at 2:18 pm

  5. I would like to second Brian Bell’s recommendation of the Steinberg Sixth — direct and moving. It actually has been issued on CD — it’s available from Haydn House, though how HH obtained the rights to the original RCA release is a little unclear. The back of my copy has this: MASTERING TO CD: Pierre Paquin, September 2003 PRIVATE TRANSFER FOR BACKUP ONLY. Does this mean it’s some kind of pirated release? A few years ago, I advised people at the BSO that this CD was in existence and they expressed surprise, so apparently the BSO didn’t license the CD release, but perhaps the rights belonged to RCA. Not sure what the legal situation is, but the CD is still for sale at Haydn House, and anyone who loves the symphony should have it.

    Comment by Jeffrey Gantz — April 13, 2017 at 12:48 pm

  6. Thanks for the Steinberg reminder, Brian and Jeffrey. Apropos of the various editions mentioned above, Steinberg/BSO used the Nowak as well.

    Comment by nimitta — April 14, 2017 at 5:50 pm

  7. The Bruckner 6th was also issued on CD by RCA Japan, which suffers from some rather serious distortion, especially in the first movement. I cannot tell you if this distortion is on the master tape or the result of a careless transfer. Perhaps Mr. Paquin’s “private transfer” is cleaner.
    As for Steinberg’s “roof-raising” Strauss: one may still be able to find DG’s 2001 reissue of the Steinberg BSO Zarathustra paired with the Holst Planets. Michael Steinberg has wonderful liner notes in that issue. I cannot vouch if the Zarathustra will raise your roof, though if I turn the volume up enough, I can swear that my ceiling can move a bit. Regardless, his rendition of Zarathustra clocks in at 29:56, one of the fastest I know of.

    Comment by Brian Bell — April 16, 2017 at 8:52 pm

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