Orchestral Reviews, Peter Quantrill
Before conducting Bruckner's Eight Symphony in December 2019, Zubin Mehta put his finger on the "unbelievable flexibility" of the modern Berlin Philharmonic. He should know, having led them more often than anyone else save their music directors. The turnover and rejuvenation of their personnel, the restoration of Bach and Haydn to their central repertoire and the collaborative work with early music's early-music moguls such as William Christie and Emmanuelle Haim are all contributing factors. But what do they have to do with Bruckner, and with this luxury audiovisual package of nine symphonies and eight conductors recorded during the past decade?
For an answer, turn no further than the first disc. Seiji Ozawa has been a selective Brucknerian but his 2009 performance of the First quite surpasses that of his erstwhile mentor Karajan. The finale's intricate counterpoint was a product of the composer's long study with the Viennese theoretician Simon Sechter: under Ozawa it takes wing, coaxed into a form prefiguring the Fifth's mighty double figure and voiced with a transparency befitting one of Schubert's round-dance endings.
The remaining interpretations may be known quantities to Bruckner collectors - yes, including Paavo Järvi's Second - but none are the worse for that, and all nine bear a "made in Berlin" stamp: of technical finesse in execution and engineering (more appreciable on the discreetly edited CDs and Blu-ray audio-only disc), of still-vital resplendence at points of long-anticipated exultation and, no less characteristically, of a dense, sostenuto string tone that maestros attempt to thin out at their peril. Järvi proceeds more boldly than his colleagues in this regard, but there's a tug of feeling to the violas' chromatic first entry in the Adagio that their Frankfurt RSO counterparts (on presently hard-to-find Japanese RCA) can't or won't, emulate. The walking bass pizzicato is just a notch more resonant, the second theme a touch more supple and voluptuous, the chording a gnat's crotchet more exact, the complementary answers from lower winds a fraction more suggestive of a journeying pilgrim, and one less burdened by vice than Tannhäuser on his way to Rome.
In Berlin, all these readings are a little more - more present, more vivid, more everything - but also now markedly less Wagnerian than their rivals from a bygone era such as the portmanteau analogue-era cycle from Vienna reissued by Eloquence (11/19), if "Wagnerian" may still be permissibly used once in a while as shorthand for the aural equivalent of schnitzel with potato dumplings. The Third, under Herbert Blomstedt, shares the "trademark qualities of sensitivity and good sense" which Richard Osbourne identified (11/13) in the conductor's Leipzig-based traversal of the nine numbered symphonies. Blomstedt has latterly lashed himself to the mast of the symphony's original 1873 version, and more convincingly so than any previous interpreter, though I still cavil at the first movement's arrested development for an extended reminiscence of Die Walküre.
All nine performances deserve a review to themselves. A Black Forest of teeming detail in the Fourth's Scherzo suddenly clears for a Trio full of quizzical wonder and a yearning never accessed by Bernard Haitink in his many previous recordings. By his and the set's Olympian standards the Fifth comes as a slight disappointment, in which majesty strikes the keynote over jeopardy long before the clinching peroration. Introducing the Sixth, however, the late Mariss Jansons makes a moving and candid admission of experience - "I've reached the stage where I love the music madly" - borne out by an intensity of feeling and purpose established from the outset and sustained through a sublime account of the Adagio - one of the finest things I've heard from Jansons for years - into a freshly conceived finale that does not strain for complete integration of its disparate materials.
Along related lines, I find myself more persuaded by Christian Thielemann's highly personalised tempo schemes for the Seventh than were RO and Christian Hoskins, reviewing older recordings from Munich (8/10) and Dresden (7/16). A pulse on the move may sometimes take you where you would not go, but the Berliners' flexibility of response - Mehta's phrase again - allows the line to stretch without snapping. It is the woodwinds in particular, led by the oboists Albrecht Mayer and Jonathan Kelly, who help Thielemann to achieve the "paler, more understated colours" that he now seeks in the Seventh, as much as they take their lead from Mehta's own, considerably more understated direction (recorded back in 2012) to bring the architecture of the Eight's opening movement into focus, so that his broadening at the "death-watch" climax hits home all the harder.
To the orchestra's now-departed director is given the honour of the Ninth. More than the other maestros' Berlin-accented refinements, Sir Simon Rattle's 2018 performance diverges from his original EMI recording, tautening all four movements in the process of further integrating the now-authoritative completed finale with the familiar torso, and at some cost to its many bizarre and far-seeing harmonic disturbances, as well as to their final and overwhelming resolution. Still, it is in the nature of these symphonies that they remain work-in-progress for performers as they did for the composer. Thielemann talks of them as "a school for conductors"; all nine performances, as much as Richard Taruskin's virtuoso booklet essay, should make an eager pupil of any listener willing to place themselves under Bruckner's spell. The serious collector jaded by the prospect of "another" Blomstedt Third or Haitink Fourth should probably give Bruckner a rest and listen to something else.