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Bruckner: Symphonies 0-9 – var. orch./ Mario Venzago – CPO (10 CDs)

Interesting renditions of these works by one who has studied them deeply.

ANTON BRUCKNER: Symphonies Nos. 0-9 – Tapiola Sinfonietta/Northern Sinfonia/Bern Sym. Orch./Basel Sym. Orch./Konzarthausorch. Berlin/Mario Venzago – CPO 555 023-2, 562:53 (ten CDs) plus PAL DVD “The Making of…” [Distr. by Naxos] (7/08/16) ***:

First, let’s get this out of the way: the ‘bonus DVD’ titled The Making of.. is a short documentary by filmmaker Laurent Jaquet that apparently contains plenty of interview and rehearsal footage with conductor Mario Venzago that I was rather looking forward to. The DVD is clearly labeled “Region free; 0 Region” but – in fact – it will not play on my American DVD player; nor that of our editor’s, so it is PAL.  I can’t tell you whether it’s intriguing or not. (Come on, CPO!) [We seem to be getting a number of non-North-American region DVDs lately… And Amazon has some warnings about them up which are usually wrong, as so many of their listings…Ed.]

To the music and these interpretations: This ample box set is actually a reissue of the many separate CPO recordings that Venzago did with the same variety of orchestras represented here, including his own Bern Symphony and also including the rarely performed Symphony No. 0, so numbered because Bruckner was not very meticulous about numbering or cataloging his own music and also because he considered – and called – his Symphony No. 1 from 1890 his “first” true symphony. In fact, Bruckner presented most of his symphonies in more than one version. Mario Venzago, the principal conductor of the Bern Symphony Orchestra, has spent a lifetime studying and promoting what he considers the definitive interpretation of these works. He is said to ‘oppose(s) the heavy, pathos-laden, slow-noise sound of most current interpretations and has assembled a special orchestra for each of the ten symphonies’ (this from CPO press releases on this set.)

Here’s the thing for me: The Bruckner symphonies have often been criticized for their purported lack of harmonic invention and their purported scale of orchestration which relies heavily on a beefy and endurance-challenged brass section. Going all the way back to Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick, the symphonies have also been criticized for the presence of much rhythmic unity and the resultant repetition in pulse as well as motive. All of these are probably legitimate points and especially when Bruckner’s music was being written concurrently to late Wagner, whom he greatly admired, and to early Mahler, whose music contained many of the – at the time – radical elements that Bruckner’s music lacked.

Having said that, I rather like the Bruckner symphonies, some more than others; my personal favorites being numbers four, six and seven. As some of my musicology profs in college pointed out, it is important to remember that Bruckner was an organist and a religious man. Therefore, it is not so surprising that many of those grandiose brass declamations therein sound a bit like organ playing full-stopped hymnology.

Conductor Venzago, who clearly has spent a lot of time on this project and should definitely be listened to on the subject of Bruckner’s symphonies, cites what he considered his guiding principles for these performances in the booklet notes (which really are quite comprehensive.) Venzago mentions these three as his rubric: a “trimmer tone throughout, in the tradition of Schubert; a rubato-like, bar-line-free playing style and the working out of sacral, ritual moments, above all the choral components (within these works.)”

To this I would also add that Venzago correctly points out that Bruckner typically did not provide much help with tempi, least of all metronome markings. As the press release indicates, he eschews the “heavy, pathos-laden, slow-noise sound of most current interpretations.” So do be prepared for the pace of many of the movements of these symphonies to really gallop along (I felt especially so in the symphonies number six, eight and nine.)

This is an interesting set that does offer a different take on these much misunderstood masterworks. I still have my mid-1970s set on vinyl, DGG, with Berlin and Von Karajan – which I love!! (Mario might consider some of Von Karajan’s pacing to be nearly turgid but I like it!) There is also a lesser-known set of individual CDs on Telarc with Jesus Lopez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony which might surprise you!

So, while I cannot declare that this set of the Bruckner symphonies is my favorite and certainly not, in my opinion, the one to get, it is quite interesting. The performances are all very good and Maestro Venzago (who has also conducted in America for a bit) is to be commended for getting to what he considers the core of these works and has done his research. I do recommend this set as another addition to your collection (to go with the Berlin Von Karajan….)

CPO, I’d like a true region-free DVD, as well, and hope that I have an anomaly copy and that not all the box sets released in America will not play. [Supposedly all music discs are region-free.  Guess not. They have made this error before…Ed.]

—Daniel Coombs

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