BRUCKNER: Complete Symphonies – Aachen Symphony Orchestra/ Marcus Bosch – Coviello Classics multichannel SACD COV 31215 (10 discs), 10+ hours [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
One has to applaud Coviello for putting out this set, the first Bruckner complete symphonies (along with the F-minor so-called Study Symphony No. “00”, and the “annulled” Symphony No. “0”) to be released in Super Audio. The recording actually began way back in 2003 with Symphony No. 8, and the results proved so satisfactory—and sold well—that the company decided to continue. A wise choice it was, and something of a landmark, though there are some editorial choices that form the basis of this set that I am not entirely in agreement with.
But first a general comment. Though all of the pieces were recorded at St. Nikolaus Church in Aachen with the exception of Symphonies No. 00, 0, and 1 (done at St. Michael’s church in Aachen), there is a difference in the aural perception of these works. In some instances the echo is rather severe, leading one to presuppose that an empty hall was used when in fact it was not. The balances in these works are not consistent from piece to piece. In some cases the winds seem too recessed while in others just right. Much detail can be lost in some of the contrapuntal passages when accompanied by full brass chorale moments, but not always. My previous review of Symphony No. 2 still stands, though what I found there by no means applies across the board in the other recordings, and this is a little frustrating. Perhaps the venues used simply could not accommodate Bruckner’s subtle changes in orchestration and balance—I have come across this before. But whatever the reason, there are differences despite the sameness of location, and the reader should be aware of this.
There is no applause on any of these recordings with the exception of Symphony No. 5—why this is remains a mystery to me, and I find it intrusive though I am grateful it was generally omitted. And while we are discussing this work it must be said that it is one of the highlights of this set. This monster, a contrapuntal masterpiece that launched the composer into a new realm of thought, was also one that he suffered with for over two years, and vowed that if he had to do it over again he “wouldn’t compose it over again for a thousand guilders.” Lucky for us he didn’t have to. John Nemaric loved this recording as he stated in his review and I am in substantial agreement with him though it is hardly the last modern word on the piece, Harnoncourt , Zander, and Janowski all having important things to say. But Bosch is in the game.
Back to the presuppositions behind this set. Though Bosch recorded the Haas edition of the Eighth Symphony in 2003, under the influence of Gunter Wand’s thoughts on the piece, he eventually decided to go back to the “original” versions of all of these works based on the idea that Bruckner was exceptionally susceptible to the criticisms of his friends and colleagues. This indeed has been a consistent train of thought in Bruckner studies for some time now, though not a few scholars are beginning to question the veracity of such assumptions, pointing out that the composer was in possession of enough artistic integrity to make his own decisions in the end about how his works should sound, and the revision process, unique among composers of that time, was due to honest reflection and a search for the truly “best” solution to the problems he posed for himself. Regardless, at least there is a consistent basis for version choice in this set, though it does have some problems.
The first two symphonies, No. 0 and No. 1, and both superbly rendered readings of great depth and finesse. The “Study Symphony”, highly un-Brucknerian in sound, still inhabits the world of Schumann and Mendelssohn, and is a complete delight. With No. 1 we enter in Bruckner’s first work where his unique sound begins to establish itself, and are treated to perhaps a more varied set of melodic motives than we will encounter later when his solid “minimalistic” foundations first take place. The “Annulled” Symphony 00, once thought to be an early work but later determined to actually have been written—and rejected—after the First Symphony, is interesting in many ways, yet not as striking as what was to follow. It is easy to see why Bruckner rejected it, though you can argue that the decision was premature. Only the fact the next work was also in D-minor probably led to his disavowal. Speaking of which, Symphony No. 3 seems a little flaccid, tempos sluggish in parts and not generally reflective of the overall quality of this whole set. The motivic development here was a definite step up for the composer, and this performance just doesn’t hang together as well as I would have hoped. Even the truncated version played by George Szell and his Clevelanders has more cohesion to my way of listening.
The choice of the original version of the mighty Fourth Symphony to my mind is the most controversial here. For those who know and love this work yet have only a cursory acquaintance with the composer’s many versions, this might come as a bit of a shock. The performance itself is exemplary, but the piece is nothing like the more well-known Haas-based 1881 edition or the Nowak-based 1886 version. More to the point is that the original version is diffuse and wandering, with ideas not tied together in a convincing manner, and the inspiration in the later versions (and it was the 1888 that was the first to be published) is far superior. Truly, the original sounds like a set of sketches for what was to come, and anyone purchasing this box set will have to have another, later recording of this work.
No. 6 is a little lax in tempo for my taste, this piece being considered the “ugly duckling” among the composer’s works, but in fact is anything but. It is not as overwhelming as his others, and his contrapuntal activity is enough to distract one from the massive granite edifices in sound that his other symphonies produce. This one depends on tempos and lyricism, and both are somewhat undernourished in this recording, though it is by no means a bad one. The almost-forgotten reading of Riccardo Muti on EMI, lambasted by many, seems to me the perfect rendition of this piece, though the classic Klemperer is always in the wings as well. No. 7, fortunately for everyone, is the highlight of this set, Bruckner’s best-loved work—and recorded to the hilt—but given here in a performance where the sound is perfect, balances ideal, and emotional tenor of the piece just right. Though I have heard some readings where the scherzo is a little more accurate rhythmically, the Adagio, compete with cymbal crash, is sensational, and Bosch is to be congratulated on this one.
As mentioned, No. 8 uses a later version, but again the impetus for Coviello to continue this series based on this first recording is here for all to hear, and the piece receives a dynamite reading, though no one will want to dispense with Karajan’s classic DGG recording. Finally, No. 9 is mystical, solidly effusive, and boldly demonstrative in its first three movements. Yes, I said “first three” because Bosch has elected to give us all the latest and greatest in terms of Brucknerian scholarship and provide us with a reconstructed fourth movement. There are large chunks of this piece that the composer really finished, and he was not happy about the idea of the work being performed in only three movements. His idea however, in case he did not finish it, was to perform the Te Deum as the last movement, which is rarely done these days, and the torso version has achieved canonical status. Hearing this completion is not inspiring—it sounds like Bruckner in terms of actual sound, but the piece is bad Bruckner as heard here, and certainly not up to the inspiration of the first three movements in this current incarnation. Perhaps this will change in the future and someone will be able to pull it off, but that time is not now. Thanks goodness for stop buttons, the best way to end an otherwise fine performance of this work.
All in all this is a creditable addition to the catalog in general and specifically because we now get the glorious cathedral mass of Brucknerian sound in SACD. Nicely done!