With these three discs from Sony/BMG, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that 2009 was some sort of Bruckner anniversary. All recorded lavishly and released on SACD, they feature three German orchestras very much at the top of their games; the recordings from Dresden and Frankfurt are live – not that one would know it.
In fact, it's difficult not long after a certain poll of the great orchestras not to compare these three bands including, in the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, two of Germany's oldest alongside the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. I've long particularly admired the Dresden orchestra and, to my ears, they sound the best. Although they're obviously more closely associated with Richard Strauss and Wagner than Bruckner, they make a sound that is often ravishing. The rich strings and the smooth, powerful brass might not be as distinctive as they were but there is so much to enjoy in straightforward sonic terms – helped by Sony's outstanding recorded sound – before one even gets on to the interpretation of their Music Director, Fabio Luisi.
It was another Italian, Giuseppe Sinopoli, who went some way to establishing the Dresden orchestra as a force to be reckoned with in Bruckner in the 1990s and Luisi proves a worthy successor. In interview in the booklet, he wheels out some of the usual descriptions of Bruckner – 'a Bruckner symphony is like a microcosm that opens up, a magnificent piece of architecture in which each stone rests on the other' – but this is backed up by a sure command of the work's vast structure. But he isn't afraid, either, to revel in the symphony's strong emotional element: 'this is music of analloyed passion', he tells us. It's a performance whose sensual allure, to paraphrase Scarpia, almost makes one forget Bruckner's dedication 'to dear God'. Powerfully delivered with amazing virtuosity by the Dresden players, it's a reading too that emphasises the work's grand, baroque theatricality. The opening movement is patiently drawn out, reaching a truly shattering climax; the scherzo pounds away implacably contrasted with beautifully skittish account of the Trio. The Adagio perhaps misses some of the visionary quality of some – the opening rising motif doesn't quite reach heavenward in the way it can – but I liked the stern quality brought to, say, the wind chords (around 19'00) and the fact that the strings maintain a full-bodied tone to the end.
The other two discs fall short of the achievement of the Dresdeners and Luisi. The Seventh Symphony, in particular, has had so many great performances on disc that Paavo Järvi was going to have to produce something special to elbow his way in among the great Brucknerians who have put down markers. As it is, he gives us a performance that is idiomatic and often moving, and shows off his orchestra to great effect – like the Dresden recording, this is live. He steers a course carefully through the score, keeping clear of its many danger areas and, in his hands, the Finale also makes musical sense as a part of the whole: no mean achievement in itself. Järvi's patience in the slow build up of the Adagio is also to be greatly admired, even if the climax has been achieved by others with a greater sense of exultation. Of course, there is also the added bonus of RCA's lavish SACD sound, making this a treat for audiophiles. Whether die-hard Brucknerians will feel it's a recording worth adding to their collections is up to them. No-one is likely to be greatly disappointed with what is a well-played, sensitively paced account of the symphony, even if there are other accounts that get closer to the heart of the matter.
A far more mouth-watering prospect, in many ways, comes from Kent Nagano: a rare outing on disc for the original version of one of Bruckner's best-loved symphonies. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester make an impressively glossy sound but Nagano sounds too happy much of the time simply to let the brass dictate, obscuring much of the detail. Although the effect is initially powerful, it soon gets wearing, particularly given the conductor's reluctance to make much of the lyricism, for example, of the first movement's Gesangsperiode. There was nothing whatsoever of the lilt Böhm and the VPO bring to this on their famous 1970s recording and little sense of either conductor or orchestra being particularly enamoured of the work itself. So much detail of Bruckner's scoring – which is where, after all, much of his revision took place – is lost.
Bruckner's later rewrites of the symphony – and they are substantial including a brand new Scherzo and Trio – definitely tightened the work up. In the rough-and-ready original we miss several of the transition passages between episodes, for example, particularly noticeably since Nagano fails to find a way to deal with this, only emphasising the stop-start effect. Perhaps most interesting is Bruckner's wider rhetorical palette in the early version: chromaticism in the finale is used a great deal in a linear rather than harmonic way; the triplets in the Andante quasi Allegretto give a pleasing, waltzing quality replaced by stern duplets in the later versions; the profusion of trills in the same movement is similarly not something we expect from the composer. The Finale starts with an unconvincing chromatic figure before trying, with limited success one might argue, to bring back the horn calls of the opening movement to create a greater sense of unity. All this was disposed during a lengthy process of recasting the symphony in the Brucknerian language familiar to us today, but it's deeply fascinating to hear the first thoughts again.
Nagano's account is to be welcomed for simply providing another technically proficient and well-recorded account of it, but he does little to persuade the listener of the version's merits. A disappointing release.
By Hugo Shirley