Despite circumstances that would make most men bitter, Anton Bruckner (Sept. 24, 1824 – Oct. 11, 1896) in his mature symphonies and choral works wrote some of the most spiritual music since Bach's. Insecure, he spent his thirties studying with the dictatorial music professor Simon Sechter, who had briefly taught Franz Schubert. Brucker didn't compose a symphony until 1863, the "Study" Symphony, which he withheld (as he did the later so-called No. 0).
In Vienna, Bruckner was considered by many to be a naïve country bumpkin; he got unfairly entangled in the bitter Brahms-Wagner debates that split the city. Bruckner's symphonies were thus the object of myopic criticism from some in the Brahms camp, including powerful critic Eduard Hanslick (however, Wagner, Liszt, and Emperor Franz Joseph I were among those who praised or supported Bruckner).The unprecedented length of Bruckner's symphonies, which develop in slow-moving monoliths of sound, was an impediment for some listeners. Bruckner, an excellent organist, often deploys orchestral sound and color like an organist setting registrations for separate manuals. Especially striking is his great love of the lower brass, which often present deeply moving, chorale-like themes. He also tends to use three themes per movement, which adds a bit of complexity to compensate for the relative simplicity of his thematic development.
Bruckner was deeply affected by the adverse criticism of his symphonies, and most of them exist in multiple revisions. Some are by the composer; several, more controversially, were also revised either by Bruckner but under duress, or by his eager supporters (and students) the Schalk brothers (Franz, a conductor, and Josef, a pianist/writer/pedagogue) -- without the composer's consent in some cases. They often made massive cuts and revised the orchestration to sound more Wagnerian, and it was not until the 1930s that many people heard some of the symphonies as Bruckner himself had written them.
For many decades after Bruckner's death, there was little interest in his music outside of Germany and Austria, but in the '60s his symphonies became more popular, helped perhaps by the promulgation of the LP (better able to contain his lengthy symphonies), stereo (glorious sonics communicate this grandiose music better), and a higher level of orchestral technique. In the '70s his last six symphonies became standard repertoire, and now there is a plethora of Bruckner recordings to consider.
It's easy to get a very good set of the Bruckner Symphonies inexpensively in one fell swoop, as there are several excellent box sets. Two, in fact, are by the same conductor.
Symphonies Nos. 1-9
Eugen Jochum (1902-1987) was an early proponent of the critical editions of Bruckner's symphonies by Leopold Nowak. Nowak's predecessor, Robert Haas, had attempted to produce ideal versions of each Bruckner symphony by combining aspects of the originals along with the various revisions that Bruckner himself had made. Nowak, by contrast, produced editions of each version that took nothing from others, and therefore were purer, less muddled, and sometimes shorter. Using Nowak editions where most crucial, Jochum's seminal DG cycle of the nine numbered symphonies was recorded in 1958 and 1964-'67. Later he recorded another cycle for EMI.
Many listeners will have been initiated into this magnificent series of works by these classic readings with the Berlin Philharmonic (Nos. 1, 4, 7-9) and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Nos. 2-3, 5-6). The DG set has the edge in orchestral execution, especially the Berlin brass -- and the brass are the soul of Bruckner's sound world. Jochum succeeds in making even the first three symphonies sound like assured masterpieces, and nobody has ever topped his Second. Jochum's rhythmic flexibility, arrived at logically rather than impulsively. Awhile back DG made this a bargain set, which makes it easy to recommend.
Because Jochum used Nowak editions (Linz version of the First; 1877 version of the Second; 1888-89 version of the Third; 1878 version of the Fifth) rather than the longer Haas conflations of multiple versions, and because he was not of the slow-equals-profound school, each work is relatively concise, both here and in the earlier set. Jochum's Dresden readings are at a more elevated level of passionate involvement than his slightly more cautious Berlin/Bavarian performances.
A factor Jochum had in common with Bruckner seems key to this set's success: both were organists. Bruckner maneuvers the symphony orchestra as though it were a large organ's registrations. Jochum conveys that with a naturalness that makes all his stark dynamic contrasts seem called-for rather than artificial. In the finale of the Third Symphony, to cite just one example of another way in which his organist's intuition results in a reading subtly different from other conductors', the weird dissonances, which have the effect of heavy mixture stops, are not downplayed; the brass blare a bit much for some tastes, but it's as exciting as can be in a dramatic reading. Equally, Jochum has a deep understanding of the overall structures -- rarely have these problematic works (even the early ones) seemed so ineffably inevitable.
Jochum's ability to turn on a dime also means that he's entirely comfortable with the sudden shifts in Bruckner's mood, such as in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony, where within just a few minutes the music twists from lyrical to bold to menacing to quietly suspenseful to pensive. Jochum makes all the individual emotional flavors ring true while slipping smoothly from one to the next. The lyrical moments in particular flow outward with a rich legato that's gloriously songful -- and devoutly spiritual without making a fuss about it.
While listening to this set, it's hard to think of the Staatskapelle Dresden, which has a long and distinguished history, as anything but a world-class orchestra. Only the Fifth Symphony, where brass tone becomes vulgar, is not a success. But they are not quite at the level of the orchestras in Jochum's earlier cycle. On the other hand, the performances and sound are slightly improved. Pick based on what's more important to you.
Symphonies Nos. 1-9; “0”; "Study Symphony" in F minor (No. 00); Overture in G minor; Adagio from String Quartet in F major
Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Oehms)
Or, if you want the unpublished symphonies as well, and digital sound, get this set (though in the download world you'll have to acquire it symphony by symphony, alas). It's been on several other labels (notably Arte Nova), so pick up whichever one you find; they're all the same (he did make other recordings of individual symphonies outside this cycle). Skrowaczewski is a less "interventionist" conductor than Jochum, so if that's how you prefer your Bruckner, this is the set to get, and despite being 12 CDs as compared to Jochum's 9, it's about the same cost.
Symphony No. 3 in D minor
The Third is widely considered Bruckner's first great work. His infatuation with the music of Richard Wagner is expressed openly in the original 1873 version with quotes from Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle. Many, though not all, were eliminated over the course of two subsequent revisions. The more expansive 1873 edition is in many ways the most satisfying, though it's more difficult to bring off in performance.
The greater breadth of the original version is not a problem for Bruckner specialist Georg Tintner in this luminous reading from his complete cycle. Even if you have a box set, this recording is a crucial supplement, as the box sets (aside from Tintner's) use later versions.
Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major "Romantic"
Bruckner's most accessible symphony, his first in a major key and the first to attain some popularity; of his major works, it's the most immediately appealing and relatively concise.
This has been the primary recommendation for the Fourth ever since it appeared a quarter-century ago. The burnished yet strong tones of the brass -- always important in Bruckner, but especially here with this work's many horn motifs -- and the lush strings of the Vienna Philharmonic are utterly idiomatic, and the vastly underrated Böhm shapes it unobtrusively yet masterfully.
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major
Bruckner's study of Renaissance choral music, Baroque organ music, and Mozart's Requiem is reflected in this counterpoint-laden work, including multiple fugues in the finale.
I wanted so much to include a Furtwängler recording on this list, but so few exist, and the only commercial recording for a record label is of the Adagio only from the Seventh. Everything else that has come down to us is from concerts recorded for radio broadcast, with corresponding deficits in sound quality and orchestral accuracy. This performance, however, is miraculously unsullied by orchestral problems, and the taping, while of course mono (it's a 1942 recording), is pretty good by the standards of the time. The interpretation is magnificent, sweepingly Romantic but also structurally astute. It has been available from various sources, but the best are a Testament single CD and (the only way it's found on iTunes) as part of a five-CD box set from Deutsche Grammophon.
If, however, you want modern sonics, this 1989 recording compiled from concerts offers the full impact of the glorious horns in a digital recording. Both conductors used the Haas edition, but Wand moves with a more stately tread (over six minutes slower than Furtwängler), but still with plenty of dramatic emphasis. This can be found separately on CD or paired with Wand's also-superb Ninth with the same orchestra.
Symphony No. 6 in A major
Bruckner was quite proud of his Sixth; it's the only one of his symphonies that he never revised. (Despite which, he never heard a complete performance; the first performance of all four movements came in 1899 -- with Mahler conducting a cut version.)
Klemperer's classic 1964 version is actually fairly brisk measured by the clock, but somehow he makes it (except, of course, the troubling Scherzo) sound remarkably solid and inevitable, not so much sculpted as seeming like a natural rock formation one has stumbled across.
Symphony No. 7 in E major
The Seventh was an immediate success and a distinct turning point in public reception of Bruckner -- and was long his most-programmed work, starting during his lifetime. The composer stated that the coda of its nobly lyrical Adagio was written with Wagner's death in mind.
One can't help but retrospectively link the Wagner death Adagio aspect to this April 1989 Vienna Philharmonic performance being Karajan's final recording. He shapes it with a calm, far-seeing poise, and the Adagio is a bit slower and more heart-wrenching than his also-classic 1970-71 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic (which, alas, has been botched by EMI in all but the first CD issue due to the omission of a few measures!). Without reaching for effect, Karajan in '89 is utterly transcendent.
Symphony No. 8 in C minor
Bruckner's Eighth is the apex of his art, a weighty, Heaven-storming work (his longest) that throbs with emotion and excitement.
The sound Karajan cultivated in his conducting was not suited to all composers, but its block-like density fits Bruckner's symphonies well. The Eighth was Karajan's favorite Bruckner, and this valedictory 1988 recording, less than a year before his death, gives profound expression to every iota of the work's edgy majesty.
For an altogether unearthly experience of this score, try the elongated 1993 concert reading by Celibidache, another conductor whose idiosyncratic approach proved most suitable with Bruckner. In his hands, the Eighth lasts 104 minutes using the Nowak edition of the 1890 version, somewhat shorter than the Haas edition Karajan uses -- yet, in comparison, Karajan's unhurried effort clocks in at 82½ minutes. Celi's reading -- which never seems to drag thanks to the superb degree of tension he maintains in the music's long lines -- emphasizes the spiritual vein running through much Bruckner and makes for a transcendent listening experience. All his EMI Bruckner recordings are excellent, but this is the most striking.
Vienna Philharmonic/Carl Schuricht (EMI Classics)
It's not available for download, but Schuricht's two-CD set containing the Eighth and Ninth is well worth searching out. He was a much more straightforward conductor than Karajan or Celibidache (his Haas Eighth times out at 71:16), though still expressive, and the lean intensity of his readings offers a fine alternative.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor
Bruckner's sketches for his final symphony date back to 1887, and he began working on it in earnest in 1981, yet it remained unfinished at his death because of health problems and his inability to conceive of a finale grand enough to cap its first three mighty movements. Though completions of the sketches he left for the ending have been recorded in recent decades, the Ninth is perfect as a three-movement work, closing with a gorgeous Adagio that seems to be Bruckner's acceptance of death and anticipation of Heaven.
Walter's hand-picked orchestra manages a technical excellence rare in Bruckner performances of the period, and plays with pointed accents and, in the Adagio, with some nice old-fashioned portamento string phrasing for an extremely detailed expressiveness. By not straining for effect or slowing overly in the slow first and third movements, Walter manages to sustain momentum through its vast structure and achieves a pleasingly epiphanic close.
In his March 1993 concert recording with the orchestra he long led and had trained superbly for Bruckner performances, Wand gives a noble reading in excellence digital sound. There's a later Wand concert recording with the Berlin Philharmonic that's much praised, but though it offers slightly more sonic splendor overall, it suffers from moments of unsteady intonation in the mighty Adagio that prove temporarily disconcerting, so I'll stick with '93. (This can now be found in a two-CD set with No. 5 mentioned above.)
Masses Nos. 1-3
A devout Catholic, Bruckner took his religious compositions very seriously and imbued his three Masses with all the weight of his symphonies. Jochum's fervent collection of the Masses sets the standard in all three.
Te Deum; Psalm 150; Motets: Locus iste; Ave Maria; Tota pulchra es, Maria; Virga Jesse; Ecce sacerdos magnus; Afferentur regi; Pange, lingua; Os justi; Vexilla regis; Christus factus est pro nobis
Besides the two mighty choir-and-orchestra works here, the Te Deum and Psalm 150, this set provides an extensive taste of Bruckner's mastery of a cappella choral writing in his motets, still favorites of more adventurous choirs.
String Quintet in F major; Intermezzo in D minor for String Quintet; String Quartet in C minor; Rondo in C minor for String Quartet
Bruckner's 1879 String Quintet's meltingly beautiful Adagio might be the supreme chamber music movement of its kind composed in the second half of the 19th century. Not all of the other movements fit comfortably into the chamber music idiom, though. The String Quartet is merely a student work from 1862, though not without charm and some daring modulations. Since this repertoire is something of an afterthought, I've picked a budget recording to represent it. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.