Anton Bruckner is remembered as one of the greatest symphonic composers of all time. He wrote nine numbered symphonies and two earlier works that remained unpublished at the time of his death. His reputation as a great composer has only recently been boosted, which is due not in the least to the numerous recordings that have taken place in the past two decades or so. A Bruckner school of interpreters has laid down the gauntlet for several modern conductors with recordings that have stood the test of time as the definitive performances of these gigantic symphonies.
The First Symphony is of a lithe character and was written at the late age of 41. This work already shows signs of the latest traits in his symphonic writing, with staccato rhythms and ostinatos very much in evidence, although perhaps not so pronounced. The Second Symphony is longer and more grandly conceived, with a final movement, 'Mehr Schnell' which contains great power and architectural stature. The Third Symphony nicknamed 'Wagner', is also a majestic composition, with a First movement that begins with an eerie 'misterioso', gradually developing with the usual fortissimos and pianissimos which are typical of Bruckner's Symphonies. The Adagio is also rich in melodic beauty, while the Finale is extremely boisterous and forward moving. With the Fourth Symphony, 'Romantic', Bruckner began to move away from his previous symphonic conceptions, creating a work that has remained one of his best known compositions. The grand opening theme fills one with a certain sense of fulfilment and joy, while the famous 'Hunting' Scherzo is thrilling in its fortissimo hammer blows. The Finale recalls later symphonies in its length (over 22 minutes) and concludes with a coda of mystical power that is the trademark of Bruckner's symphonic creations.
While the first four symphonies are fairly predictable in their symphonic conception, the latter half of Bruckner's works are more self-evidently great in their layout, the Fifth Symphony being a case in point. It begins with a pizzicato rhythm that is the germ cell of the whole gigantic first movement, an episodic creation so typical of Bruckner's style. The Adagio is a long breathed inspiration of great beauty, while the Scherzo is an Austrian peasant dance grandly decorated. The Finale on the other hand, is a massive contrapuntal fugue, bringing together all the major themes of the symphony to culminate the work in an unforgettable blaze of glory with a message of faith and hope. The Sixth Symphony is more overtly classical in its layout, but is also spacious and uplifting, albeit concise. The First movement contains themes of great power, which are once again recalled in the Finale, a process which Bruckner became excessively fond of in later years. The Seventh Symphony could be considered as the most beautiful of his symphonies, a composition permeated with nostalgia and melodic inspiration. It is also profuse in humble sincerity. The First Movement is once again inspired by an ostinato figure that grows constantly into a theme of majestic glory flanked by other smaller melodies that hold together the episodic nature of the music. The Coda to this same movement is unforgettable in its awe-inspiring vision. The Adagio is also rich in themes, not least its central one, which is a Prélude to the magnificent Adagio of the Eighth Symphony.
Conversely, the Scherzo and Finale are very short, lasting only just as long as the First Movement all together. Still the wealth of inspiration is not lacking not least in the final triumphant bars, which are really white-hot inspiration.
This brings us to the final two compositions, the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. The Eighth is perhaps one of the greatest symphonies ever written lasting over eighty minutes in length. Its greatest moments are the Adagio and Finale which are a pinnacle of achievement, particularly its sublime Third Movement which could almost hold its place on its own. The First Movement contains great unease and unrest with counterpoint constantly in evidence, although by now, Bruckner was master of his own sound world. The Scherzo is also great in its demonic overtones, the Fourth's Scherzo in its ostinatos. The Ninth Symphony is unfinished, but its three movements alone are a worthy testament to its composers stature in symphonic literature. It is perhaps on a slightly less impressive scale than its predecessor, but is still awe inspiring and towering in its own right. Recently a finished version has been issued with sketches of the Finale completed by Dr. William Carragan, an American Music Scholar.
As recordings go, Bruckner's Symphonies are numerous and plentiful in the current catalogues. From an economy standpoint, it would be useful to buy a complete cycle of his symphonies. Of these, I would recommend the Bernard Haitink set on Philips and Eugen Jochum on DG, conductors who hold pre-eminent status as Bruckner interpreters. In the upper mid-price, Herbert von Karajan's set stands supreme as a definitive recommendation. Single issues of particular greatness include Karl Böhm's Third and Fourth symphonies on Double Decca. Karajan's last recordings of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies and Otto Klemperers Fifth and Sixth on EMI. As Richard Osborne says, Bruckner is best built in single blocks, and I for one couldn't agree more with his advice. This symphonic giant continues to baffle us, for in his simplicity and piety he was possible to turn out works of earth shattering power which will remain great as long as there is music.
Copyright © 1999, Gerald Fenech