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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #9 in D minor

Minnesota Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Reference Recordings RR-81 59:37
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Seldom mentioned among the great conductors, the art of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski has been preserved across an astonishing period of time, from the mid-1950s to the present day. To put that in perspective, the conductor has been recording for as long as my father has been living. He's not just the last remnant of the old guard, though. He's a legitimately great musician who is especially beloved in Minnesota, which he quietly built into an American powerhouse. Among his many gifts, he is a tremendous and almost always persuasive advocate of Anton Bruckner.

In an age where everyone is recording Bruckner – and curiously, when his mix of religiosity and naïveté is probably the least socially appealing – Skrowaczewski is one of the few conductors alive who I trust to do the music right every time. This disc dates from 1997, well before the Bruckner explosion and at a time when a small label like Reference Recordings was still carving a niche as an audiophile enterprise. Everything works wonderfully. I dare you to play this for friends; I imagine they would name a great European orchestra if asked who was playing. As astonishing as the ensemble is under Vänskä, I found myself shivering with the sheer thrill of the strings and brass letting loose in the first movement. It's a great interpretation that stands with Jochum, Giulini, and the other great recordings of the work. Who knew that this orchestra could make this sound nearly two decades ago? Clearly, Reference Recordings did, and we have this performance forever as a result.

The sound is exceptionally clear and extremely well balanced. The strings are unparalleled in clarity at the opening, which is also a distinguishing feature of the new Bruckner 4 from Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh on the same label. The aforementioned climaxes within the first movement are jaw-dropping in intensity, and the brass – thrilling as it is – never overpowers the strings. Few readings since Jochum on EMI/Warner Classics realize the pure terror and despair within the work as well as this one does. The Scherzo is downright demonic, with absolutely no stiffness and some stunning virtuosity. Perhaps more than anything, the conductor understands the complex architecture that is Bruckner's work, something which allows him to impart a naturalness and flow to this music that is often played more for "profundity" than for music alone. Indeed, one of the reasons I am covering this disc nearly 20 years after its release is that it provides a welcome change from the edition-ridden and poorly conducted Bruckner of today.

It goes without saying that the Finale is one of the finest on disc, and taken as a whole this is one of the finest accounts of the work I have ever heard. The sound is spectacular even today, and serves as a worthy testament to the accomplishments of Skrowaczewski in Minnesota. I like that each section of the work is tracked, which makes it an ideal disc for students, conductors, or score-followers to use for reference, and the liner notes are also typically fine. If you love Bruckner, you owe it to yourself to explore the career of this extraordinary man, and if you love this symphony, this disc is required listening.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman