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Blu-ray Review

Anton Bruckner

Unitel Classica/CMajor Blu-ray 712304
  • Symphony #4 in E Flat Major "Romantic" (1880-81 Version)
  • Symphony #7 in E Major
Munich Philharmonic Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
Recorded live at the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, Germany in 2006 (#7) and 2008 (#4)
Unitel Classica/CMajor Blu-ray 712304 156m PCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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Anton Bruckner was one of the more unique composers of classical music. As most readers are aware, there are multiple versions of most of his symphonies, mainly because the composer, a decidedly naïve and humble fellow, allowed conductors and other musicians to make certain "improvements" on his symphonies, or he agreed to make revisions himself. In fact, to achieve performances of his symphonies, Bruckner sometimes sanctioned corrupt versions that others made of his symphonies. Another unusual aspect regarding the composer was his highly individual style: it has been said of Bruckner, who was a virtuoso organist, that he composed what was essentially organ music and then orchestrated it. It's hard to challenge that viewpoint: his symphonies are fraught with sustained chordal passages, and often his music swells quickly or gradually from piano to forte levels and then retreats only to soon turn thunderous again. There are relatively few passages for solo instruments, but many for masses of instruments and many tutti sections as well. Moreover, he wrote very little fast music of a crisp or staccato-like character. Yes, his music does indeed remind one of the sustained sounds of an organ – and a rather voluminous one. Here, in this well filmed video you get to see and hear the orchestra – a rather sizeable one – carry out performances of two of his bigger symphonies.

Christian Thielemann, whom the album notes claim to be the most "interesting and significant" of today's Bruckner conductors, leads performances here that are undeniably interesting and significant. But to crown him, in effect, the greatest Bruckner conductor of the day overlooks the weighty contributions of Barenboim, Abbado, Chailly and several others. That said, Thielemann knows his Bruckner and always seems to deliver the musical goods. Without doubt, these two performances are excellent and do offer strong evidence of his superior skills in this repertory.

Thielemann chooses fairly deliberate tempos throughout, but because of his consistently intelligent phrasing he is able to impart a tension and sense of vitality that never allow the music to drag. Indeed, and his deft balancing of the various choirs of the orchestra and consistent ability to draw accurate, committed playing from the Munich Philharmonic, enables him to impart a more epic, more heroic character to the music, elements so essential to Bruckner. The Fourth begins softly, of course, but soon Thielemann brings on that regal, majestic sense, and then the bouncy, playful theme that follows is delivered with an infectious spirit and felicity. The phrasing here and throughout the symphony always seems perfectly appropriate and thoroughly convincing.

The Seventh is a somewhat darker work, but still a triumphant one. I think it's the better of the two symphonies as well, and again Thielemann delivers a fine reading. The somber dark second movement is the hardest of the four panels to bring off effectively and here Thielemann, with a quite deliberate tempo, delivers a highly detailed, tension-filled account of the utmost profundity. But then the whole symphony is played splendidly and with such commitment.

By the way, Thielemann always conducts without a score and you can discern from his ever-alert direction that he knows every note on every page. He must have a fabulous memory, a photographic memory in fact. The camera work throughout the more than two and a half hours of music on the disc is most imaginative and appropriate and the sound reproduction very good, but not quite at the highest level. I should mention that these performances were originally issued on DVD in 2010 and this is their first Blu-ray incarnation. There are many fine versions of these symphonies from the likes of Tintner, Jochum, Barenboim, Karajan and others, but Thielemann can rank with the best, especially if you favor somewhat deliberate pacing. In the video realm, Thielemann has little competition and so for Brucknerians, if you haven't gotten the DVD, this Blu-ray is probably essential.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings

Trumpet