It is not easy to see the logic behind this set containing three Bruckner symphonies played by Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra. All three performances have previously been released by Sony Classical. Two of the performances (the 4th and the 8th) are studio recordings of the rarely heard original versions, while the set also includes a live recording of the 7th made in Ghent cathedral in September 2010.
The booklet contains an essay by Olaf A. Schmidt entitled "Bruckner the Progressive" (doubtless a reference to Schoenberg's famous essay "Brahms the Progressive"). The essay discusses the different versions of the Bruckner symphonies, proposing that Bruckner's first thoughts were often his most daring and forward-looking, subsequently tempered by the criticisms he received from his contemporaries and misguided well-wishers.
There is some plausibility in this analysis. The Hunt Scherzo that Bruckner added to the 4th Symphony is an altogether jollier and less challenging affair than the scherzo included on this recording of the original 1874 version. But on the other hand, Bruckner's original versions are sometimes ham-fisted at best – the fortissimo at the end of the first movement of the 8th is a good example. And the original versions can drag somewhat. The 4th comes in at 75 minutes and the 8th at a taxing 100 minutes.
Of the performances here the 7th is the least convincing. There is nothing dramatically wrong with it. Nagano conducts sensitively and with a good sense of architecture. The orchestra has a fine Bruckner sound. But the performance certainly fails to stand out in a crowded marketplace. It is a little ironic also that in a set ostensibly focused on Bruckner's progressive initial thoughts, the performance of the 7th includes the controversial cymbals crash at the climax of the Adagio.
The 1874 version of the 4th and the 1887 version of the 8th are well worth listening to, however. It's a fool's errand, in my opinion, to try to identify the definitive version of either of these great works. Really there is a family of different versions, each of which needs to be listened to on its own terms. Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra have broadened our horizons by giving us a clearer understanding of what Bruckner originally intended. Listeners can make up their own minds as to whether the subsequent revisions were improvements or detractions.
Copyright © 2014, José Luis Bermúdez