Naxos is reissuing many of its most important symphonic series in boxed sets at lower prices on what it calls its White Box line. Besides the two under review here, sets containing works by Arnold, Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky have also been issued. All feature the symphony cycles of these composers, but the Mendelssohn set includes, in addition, the thirteen string symphonies, while the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff include the piano concertos. Of these, I've heard much of the Arnold, Rachmaninoff, and Sibelius and must say, in general, their purchase would be a bargain. Much the same can be said about the two largest sets in the White Box series, the Bruckner and Shostakovich symphony cycles.
Without doubt, it is the Tintner/Bruckner series that is the most important here. Georg Tintner, who died recently in a fall (he was suffering from terminal cancer), has rightly been recognized as one of the finest Bruckner interpreters of any generation. From my perspective, his set has been the most enlightening, interpretively and textually. True, he has come under criticism for his selection of the first version of the Eighth Symphony, generally considered an inferior one by musicologists. But I'm not so sure about that judgment – Tintner makes an excellent case for his choice, one that convinces you that you could live only with this version quite satisfied. His second movement is the best I've ever heard, and in the third he captures the depth and beauty about as well as anyone else.
His Third Symphony is among the best ever made, and his Seventh can challenge most other renditions. In addition, his accounts of the early symphonies, '0' and '00', are quite revelatory, and the Ninth, Fifth and Fourth are also strongly competitive. The First is another compelling performance and gives us the actual original version of the work, and even if the differences between it and what was thought to be the first version, the so-called 'Linz', are negligible, we nevertheless know the symphony as Bruckner originally conceived it and in a fine performance to boot.
One has to wonder what Tintner would have done with a first-tier ensemble in these symphonies. Not that his orchestras turn in shoddy work here – the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, which performs #2, 8 and 9, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, used only for #6, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra which performs the remainder, all play superbly, never exhibiting mediocre execution or lack of spirit. One might opine that the Irish and Scottish ensembles are only a rung or so below world class, and prove it here.
The sound that Naxos has given Tintner is generally clear and powerful, quite competitive with that heard on the pricier labels. Tintner's notes are enlightening and collectively one of the finest essays ever written on the Bruckner Symphonies. In the end, considering performance and price, this set is a genuine bargain, and a must for Brucknerians.
As for the Shostakovich set, although much the same conclusion can be drawn, the performances aren't quite as successful. The main strength of this reissue is, as with the Bruckner set, its conductor, Ladislav Slovàk, a man who worked with Mravinsky and consulted with Shostakovich on performance matters in the symphonies. While Slovàk is working with an orchestra here he once led and presumably knows well, he cannot always draw playing from its players that contain the polish heard in so many performances on competing recordings, or the spirit captured on a number of older Soviet recordings by ensembles whose rough-and-ready character wasn't always so endearing to the ear.
That said, the performances here are still good ones, capturing Slovàk's always-interesting interpretive approaches. His Fifth and Sixth are fine accounts, neither displacing the very best performances (the 1959 Bernstein in the Fifth and any Mravinsky in the Sixth), but neither surpassed in any substantial way. The dark and tragic Fourteenth also receives a compelling reading here, and many of the other symphonies also come off well, like the chipper First and Ninth. The Tenth and Fifteenth are good renditions too, but the Eleventh is a bit on the slow side, especially in the second movement. This is one of the weaker symphonies in Shostakovich's canon, and needs some animation to avoid showing its unseemly seams. The Twelfth, the weakest of the lot – what one calls good 'bad music' – gets a better performance. All in all, this is a mixed bag, but one that is well worth the low asking price.
The chief competition in the budget arena, however, is a formidable one on an unbelievably inexpensive Brilliant Classics set by Rudolf Barshai and the Cologne West German Radio Orchestra, selling for about the price of one-and-a-half full-priced CDs! The sound Naxos provides Slovàk is decent and the notes are informative.
Copyright © 2002, Robert Cummings