In celebration of the 85th birthday of conductor Herbert Blomstedt, querstand, a label of Klaus-Jürgen Kamprad in Altenburg, Germany, has released an SACD box of the nine numbered symphonies of Anton Bruckner, all taken from concert performances given by Blomstedt with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. While the boxed edition will not be released in the United States until next year, it can currently be ordered through Amazon.de, the German site for Amazon.com. The symphonies are also being released individually in the United States; and Amazon currently has pages for the first in C minor, third in D minor, fourth in E-flat major, seventh in E major, and eighth in C minor. The second is scheduled for release on January 8 and is currently available for pre-order.
This is hardly the first effort to provide a complete recording of this set of symphonies. However, because there is so much contention over the selection of appropriate editions for each of the symphonies, it is probably the case that no two sets are alike. This new collection may be most distinguished for using the original (1873) version of the third symphony, which Bruckner dedicated to Richard Wagner. In that original version the symphony includes Wagner quotations, the most recognizable being from Die Walküre and Lohengrin; and those quotations were taken out in the four (yes!) subsequent revisions.
Similarly, the second symphony was performed in its original (1872) version, as edited by William Carragan, who placed the Scherzo as the second movement. This symphony is sometimes called the Symphony of Pauses, due to Bruckner’s rhetorical use of full stops for the entire orchestra. It was also subjected to four subsequent revisions.
Only two symphony recordings do not explicitly identify third-party editors, the sixth in A major and the seventh. The sixth receives relatively little attention and was composed between 1879 and 1881 without subsequent revision. The seventh was composed between 1881 and 1883 and revised in 1885. While working on this symphony, Bruckner was aware that Wagner was dying; and the Adagio (second) movement reaches its climax at rehearsal letter W. (Also, the instrumentation includes Wagner tubas.)
The most massive undertaking, however, was the eighth. With a duration of about 85 minutes, it is the one symphony that requires two discs in SACD format. The heart of the symphony is, again, its Adagio (this time the third) movement, which takes about 30 minutes. About a year ago I wrote about Sergiu Celibidache’s recording of this symphony (in which he takes 35 minutes for the Adagio) as a perfect example for the serious listener acclimating to “Bruckner time.”
Such acclimated listeners should warm readily to Blomstedt’s general approach to pace throughout the entire collection, but these are also recordings for those who have yet to discover the joys that such acclimation can bring. When I wrote about the Celibidache recordings, I asserted that Bruckner’s primary rhetorical quality was one of panoramic landscapes, thus contrasting sharply with the more “driven” narrative techniques of both Wagner and Gustav Mahler. Blomstedt’s interpretations seem to appreciate that sense of landscape, letting the music unfold through the slow-pan style of filmmaking in such a way that the listener can recognize and appreciate new features as they come into view. Having first encountered Blomstedt’s Bruckner through his regular visits as Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, I have developed an appreciation for his style, which, in turn, has provided me with my first serious opportunity to consider the full scope of these nine symphonies.
My only regret is that this collection does not include the recent four-movement version of the D minor ninth symphony, the result of the scrupulous editing of Nicola Samale, Giuseppe Mazzuca, Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs, and John Phillips. Simon Rattle had the honor of giving this edition its first performances with the Berliner Philharmoniker, and the February 9 concert of the 2011–2012 season is available for viewing through the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall. The following May EMI Classics released a CD of this version, and it is one of those sad twists of fate that it could not be included as part of Blomstedt’s project. However, in the scope of the full Bruckner canon, this is a minor disadvantage.