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Essential Bruckner

By Gary Barton

It's been an interesting experience to spend the last two weeks researching the life of Anton Bruckner and listening to his music, particularly as I just finished an article on another master of large-scale works, Gustav Mahler. These two composers are often lumped together as the last major contributors to Romanticism in music. They also both perceived Vienna to be the musical center of their time (Mahler lived from 1860 to 1911, Bruckner from 1824 to 1896). It served as the hub for their musical education and performances of their works. However, the two men were polar opposites in almost all respects.

Philip Barfield, who authored the BBC music guide to Mahler's symphonies, also wrote a companion booklet devoted to Bruckner's symphonies (BBC Music Guides: Bruckner Symphonies, University of Washington Press, 1978). It is far more technical than the Mahler volume, and the analyses and discussions therein will be of greatest interest to the musician. The Mahler volume is far more anecdotal, which is understandable as Mahler's music is, in a sense autobiographical. Bruckner's music is music that stands on its own, requiring little knowledge of the composer's life to enjoy it.

Barfield writes, "Surface impressions may seem to confirm the image of Anton Bruckner as 'God's musician.' He continues, "Bruckner was a short, nervous man with country ways, who shambled about Vienna in a baggy suit. His physical appearance, extremely typical of Upper Austria (there are men living there today who look like his blood brothers), proclaimed his rural origins. His Prussian haircut contradicted the romantic image cultivated by late nineteenth-century composers. He was unsuccessful with women, and irritating to influential people, especially to Franz Liszt, who tended to keep out of his way. Bruckner was neither socially nor physically equipped for the inner circles of sophisticated society…Yet his music is free of that kind of neurotic introspection characteristic of Mahler's; and it is the very opposite of death-centered."

I've heard but a few of Bruckner's symphonies performed "live," and in each case the performer was our own fine Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Werner Torkanowsky, as guest conductor a couple of decades back, did the Symphony No. 9. My most vivid memories, however, are of the CSO doing Symphony No. 7 under Jesús López-Cobos. The orchestra played it two times. I listened critically as I edited both performances into a composite for broadcast. I heard the orchestra play it twice more after this, once in Basel, Switzerland and again in Zurich. As Maestro López-Cobos recorded a total of five of Bruckner's nine symphonies for Telarc, I decided he was the one person I knew who could give me some insight into these magnificent creations. We spoke by phone while he was taking a weeklong break in his busy schedule at his apartment in Switzerland. Here's a condensation of our conversation.

GLB: What goes through your mind as you rehearse and conduct Bruckner's symphonies?

JLC: Well, Bruckner is really architectural, so it's a question of balance, and also concentration of course. The most difficult thing is to concentrate, to really establish the form and the architecture of the work, and that is always the most difficult thing because the proportions, the movements, are so big and long that it sometimes it is very difficult to keep the tension and to keep also the flow of the music.

GLB: The performances I heard in Europe were spectacular, and I found myself wishing that a recording could have been made after the tour.

JLC: It was the first Bruckner we did together, and of course on tour everyone does their best. We were playing in many different beautiful halls, which makes also a difference. As I say, it was the first Bruckner we did and we really didn't have the time to "grow up" with the music when we did our first recording, but nevertheless I felt that from the beginning it was easy with this orchestra to play Bruckner.

GLB: Do you think it's important to keep in mind while listening to his music that Bruckner was an accomplished organist from the earliest days of his career? He seems to "play" the orchestra.

JLC: Of course the chords are very much like the organ "sound," and he made these different colors very clear also with the colors of the orchestra; and of course, for him it was very difficult for sure to forget the sound of the organ, the instrument he played all his life, when he orchestrated.

GLB: Do you think his time has come yet, is it just now that we are able to fully appreciate his very original music, or has commercial television made it difficult for audiences to listen to works of grand proportions?

JLC: Yes, and I think even radio stations do not play long symphonies, or they play sometimes one movement only, and this is really terrible because we are losing the capability of young people and children to have the attention span of more than 15 minutes without interruption, and this is important with the music we play…you know, Mahler…you need to be calm and patient to listen to a symphony that lasts 80 minutes sometimes.

GLB: Have you heard the new recording of the Bruckner Symphony No. 9 ("Unfinished") with the documentation of the Finale fragment by Nicholas Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic? And if so, what do you think of his composite of the fourth movement, based on what Bruckner had sketched, fully scored, and so on? (RCA 54332)

JLC: Yes I have heard it and I think it's very interesting, why not? Of course nobody knows what he really intended, like the Mahler tenth symphony. So why not have a little fantasy to think what Bruckner might have done?

GLB: Do you think performing his Te Deum after the three existing complete movements is a good idea, as some have suggested, or is it best to leave it as it is?

JLC: No, I think it's better to leave it without. I think what he wrote is so unbelievably beautiful that it does not need something more.

GLB: When you think of Bruckner as a person, as a human being, what kind of a man do you think he must have been to write what he wrote?

JLC: He was a very spiritual man, that's for sure…it comes out in his music very clearly. He is like those people in the 15th century, the 16th century, building those cathedrals to God, and that's what he did with his music all his life. He wrote very little music outside these nine "cathedrals."

GLB: Do you think they are individual cathedrals, or do you think they collectively make one grand cathedral, like Antonio Gaudi's Cathedral of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) in Barcelona?

JLC: Oh yes, it's like one big one.

GLB: We've spoken of Bruckner's religiousness. How would you compare it to Mahler's world view?

JLC: Well it was completely different, that's all. Mahler was very busy with himself. He put his soul into the center of his life with all his problems, his relationship with nature, in some way a kind of religion too. But with Bruckner it was a completely different world.

GLB: He was a believer, Mahler was a seeker -- he was looking for answers.

JLC: I find always the same reaction. Mahler, everyone wants to hear and play, but not Bruckner. Always with him there are many people who are a little resistant, also in orchestras. I think with Bruckner you love it or you hate it, you know? That's true.

GLB: Tell me about your first time conducting a Bruckner symphony.

JLC: I was very young and it was in Spain. I was always interested in his music and so when I came to Vienna to study, which was the place to listen to Bruckner in the sixties. I went to every performance of a Bruckner symphony and I was so very impressed that I was eager to conduct them myself. So of course my first possibility to do this came when I returned to Spain, because outside of Spain at the beginning of my career it was difficult to convince people that a young Spanish conductor wanted to do Bruckner. But in Spain it was easier for me, returning from studying in Vienna. As a student of Hans Swarowsky who taught Bruckner from the standpoint of the Vienna classics, for me it became a mission to take his music to Spain.

N.B. As a conductor in Hamburg, Berlin, Zurich, Krakow, Graz and Glasgow Swarowsky gave prominent places to the works of the "Vienna School" in his concerts. Among his other students were Claudio Abbado and Zubin Mehta. He was known as an excellent instructor in conducting.

In Spain there had been no performances at all, he was almost completely unknown there until the sixties. The only thing that had been performed was the Symphony No. 4 ("Romantic"). So I was very happy to introduce Bruckner to Spain. For example we did the Symphony No. 8, Symphony No. 9, the Mass in f minor, Symphony No. 7, Symphony No.5... they were all performed there for the first time when I conducted them. I remember my first one was the fourth, and for me it was an amazing experience, because also people were telling me 'maybe in Spain it's not the time,' but for the people, they were very happy to have a chance to experience his music, and I found so many people thanking me, that I was not only happy for myself but for this music. I think the title given the fourth, "Romantic," was what first attracted Spanish audiences.

GLB: So many cuts, "corrections" and tinkering come with Bruckner's symphonies, which editions do you prefer to use?

JLC: I think always when a composer first wrote a piece; this is the most natural. We know he wanted his music to be performed, he was very modest and he knew that his music was not easy, so we don't know if it was necessarily his inner inclination to do the changes and cuts suggested by others. It is a difficult matter always, and that's why I'm always interested in the first edition, in the original. We have four and eight. I think the original is always the most interesting.

GLB: I've heard some musicians express the opinion that Bruckner is boring to play. That they play the same figures over and over again and count measures and count more measures.

JLC: As I said, you either love it or hate it. It can be very tiring to play because you really need a lot of stamina to play this music. But if you really love this music it is an unbelievable experience.

The Essential Bruckner

My first exposure to Bruckner was somewhat backwards in that the first symphony of his that I heard was his last, the Symphony No. 9. It was on a Wergo LP record that is no longer playable. I wore out two LP copies of the 1959 performance with Bruno Walter conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, and loved the Max Rudolf recording of the Symphony No. 7 with the CSO that was on a Decca LP. Happily, the Bruno Walter version of Symphony No. 9 is still available on CD (Sony 92737). The Harnoncourt Surround performance I mentioned earlier is superb. Buy it for the future. SACD players are quite affordable and I'm sure the prices will become even lower in the future.

I recommend all five of the Bruckner symphonies that Maestro López-Cobos recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for Telarc. In the order they are catalogued by Telarc are: Symphony No. 7 in E (Telarc 80188), Symphony No. 4 in E flat major "Romantic" in an original 1874 version (Telarc 80244), Symphony No. 6 in A major (Telarc 80264), Symphony No. 9 in d minor (Telarc 80299), and finally Symphony No. 8 in c minor in an 1890 version edited by Leopold Nowak (Telarc 80343).

For a wonderful budget collection of the complete set of Bruckner symphonies (excluding No."0" and No. "00", which you can find elsewhere and which Bruckner did not wish to be performed), I suggest a Limited Edition boxed set from EMI (73905) with the Dresden Staatskapelle, Eugen Jochum conducting, that was recorded in Dresden's Lukaskirche between 1975 and 1980. Each digitally remastered symphony has its own disc, so you don't have to fool around shuffling CDs to hear one work. I spent one day listening to each disc individually.

I have had an extremely serene two weeks listening to this music. I hope you will try Bruckner out and buy CDs of some of his works. They can provide a wonderful means of centering one's soul in today's turbulent world. But remember, as is the case with Mahler, for Bruckner you must make time.

Many of the recordings mentioned above may be purchased at ArkivMusic.com, where a portion of your purchase can benefit WGUC.

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