Revisiting (and Reveling In) Karajan’s Bruckner

Albert ImperatoMon 15th March 2010
Herbert von Karajan's DG Bruckner cycleHerbert von Karajan's DG Bruckner cycle

HvK's finest recorded achievement?

A few weeks ago, one of the first Bruckner recordings I ever owned on CD, Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic performing the Seventh Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon), stopped playing. During the finale, the CD started making some strange clicking noises, and then it suddenly stopped. It wouldn’t play on my computer either. The disc had died. Bummer.

My attachment to this recording being what it was, I sought a replacement, but the only way to buy the recording on CD was to buy a reissued box that DG had put out in their Karajan Symphonies edition.  I ordered it from Amazon, and while I missed the artwork that graced the original series (the snow-covered angel wings, with each cover in a slightly different shade of blue/green), having the complete cycle in a convenient boxed set initiated a bout of intensive Bruckner listening I hadn’t done since my late twenties (egads, that was 20 years ago!).

My penchant for large symphonic works, especially of the mystical variety, was especially strong after I first discovered classical music in college, but in all of my years enjoying Bruckner’s music I only met a friend or two who really liked it. So it was with particular joy last night, when I played Karajan’s Bruckner Sixth, to hear my partner Brian yell enthusiastically from upstairs (we were at our place in the country, and I was downstairs blasting the disc away in our living room), “Wow, this is really fantastic. What a sound! He has one good idea after the next – amazing!”

I can’t recall the last time I heard a music-lover credit Bruckner with great ideas, but one of the things I love about Brian is that he listens with very unprejudiced ears, and despite his serious training in music, he doesn’t ever coolly dissect music of any kind when he hears it. I love listening to music with him.

As the Sixth unfolded I wondered if the fabulous sound I was hearing was because of a remastering of the disc that DG had done, or if my new stereo system was simply revealing beauties in this recording that I had never heard before. The finale of this symphony isn’t Bruckner’s strongest – yes, even a Bruckner lover must concede that his finales are somewhat weak by comparison with his other movements – but on the whole the entire work has a sweeping, cinematic quality to it – think medieval romance and adventure story – that I can’t resist.

Having listened to this boxed set now over the past couple of weeks, I’m convinced that Karajan’s Bruckner cycle for DG remains one of his finest achievements. While I can understand and appreciate a host of different interpretative approaches to Bruckner, Karajan’s way with the music couldn’t be clearer: For him, sumptuous, majestic sound is an absolutely essential element to a great Bruckner performance. And throughout Karajan’s cycle, Bruckner’s writing for strings and brass is revealed in all its ravishing splendor. Sure, other conductors have brought out more of the rustic grit of these works, but few can rival him for conveying their awesome power and mystery. Over and over again, as I listened anew, the gleaming BPO brass shone out with a transfiguring fire. Where other conductors are often undone by Bruckner’s tempi changes and abrupt transitions, Karajan presents each entire symphony in a single musical line, as though they have been cut from a single, shimmering cloth.  

One thing that really amazed me in my Bruckner listening adventure over the past few weeks is all of the symphonies and not just the famous ones (such as numbers four, seven and eight) impressed me. The scherzos of the first two symphonies conjure up Schubert on some kind of drug (opium-laced incense perhaps?). How many other symphonies in the entire literature have a more brilliant coda than that which appears in the first movement of the Sixth? The celestial adagios of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are unquestionably towering masterpieces, but the slow movements of the Third, Fourth, Fifth and especially the Ninth are also utterly magnificent.

It’s now a wind and rain-swept Saturday night, and we’re three quarters of the way through tall Plymouth gin martinis and three quarters of the way through Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony. I remember all of the descriptions of this work, particularly “A Cathedral in Sound,” but what comes to mind for me right now is the burning conviction of the performance:  at once reverential, monumental and transcendent. And, of course, it’s all more than a little strange! Right now, the brass chorales of the final movement are ringing out gloriously and Karajan could just as well be conducting the Mount Olympus Orchestra, as the sound the BPO is emitting is truly divine.

Bruckner’s works may never be popular, but in a way, I’m glad that’s the case. Somehow, their inaccessibility to some people only heightens their mystical appeal to me.

Note to readers:  if you have a favorite Bruckner recording that you feel is absolutely essential listening, please do mention it in a comment.  I’ve got a solid collection, but I’m always open for new discoveries.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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