Bruckner on Record

Richard Osborne
Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Richard Osborne traces the development across a century of the composer’s music on record, highlighting some of the milestones in sound and style

Anton Bruckner (photo: Tully Potter Collection)
Anton Bruckner (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

The history of Bruckner on record is a most peculiar one; more peculiar, perhaps, than that of any composer who would nowadays be regarded as a master of the mediums in which he chose to work. The reasons for this are many. Some relate to the music itself. ‘What an original and profound spirit,’ Jean Sibelius exclaimed to a friend after being moved to tears by a performance of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony in Berlin in 1914. Yet here was a man, Sibelius added, ‘steeped in religious feeling’, who was writing at a time when such feeling was being dismissed as ‘no longer relevant to our time’.

It is interesting that it was the Fifth which so astounded Sibelius – the other great reformer-symphonist of the post-Beethoven era. Finished in 1876, at the end of Bruckner’s first decade working in the medium, it is the grandest, most formally perfect, and psychologically unencumbered of all his symphonies. Inspired by faith, yet purveyed in sonata-form structures which by their very nature involve conflict and contradiction, it’s an astonishing creation. Ancient rootstock, you might say, planted in fertile Wagnerian soil. It was also an unrepeatable creation, as Bruckner himself discovered during the final nine years of his life when, in declining health and changing times, he failed to finish a second such paean to the glory of God, his monumental Ninth Symphony.

‘Whether it’s from Furtwängler or Abbado, here is something that, in the right hands, can speak profoundly to any age’

Curiously, Bruckner and Sibelius have certain essences in common, yet conductors who command the music of both are a rarity. Of those who have recorded complete cycles only Herbert von Karajan and Herbert Blomstedt come immediately to mind.

If the music itself presented its own particular challenges, the gramophone was a complicating factor. In its earliest years it was ill-equipped to cope with music conceived on so grand a scale. The German wing of the founding dynasty did have one early achievement: a 1924 recording of the Seventh Symphony made acoustically with the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera under Oskar Fried. As a performance, it’s not the historically important reference point Fried’s 1924 recording of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony would prove to be. Indeed, within four years of its release it was a replaced with a technically superior electronic recording by the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwängler’s gifted young assistant, the 30-year-old Jascha Horenstein.

It’s a wonderful performance, luminous and free-moving, which still sounds well today. Nor are the reasons far to seek. The Berlin Philharmonic had spent time with the piece, an important pre-condition where Bruckner is concerned. Wilhelm Furtwängler had programmed it frequently, as had Arthur Nikisch, the man who’d conducted its premiere – Bruckner’s first unqualified public triumph – in Leipzig in 1884. Inexplicably, Horenstein was never taken up by a major record company. This despite being one of the most unfailingly effective of all Bruckner conductors in the years until his death in 1973, as recordings of the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth symphonies eloquently prove.


Unfortunately, Bruckner’s music was a closed book in both Britain and America – the two territories which for the next 25 years would dominate the international record industry. Thanks to German imports, however, a fifth column of Bruckner admirers was slowly assembling. In Britain it was served by Rimington Van Wyck’s outlet near London’s Leicester Square. In fact, it was an article on Polydor imports that occasioned an unofficial review of the Horenstein in the January 1930 edition of The Gramophone. It was by Richard Holt and fired a resounding shot across the bows of philistine Englanders.

‘Anton Bruckner is on trial!’ it began. ‘Here in England. Abroad he has joined the immortals. Some of the critics here do not like him. Whether you who read this will do so can quickly be decided. On Polydor 66802-8 is Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony in E major, perfectly recorded, and if you do not agree with me that this is great music, I shall be tempted to be dogmatic and declare you do not know what music is.’

Holt’s piece continued with a series of well-judged encomia to Bruckner’s art and personality, before ending with a warning. ‘Bruckner’s vocabulary, however, must be studied like a new language, but once you understand it, it is the means to a great musical joy.’

In 1934, American Victor recorded the Seventh Symphony with the 34-year-old Eugene Ormandy in Minneapolis (HMV, 10/36). This drew from The Gramophone an 1800-word ramble by a critic who clearly loathed the music. No mention is made of the Minneapolis performance, nor of Horenstein’s 1928 Polydor set. ‘Bruckner for Tchaikovsky lovers’ is how Edward Greenfield characterised Ormandy’s 1965 Philadelphia remake (CBS, 1/69), which suggests that nothing changed down the years. Holt’s article did, however, draw from the editor Compton Mackenzie the shrewd if rueful reflection, ‘There is no doubt that if people once grow fond of Bruckner, they grow very fond of him’.


Unsurprisingly, Bruckner’s sacred music, the well-spring of his early art, won a readier acceptance. When excerpts from the Te Deum were published by Parlophone on a handy 4s.6d 12-inch disc (6/28), there was shocked delight. ‘Free, daring, individual and modern’ was the reaction, quoting the words of a noted German musicologist. That’s certainly an apt description for the blazing masterpiece that is the E minor Mass, scored for wind band and eight-part mixed chorus. A 1938 recording by Theodor B Rehmann’s celebrated Aachen Cathedral Choir was widely collected (HMV, 11/38). ‘The Mass is the quintessence of Bruckner’s lofty, aspiring thought,’ noted Music and Letters.

Rehmann’s wind players were provided by the city’s young General Music Director, Herbert von Karajan, who himself conducted the Mass at the 1976 Salzburg Whitsun Festival. That said, it was Eugen Jochum who made the decisive breakthrough on record where the sacred music was concerned. It came more than 30 years later in a virtually complete set of Bruckner’s Mass-settings and motets, recorded by the choir and orchestra of Bavarian Radio, of which Jochum was the long-serving conductor (DG, 3/73). The set included what was the first recording by a major label of the D minor Mass, the composer’s first acknowledged masterpiece. ‘I had never heard the Mass before’ wrote Deryck Cooke in Gramophone, ‘and although I realised from the score what a remarkable work it was, this thrilling performance under Jochum proved a shattering revelation.’

Bruckner’s only important chamber work, the 1879 String Quintet, was not so lucky. Despite possessing one of Bruckner’s most memorable slow movements and a wonderfully off-the-wall scherzo which Schoenberg must surely have enjoyed, its first complete recording (Decca, 11/38) was dismissed as containing ‘estimable’ music possessed of ‘extraordinarily little meaning’. The Quintet had to wait until the 1970s for its qualities to be fully realised by the Philharmonic-derived Vienna Philharmonia Quintet (Decca, 9/76).


Karl Böhm’s 1936 recordings of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, with what is now the Staatskapelle Dresden, ushered in a new age of Bruckner performance using newly edited texts by Robert Haas and his assistant Alfred Orel. The project launched in 1932 with Orel’s edition of the unfinished Ninth Symphony, of which Siegmund von Hausegger made a famous recording with the Munich Philharmonic in 1938. (Woefully reviewed by The Gramophone 10 years on, in October 1948. Old habits weren’t changing anytime soon.)

Alas, like many things to do with Austro-German cultural history in this period, the edition was thrown badly off course in 1945 when Haas was dismissed – not on scholarly grounds, but as part of a cleansing of the Augean stable that the Austrian National Library had become under its infamous wartime director Paul Heigl.

The Haas editions had never been, as some latter-day American scholars have frequently claimed, part of the ‘Nazification’ of Bruckner. They were merely the continuation of a process mooted in 1910 by Bruckner’s friend and admirer Gustav Mahler and the renowned publisher and promoter of contemporary music, Universal Edition’s Emil Hertzke (1869-1932).

Attacks on Haas angered the Austrian-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-99), famous for the pioneering series of Bruckner recordings he made for Naxos late in what had been a sadly disrupted career. (The first Jewish boy to be admitted to the Vienna Boys’ Choir, he’d been forced to flee Austria at the time of the Anschluss, eventually ending up in New Zealand.) As he told Richard Whitehouse in January 1999, ‘Although the Nazis exploited Bruckner’s music, it was Haas who insisted on a return to the original scores, eliminating the influence of others where possible’.

Nazi Bruckner-worship was, in fact, a two-edged sword. Listen to Furtwängler’s devastating live 1944 studio performance of the Eighth Symphony (Unicorn, 12/69) and you realise how all-encompassing Bruckner’s vision of God and suffering humanity must have seemed at the time when set alongside the bourgeois niceties of Brahms, or Beethoven’s Enlightenment-fuelled optimism about the brotherhood of man.

Not a lot changed under Haas’s replacement, the 42-year-old Leopold Nowak. There was, however, one potentially far-reaching development, as Karajan later explained. ‘The tempi in the original Bruckner scores are much simpler than they come to seem in some later [Nowak] editions. Bruckner often wants a slight modification of tempo and writes ‘langsamer’. But sometimes people drop the tempo by about 30 per cent! No, it’s much subtler than this – like the Viennese waltz. No one has ever tried to edit a Viennese waltz: all those inflexions of tempo would look terrible on the page.’

Where Haas had, for the most part, printed only those annotations that were in Bruckner’s own hand, Nowak reintroduced some from earlier editors and conductors. As Karajan suggests, you write these things down at your peril, particularly in the case of Bruckner whose use of rhythm is an essential part of the symphony’s architectural fabric.

It was for this reason that Haas’s editions would continue to be preferred by generations of conductors from Karajan himself, through Haitink, Tintner, Blomstedt, Günter Wand, Pierre Boulez, and such distinguished latter-day Brucknerians as Christian Thielemann. Simon Rattle recalls Wand telling the post-Karajan Berlin Philharmonic, with which Wand made several celebrated recordings, that Bruckner’s harmony is Romantic but the rhythms and form are Classical. ‘He was screaming at them not to pull the music apart.’


Jochum was 35 when he recorded the Fifth Symphony for Telefunken in Hamburg in 1938; Karajan was 36 when, astonishingly, he persuaded the head of German Radio to make a studio recording of the then equally rare Eighth Symphony in June and September 1944. (The first movement is lost but the rest – later released on CD by Koch-Schwann – survives, including the remade finale in experimental stereo.) After the war, the Bruckner Gesellschaft invited EMI to record the nine symphonies with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic, an impossible suggestion at that time. And later. The recent Thielemann set is the Vienna Philharmonic’s first complete Bruckner cycle, including an entrancing account of the early F minor Symphony which the orchestra had never previously played. All we had from Karajan at the time was a famously monumental recording of the Eighth Symphony, recorded in Berlin in 1957 (EMI, 11/58).

By the late 1950s, Jochum was the go-to Bruckner conductor. His mid-60s Deutsche Grammophon set of the symphonies was the clear market-leader, though it was already being challenged by a beautifully schooled and recorded Haas-based Philips cycle from Bernard Haitink and the Bruckner-ready Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Jochum was an out-and-out Nowak man, the performances flexible and free-flowing. This was not necessarily an approach that won favour with those who look for a sustained pulse, long lines, and tempi that are neither too lingering nor too fast. Yet, as Gramophone’s Deryck Cooke acknowledged, ‘some of the most devoted Brucknerians I know like his music taken as broadly as possible, with plenty of relaxation and pauses, and the maximum savouring of every change of harmony and every turning-point of structure’.

This explains the substantial following acquired by Sergiu Celibidache, a man who loathed the gramophone but who left behind a rich legacy of Bruckner recordings. Some of the readings are touched with genius by insights that are peculiarly his own. A 1988 Munich Bruckner Fourth, for instance (EMI, 1/99). Yet there can be few collectors whose internal clock can tolerate a performance of the Eighth Symphony that lasts 104 minutes – 87 minutes is stretching it – as does Celibidache’s 1993 Munich account (EMI, 1/99).


In September 1953, The Gramophone Long Playing Record Catalogue listed just two Bruckner discs: Otto Klemperer’s 1951 Vienna Symphony Orchestra recording of the Fourth Symphony (Vox, 11/53) and a Nixa LP (6/53) on which Henk Spruit conducts a pseudonymous orchestra in the early D minor Symphony. Scroll forward to 1963 and you’ll find a single column listing some 40 recordings. Only the Sixth remains unrepresented; the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies, meanwhile, now boast four apiece.

Ten years on and the floodgates have well and truly opened. By the time the Gramophone catalogue ceased publication in 2008, there would be an abundance of versions of the Sixth Symphony and over 60 recordings of the Eighth, a work once considered a terror for conductors. In 1963 there had been just four recordings by three master Brucknerians: Jochum, Karajan and Carl Schuricht. By 2008 there were 65.

The choral works had also flourished, more particularly the E minor Mass – 14 recordings in the 1970s alone – which now came fully into its own in performances by choirs specialising in pre-Classical music: Roger Norrington’s Schütz Choir (Argo, 12/73) and, in later years, Matthew Best’s Corydon Singers (Hyperion, 2/86) and Stephen Layton’s Polyphony (Hyperion, 11/07).


Bruckner collectors are a race apart: knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and determined to acquire anything that might add to their understanding of the man and his music. So these were boom times. One factor was the unending stream of off-air performances that began appearing after the major companies lost monopoly control of the market in the early 1970s. John F Berky’s website is perhaps the best place to get a sense of the sheer immensity of this market. Another factor was the multiplicity of editions Bruckner’s music has thrown up, and continues to do.

A letter in Gramophone in December 1965 set the cat among the pigeons by accusing Deryck Cooke of being casual about the matter. He wasn’t but, as he pointed out in reply, the whole thing’s a minefield. In 1969 he published a digest of current knowledge in four editions of The Musical Times, an invaluable vade mecum reprinted posthumously in a collection of his writings, Vindications (Faber, 1982)

Any reviewer may be frustrated to receive a recording of the Fifth Symphony (a good text, never revised by Bruckner) in Franz Schalk’s private rewrite of 1893. Hans Knappertsbusch used this (Decca, 1/57), as did Lovro von Mata∂ic´ (Supraphon, 7/73) and Leon Botstein (Telarc, 1/99). To which the reply is, ‘get over it’. For Bruckner historians and Bruckner completists it’s an important part of the larger picture.

The tragedy of Knappertsbusch’s addiction to corrupt Schalk/Löwe editions – part of his Eeyore-like determination to be the odd one out – is that he was a born Brucknerian: witness his glorious live 1949 Salzburg Festival performance of the textually unproblematic Seventh Symphony (Music & Arts, 12/95).

The Botstein recording carried a note by new-generation editor Benjamin Korstvedt. Korstvedt later achieved notoriety for republishing the controversial 1888 revision of the Fourth Symphony, the original of which was prepared with much input from Ferdinand Löwe. His essay did, however, offer one important defence. Might not these re-edited and often copiously annotated texts give us insights into performance practice in Bruckner’s time? Perhaps. But this is notoriously difficult territory in which to operate.


To mangle a line from WB Yeats, Bruckner is not a country for young men, though it probably helps to know his music from an early age, as has been the case with, say, Simon Rattle. That was certainly true of Bruno Walter who told The Gramophone that Bruckner’s music made no sense to him until he was 50, after which he wouldn’t live without it. (His late-gathered recordings of the Fourth and Ninth symphonies – CBS 6/61 and 7/62 – are gramophone classics.)

This may well have been the case with Carlo Maria Giulini, as devoted a Catholic as Bruckner himself, who appeared in his early 60s with an unanticipated recording of the Second Symphony (EMI, 12/75) and who concluded his career with accounts of the Eighth and Ninth symphonies which many who heard them, live or on record, count among the most memorable of all their musical experiences. There’s Karajan, of course, with his famous late recordings of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies. And Jochum who ended his career, more or less as he began it, with the Fifth Symphony. His performance, recorded live in Amsterdam on December 4, 1986, would seem to transcend both space and time.

Ever the dark horse, Claudio Abbado, began young with a Vienna Philharmonic recording of the First Symphony (Decca, 1/71) and ended his career, unwittingly or not – probably not – with the Ninth Symphony in concert in Lucerne in 2013 (DG 9/14). This, too, is a performance like no other. As with the music itself, it is both painfully of this world and, at the end, entirely beyond it.

So perhaps Sibelius was wrong. In a secular age, might not Bruckner’s music be more needed than ever? Whether it’s Furtwängler conducting the Eighth Symphony in Vienna in 1944 or Abbado conducting the Ninth Symphony in Lucerne in 2013, here is something that, in the right hands, can speak profoundly to any age. And is that not what, in the final analysis, marks out all the greatest and most enduring works of art?

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue of the world's leading classical music magazine – subscribe today

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