Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig present us here with what is easily the most memorable classical box set of 2012 and, possibly, the most important addition to the Bruckner discography in a generation.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Of the nineteenth century’s great symphonists, perhaps the most unexpected was Anton Bruckner. Bruckner, a humble, provincial Austrian, was known in his lifetime as much for his social awkwardness and compositional insecurity as for his devout Christian faith and his abilities as one of the era’s greatest organists. And yet, between 1864 and his death in 1896, he wrote and copiously revised eight numbered symphonies and left an incomplete, monumental Ninth. The Bruckner symphonies stand as some of the most beautiful, mystical, idiosyncratic, and just plain weird entries in the genre, and, though some of them turn up on concert programs more often than others, the complete set has received the attention of a relatively small number of conductors. One of those conductors is Herbert Blomstedt, who celebrated his 85th birthday this past July; in celebration of that milestone, the Querstand label has released Blomstedt’s first complete Bruckner cycle, recorded during live concerts given with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig between 2005 and 2011.
Eighty-five years is a long time to wait for any symphony cycle, but in this case, it was worth every second. Blomstedt’s Bruckner is ultimately heroic, but it also takes the music’s quirks—the odd phrases, the rhythmic dissonance, the striking instrumental combinations—seriously. The result, which is played to the hilt here by an orchestra that’s clearly inspired by their conductor, is bracingly fresh and modern.
The Bruckner of these recordings is boldly visionary, foreshadowing Reger and Schoenberg in his slippery chromaticism, as well as the mystical Mahler in his Ninth Symphony. The metaphorical light shines through in this set to at least the dawn of musical Minimalism and the great symphonic film scores of the late-twentieth century: listen to Blomstedt’s spellbinding account of the Sixth with its striding, modal-ish opening movement followed by one of the most sensuous slow movements any Romantic ever penned. These symphonies have something to tell us yet, Blomstedt seems to be saying, and in his hands, their messages come across with vigor and confidence.
As a Bruckner conductor, Blomstedt takes the long view: there is a pacing to these readings that is remarkably clear not just in terms of their tempos but also in the enunciation of structural markers. The stately character of some of these performances can be breathtaking (as in the well-known Symphonies nos. 4 and 7) and makes for compelling interpretations of this repertoire.
The recording’s SACD format, with its high level of clarity and detail, is ideal for Blomstedt’s approach, as the resonance of the Gewandhausorchester’s playing adds immensely to the listening experience. There’s a practical benefit, too: though Bruckner’s orchestrations tend to utilize blocks of orchestral families, his writing is fundamentally contrapuntal, and, in this particular set, the linear aspect is thrillingly present.
As with any cycle of nine symphonies, certain individual contributions stand out more than others. Blomstedt’s take on the First, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies are easily among the top tier of performances on record. So, too—perhaps—is the massive Eighth (drawn from a live recording of Blomstedt’s final concert as Gewandhausorchester Kapellmeister in 2005), though to be fair that’s the one Bruckner symphony that has remained a closed book to me, and this recording hasn’t yet altered that perception. The massive Fifth is done in a bit by Blomstedt’s relaxed tempi. While there’s something mesmerizing about listening to the work’s large musical structure sustained at a slower pace, my preference for Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s majestic reading of this piece with the Vienna Philharmonic on RCA still stands. But such personal quibbles are to be expected from individual listeners, and they don’t detract from the significant overall achievement represented in this set: there is a remarkable consistency to each performance, and the orchestral playing is never short of glorious.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Denk, in his fearless disc of Beethoven and Ligeti, gave us what I called “perhaps the most important classical recording of 2012.” Well, Blomstedt and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig present us here with what is easily the most memorable classical box set of 2012 and, possibly, the most important addition to the Bruckner discography in a generation. Now well into his ninth decade, there is nothing in here to suggest Herbert Blomstedt is a man slowing down; if anything, he’s at the height of his powers, and this Bruckner cycle is a marvelous testament to that fact and a worthy celebration of his first 85 years.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.