Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 (1866 version)

Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann (C Major; DVD)

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Bruckner Symphony No. 1 (1866 version) (DVD)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
C Major DVD: 744608; Blu-ray: 744704 58 mins

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What Bruckner called his First Symphony was by no means his first effort in the genre – he was as nervous of producing a symphony as his nemesis Brahms, both of them waiting until middle age until finally publishing one. Bruckner described his First as ‘kühn und keck’ (bold and cheeky – translated in the booklet as ‘pertinent’), and still couldn’t leave it alone, returning many years later to revise it. This Blu-ray gives us an account of the Linz version, that is the first dating from 1866, incorporating the latest Bruckner research. It is an extraordinary work, weird and lovable, an especial favourite of Abbado’s; he recorded it twice. Bruckner tends to be associated with solemnity and thus with slow tempos, and of course he is incomparable when he is solemn. There are already places in this symphony, the slow movement in particular, where he shows himself in grave mood, but a great deal of the work – the driving, driven scherzo, for instance, with its tiny trio – is a foretaste of the terrifying scherzos he produced over the next 20 years.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is, as always, a wonder to hear and to behold. Whether they are conducted in this work to its maximum advantage is another matter. Christian Thielemann conducts without a score – a bold step in such a rare work; and though the assembled audience goes wild at the end, he seems to me to be too intent on pushing the work towards a status which it doesn’t have or even try to have. I’m not sure that he is very happy with cheekiness, and certainly his expression and his posture suggest a monolithic approach which, marvellous as the sonic results are, seems to me not entirely in the spirit of this work. Even so, many viewers will find it splendid.

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Michael Tanner