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Muti and Vienna Philharmonic perform Bruckner and Richard Strauss

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Bruckner • R Strauss
Bruckner: Symphony No. 2; R Strauss: Der Bürger als Edelmann
Vienna Philharmonic/Riccardo Muti
DG 479 8180

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Riccardo Muti has never been known as a Bruckner specialist. Yet here he is choosing Bruckner to mark his 75th birthday and, still more strikingly, choosing a symphony only the most dedicated specialists have tended to approach. When it first appeared, Symphony No. 2 was nicknamed the ‘Pause Symphony’. Granted, Bruckner is famous for his pauses, but in a less than sympathetic performance this symphony can sound pause-fixated, especially in the finale.

It has to be said that Muti does a remarkably good job of sustaining the momentum. The pacing, the grasp of the continuity that runs through the seeming dislocations, it’s all very well measured. In the end, though, is ‘well measured’ a strong enough recommendation for a symphony which, in the right hands, can also speak of mysteries and profound inner struggle? It’s not that Muti’s performance lacks warmth or atmosphere, but there are moments where I feel he misses something essential. That’s most noticeable in the slow movement’s wonderful coda, where Muti’s somewhat over-literal reading of Bruckner’s accents has an oddly distancing effect.

Two spirits less alike than Bruckner and Richard Strauss are hard to imagine, yet the effect of Muti’s Bürger als Edelmann (The Bourgeois Gentleman) is, ultimately, surprisingly similar. It’s elegant and refined, and beautifully paced – as though Strauss’s bourgeois had succeeded entirely in his goal of becoming a gentleman. But then where’s the comedy – the awkwardness, piquant irony and sly wit? It’s just a bit too comfortable – apart, that is, from the slightly over-intimate recording. Perspective is as important here as in Bruckner.

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Stephen Johnson