LABELS: RCA Red Seal
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6; Symphony No. 8; Symphony No. 9
PERFORMER: Cologne RSO/Günter Wand
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 63930 2 Reissue (1974-81) ADD
Last August at the Proms a frail old man was helped on to the podium in the Royal Albert Hall to the sort of roof-raising roar most conductors would pay to have at the end of a Prom, never mind the beginning. And the standing ovation that followed Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony was louder still; Günter Wand was 89 years old, but there was nothing frail about his vision of Bruckner’s heavenly breadth, and his command of the orchestra was absolute.
Since the conductor’s death in February, RCA has lost no time in preparing its Günter Wand Edition, and the Bruckner box is the heart of it. But on paper at least it looks like a complicated commitment; Wand recorded some of the symphonies as many as four times, and all the versions are currently available – most recently he’d been recording the biggest Bruckner works live with the Berlin Philharmonic, a truly mouth-watering prospect. So how can the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra hope to live alongside one of the world’s great Bruckner orchestras?
More easily than you might expect. Wand after all was one of the greatest living exponents of Bruckner, and he insisted on at least 20 hours of rehearsal for each concert – which often only radio orchestras could afford to give him. The Berlin Philharmonic, meanwhile, has its own Bruckner tradition, and a mass and inertia that make guiding it through these huge edifices a monumental task. At best (in the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth) the Berlin/Wand partnership is awesome; elsewhere it could be puzzling, even unsettling (Fifth).
The first three symphonies from the Cologne series are as good as any in the catalogue, and better than most. But to be honest, nobody really starts focusing until we get to the Fourth – the Romantic Symphony. Wand, by the way, had no time for the nickname, and he insisted on treating it as a big Classical symphony, played simply. Compared to the luxury competition, the Cologne orchestra sounds lithe and lean, and it’s very effective. More so than in the Fifth, where the effect is less successful (one hesitates to say ‘prosaic’ about any of Wand’s Bruckner recordings). The Sixth Symphony also suffers in comparison with the best of the competition – it’s the one disc in the set where the interpretation is let down by the playing, where you’re reminded that this isn’t the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics rather too often for comfort.
In the Seventh Symphony things improve, but again this isn’t a reading you’d recommend as a top purchase on its own. The Eighth and Ninth, though, are truly special, and Wand’s vision of the lofty heights and timeless vistas of these colossal works is second to none.
If you’re looking for a first set of Bruckner symphonies, then Wand’s authority is unquestionable, and there’s a huge amount to marvel at in this set. But only you can decide whether at mid-price it’s preferable to Georg Tintner’s Bruckner in a Naxos White Box, or Skrowaczewski’s on Arte Nova – both substantially cheaper (and both including Bruckner ‘0’ and ‘00’ for completists). But if you were touched by Wand’s live performances, this box makes a moving testament to the last great Brucknerian of his generation.