The Great Symphonies -- Anton Bruckner

Jason Quintana's picture
Submitted by Jason Quintana on Mon, 2006-04-24 19:41

Anton Bruckner was a strange figure in late 19th century music.  In stark contrast to the other great composers of his time who were cosmopolitan city dwellers, Bruckner came from a modest small town German background.  His biggest influences were Richard Wagner and Franz Schubert, and while these influences can be detected Bruckner’s symphonic music is so original that one cannot find any close comparisons to it among his contemporaries.   He was a deeply superstitious and religious man and using these inspirations and his immense talent he succeeded in creating grand symphonic cathedrals.  While I don’t share any of Bruckner’s superstitions his sense of grandeur greatly appeals to me.  He was also a virtuoso organist who used the symphony orchestra to create bold organ like sounds. 

Bruckner’s music never gained a wide audience during his own lifetime.  He achieved only brief recognition late in life with his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.  Indeed, it took at least fifty years for his music to become common in concert halls around the world.  Part of this is due to the fact that Bruckner made several poor revisions to his own works.  He even got talked into allowing other people to edit his symphonies to create “performance versions” that these “friends” believed would be more acceptable to the public.  It is these sub par edited versions that were commonly performed for many years after his death.  As better, more true to the original editions became the standard his music soared in popularity.  In the last 30-40 years there has been a glut of new recordings of the Bruckner symphonies.  Many of them are mediocre, some of them are decent and a few of them are outstanding.  Here are the recordings that I think are the best, starting with Symphony #3.

Symphony #3

Tintner / Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos)  If it weren’t for Tintner’s illuminating recording of the Third I probably would not include this piece in my survey of the great symphonies. 

Symphony #4

Wand / Berlin Philharmonic (RCA) If you are new to Bruckner remember the name Gunter Wand and you will always find great recordings.  The playing of the Berliners and the almost orgasmic final passages cement this as the legendary recording of the Fourth.  For those interested in experiencing Bruckner for the first time the Fourth is a good starting point.

Bohm / Vienna Philharmonic (Decca) Stodgy old German conductors always seem to know how to play Bruckner.

Symphony #5

Wand / Berlin Philharmonic (RCA) Just like the previously mentioned recording of the Fourth, this one is unsurpassed.  The 5th is the third greatest Bruckner symphony. (Audio Clip Attached)

Jochum / Concertgebouw (Phillips) Another of the great Bruckner conductors was Eugene Jochum.  I prefer this recording of the Fifth to any of his other recordings of the Bruckner Symphonies.

Symphony #6

Unfortunately my favorite recording of the Sixth seems to be out of the catalogue.  If you find Skrowaczewski's recording of the Sixth on Arte Nova anywhere buy it.  It is the best version of this piece.   Likewise with his recording of the Ninth on Reference Recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra which is also missing on Amazon.

Klemperer / Philharmonia (EMI) This one is usually considered to be the standard Bruckner 6 and I agree that it is good, just not as good as Skrowaczewski.

Tintner / New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Naxos) This pick might be a bit of a stretch – in fact there are a few very obvious orchestral flubs -- but it is rare that one gets an opportunity to mention the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  And it is a decent recording lead by a top flight Brucknerian.

Symphony #7

Karajan / Berlin Philharmonic (EMI) Buy this instead of the newer Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic.   

Wand / Berlin Philharmonic (RCA)  An extremely close second place.

Symphony #8

Karajan / Vienna Philharmonic (DG) Outstanding.  Ignore the anti-Karajan trolls on Amazon.  They are the same types who give Atlas Shugged one star over and over again with different login names.  The Eighth happens to be Bruckner’s most outstanding symphony, and this is the best recording of it.

Boulez / Vienna Philharmonic (DG) That French asshole Boulez conducting Bruckner?  Yes. Close second place.  Beats out Wand and Furtwangler.  Excellent sound.

Symphony #9 (This was an unfinished work.  Some attempts at reconstructing a fourth movement have recently been recorded.   My recommended versions all end with the great adagio third movement.)

Wand / Berlin Philharmonic (RCA) Another legendary Wand recording.  Recently reissued at $12.  Bruckner’s second greatest symphony.

Tintner / Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Naxos) Tintner takes a smaller scale approach to this work and the result is fantastic.

Furtwangler / Berlin Philharmonic 1944 mono (Classica D'oro)  Legendary NAZI radio broadcast.

Next week : The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler

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Iain, I think I know what

Jason Quintana's picture

Iain, I think I know what you are referring to. There is a moment in the 3rd movement of Bruckner's 9th with about 30% to go till the end where you have this eruption of intensity, and then a sudden calm. The wood winds chime in for several bars and then you have one of the most sublime string entrances in all of music. It resembles the sound world of the Tallis Fantasia (a lot of Bruckner probably does), but the effect is much more grand and cosmic (Godly) given everything that has led up to it.

Bruckner and Ralph Vaughn Williams

Iain Benson's picture

Some years ago a great fuss was made when an English school-girl (preparing for A Levels as I recall) noted a striking similarity between Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" and Mozart's "Requiem".

Has anyone come across a startling similarity being noted between a passage in Vaughn Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" and Bruckner's 9th Symphony?

It is there for sure.

Just curious.


Iain Benson (this is my maiden post on this site so be kind).

Bruckner related tidbit

Pete L's picture

Daniel Barenboim is stepping down as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after 15 years at the helm. He's doing a three night farewell concert stint in June featuring Bruckner 9 on the penultimate evening. Beethoven 9 will be his final piece.

Jeff- Thanks for the

Jody Gomez's picture

Thanks for the thoughtful response and good advice. I'm giving classical radio a try. Figure I'll fish for the composers I like and then start buying some music. I suppose I could also spend more time with live performances. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra here doesn't seem to shabby.

This is a vivid and

John M Newnham's picture

This is a vivid and beautiful post.

"Listen to classical radio

Jason Quintana's picture

"Listen to classical radio (in which category I include satellite radio and the classical channel your home cable system may provide). Put it on whenever you're in your car, whenever you're working, whenever you can have music on in the background. When you hear something you like, make a note of what it was and get a recording."

This is an excellent suggestion. I couldn't count the number of times that I have heard something new on the local classical station, made note of it and purchased a recording later on. "Classical music" is such a massive genre that most people find a small niche that they initially prefer and then branch off from there. The "great symphonies" I'm listing here are only the tip of the iceberg.

- Jason

Developing an Ear for Music

jriggenbach's picture

Jody -

You write:

"I wish I could develop an ear for music. Can it be done? And if so, where do I start? Study musical theory and listen?"

I don't think musical theory would do you much good at this point. What would be more helpful is a brief survey of musical history. If you understand the development of Western music over the past thousand years, the principal periods, the principal styles, etc., you'll have a leg up.

More important, I think, is to expose yourself to as many different kinds of "classical music" as you can. Jason's suggestions of Beethoven and Dvorak would be fine for many beginners, but they won't work for all. Everyone will respond differently to the same works. When I was a teenager and first became interested in "classical music," Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakoff and Gershwin turned me on the most. Today I'd say my top five composers are Bach, Mahler, Nielsen, Sibelius, and Debussy (with Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Korngold, Vaughn Williams, and either Bruckner or Bax in close pursuit). Few works by Beethoven have ever swept me away as the music of these men has done. Until, very recently, when I began listening to his chamber music, only one work by Dvorak came anywhere close. But I'm as passionate a devotee of "classical music" as you'll find anywhere. I own hundreds of classical CDs. I'm a regular concertgoer. I've worked as a producer and program host on classical radio stations in three major markets in the United States -- Houston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. I've taught music appreciation at an art college. It's just that the music of Beethoven and Dvorak is not my music. It may not be yours, either.

Listen to classical radio (in which category I include satellite radio and the classical channel your home cable system may provide). Put it on whenever you're in your car, whenever you're working, whenever you can have music on in the background. When you hear something you like, make a note of what it was and get a recording. In the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I pursued this policy and profited by it handsomely. I still recall the first time I heard Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony -- where I was driving, and where I was when I pulled over so I could listen undistracted to the third movement, the most gorgeous thing I had ever heard up to that time. I still recall the evening I drove over to pick up my girlfriend and wound up sitting transfixed for ten minutes in her driveway, listening to an astonishing work I hadn't even known existed -- the Chacconne from Bach's magnificent Partita #2 for Unaccompanied Violin. I can still feel the chill running up and down my spine at this momentous discovery. I still recall my first hearing of Rheinhold Gliere's Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra, which turned me on to the music of one of the least recognized but most listenable of all Romantic composers.

A good classical station will eventually play almost everything there is available in recorded form. The only exception is the wonderful symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, because of their enormous length. Those you might just have to buy unheard and take your chances as to whether you'll connect with them.


All you need to do is listen

Jason Quintana's picture

All you need to do is listen Jody... Like reading a serious book, it takes some mental effort. Most people are used to thinking of music as a background thing. Great music requires active thinking and integration in order to grasp it.

Solo piano music might be a good start. Maybe some Chopin. For symphonies, the music of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak are good starts. The first, because you are already semi familiar with some of it, and the second two because they provide an extroverted approach and easily graspable melodies.

I'm sure others could make good recommendations as well.

- Jason

My ear has always been for

Jody Gomez's picture

My ear has always been for lyrics. I wish I could develop an ear for music. Can it be done? And if so, where do I start? Study musical theory and listen? Any suggested readings and listenings?

Bruckner & Colin Wilson

jriggenbach's picture

On an earlier musical thread on Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, Robert Malcolm wrote that it was "Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone which brought me into Bruckner in the first place."

Me, too. I read the novel back in 1973 or thereabouts and bought some Bruckner to experience what I'd been reading about. Wilson's volume of music criticism, Chords & Discords, is also worth a visit. I don't always agree with Wilson about music, but he's very good at writing about it.


veering off-topic for a bit....

Chris Cathcart's picture

At the moment, I'm listening to R. Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra for about the third or fourth time through (ever) beyond the famous opening, after just checking it out from a local-government-run brick-and-mortar-and-taxpayer-blood information repository. ANYHEW... I bring this up because unlike very aesthetically harmonious on-topic endeavors, I find much of this, and certain other music not especially to my liking (I don't think I'd single out Bruckner per se, but I'd say someone like Mahler . . . sorry, Jason, ain't my cup of tea at this point), what I would term . . . cacophonous. Very, you know, 20th-century in style. I say 'cacophonous' because I could see similar-seeming notions like 'dissonance' and 'atonality' being exemplified in ways that smoothly express a harmony of elements. The logic of 'cacophony' seems specifically directed towards expression of disharmony, which the author may regard as having an artistic purpose. The expression of some kind of unpleasantness, some sourness, that occurs in life.

Dunno about y'all, but that's just not something I value much in my music. It could be the most well-constructed, well-orchestrated stuff in the world . . . and still sound like shit to my ears.

Uh-h-h..I missed something.

Rowlf's picture

~~ Did someone mention LESBIANS?

~~ Oh, man; I gotta go read all the previous (no offense) trivia?


Lesbian Amendment ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... would indeed be vetoed if spelled with two 'm's.* And as the butchest lesbian here, I can't imagine why an amendment would be necessary. We have an esteemed poster named Dildo, Rosina Elliot's very impressive male impersonation routine, and Robert Malcolm's naked torso which would be enough to turn *anyone* lesbian.

* Edited to add—a reference to Jase-Bitch's original spelling which got corrected before you could say "dyke."

Lesbians in the Credo

Jason Quintana's picture

Hmmmm... I think that has to do with the site founder's personal preferences, which I think strongly differ from ours in regard to lesbians Smiling So becuase of this, any efforts on my part to push through a "lesbian" amendment would probably be vetoed.

- Jason


Chris Cathcart's picture

Historically speaking, perhaps "only on SOLO" has this phenomenon re: Bruckner ever occurred before. That being said, I don't recall there being a thread devoted to Bruckner on HPO. However, music threads on HPO do tend inivitably to veer back on-topic.


Chris Cathcart's picture

I merely bring up the topic of lezbos to point out, just for the record, that there are NOT lezbo scenes in the movie. Perhaps I should add a standard disclaimer to my movie recommendations: an endorsement by me does not imply the presence of lezbo scenes in the movie.

BTW, in my futile search for a guide to generating desired emoticons here at SOLO, I came across the SOLO Credo. Amongst the statements of the credo, I noticed the conspicuous ABSENCE of the phrase, "Lesbians, Lesbians, Lesbians!" Perhaps site management will work to correct this oversight.


Jason Quintana's picture

Only on SOLO would lesbians be mentioned in a thread about Anton Bruckner! Thank you for reminding me about this movie. This is something that I've been meaning to get my hands on.

- Jason


Jason Quintana's picture

"I've never paid Bruckner any heed, having somehow formed the impression well described by someone on a previous thread—that he had impressive four-minute bursts every so often, & the rest was meandering."

Lindsay, this is a very common complaint about Bruckner -- and in a few cases it is true and cannot be remedied. But a lot of the problem has to do with particular performances. Bruckner doesn't follow any normal symphonic forms. His movements contain a series of starts and stops. A conductor and orchestra that does not know how to blend the movements together into a unified whole ends up creating a long, aimless, exciting-at-times-but-amounts-to-nothing bore fest.

These are very long pieces of music and it is hard to grasp even the better recordings if you are listening to a symphony for the first time. Listening to the Bruckner Symphonies a movement at a time, or as background music for a while is a good strategy. Much like good, complex intellectual books the great symphonies are only fully grasped after going through them multiple times.

- Jason

Jeff R

Jason Quintana's picture

Jeff, I recall owning a Dohnanyi Bruckner 5 which I thought was very good (in fact, it should be around here somewhere..) so I'm sure him and that excellent Cleveland Orchestra did a great job with the 9th.

I have never listened to Barenboim's Bruckner. He also recorded a newer cycle (in the late 90s I think) with the Berlin Philharmonic and I've heard some good things about it. I am not familar with the Ormandy Bruckner either. Next time I'm in the mood for MORE Bruckner recordings I'll check these out.

- Jason

"Furtwangler / Berlin

Chris Cathcart's picture

"Furtwangler / Berlin Philharmonic 1944 mono (Classica D'oro) Legendary NAZI radio broadcast."

For those seeking movie connections, check out Taking Sides starring Stellan Skarsgaard as Wilhelm Furtwangler, and Harvey Keitel as the interrogator figure who's out to nail WF for his alleged Nazi connections. (I caught this one on a Keitel viewing binge.) At one point, Keitel's character takes out a record of Bruckner 7 and plays the adagio. He asks WF to identify the piece and conductor (and in what doesn't fail to impress me, WF can identify that it's himself conducting, based on the first few seconds), and then much is made of the fact that it's from a Nazi radio broadcast played to commemorate some major event, and that they choose a WF recording over any other conductor's (including "Little K").

(Obligatory mention: Sorry, no lezbo scenes in this one. Might I recommend Gia with Angelina Jolie to make up for this shortcoming?)


Lindsay Perigo's picture

I've never paid Bruckner any heed, having somehow formed the impression well described by someone on a previous thread—that he had impressive four-minute bursts every so often, & the rest was meandering. Looks as though I'd better educate myself! Smiling

Thanks for the effort you're putting in with these, Jase.


How About Ormandy, Barenboim, and Dohnanyi?

jriggenbach's picture

There used to be a recording of the Seventh by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on RCA. I had the LP, but as far as I know it's never been reissued on CD. This is the only performance I've ever heard in which the strings and brass are sufficiently defined with respect to each other that, especially in the concluding bars of the last movement, the listener can clearly hear both lines at once. The result is exhilirating.

I used to favor Ormandy's recording of the Fourth too, back in the LP days, but I ultimately came to prefer Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony on DGG.

As to the Ninth, I've long listened to a recording made by Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra.

I look forward to the Wand and Karajan recordings, which I've never heard before.


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