This is a wonderful CD. Claudio Abbado has had a long love affair with this Symphony, and it shows. When he was young and barely known, in 1970, Decca/London released a performance of the Bruckner First with the Vienna Philharmonic which put the Symphony in LP bins on its own for the first time. Even for most Bruckner lovers of that day, the early symphoniesRead more tended to be off the grid, so Abbado’s advocacy made listeners sit up and notice the piece. Even so, one could argue that it was not until Eugen Jochum’s benchmark recording with the Berlin Philharmonic that the work really found itself in the repertory. I listened to the Jochum again with this review in mind. It is every bit as good as its reputation and the sound remarkably modern. Jochum was a romantic conductor (in large works sometimes seemingly disorganized) but had the special gift of finding little heartfelt moments in Bruckner. His performance in this Symphony is direct and utterly right. That said, here comes its rival!
Something wonderful is happening in the world of recorded sound, I thought, as I listened to the richness and appeal of this electrifying reading. Engineers have managed to give the listener Bruckner’s full brass power without even a hint of that “metallic ball bearing of sound” you often find stuck between your speakers in Bruckner. I expect the many microphones used in 7.1 sound reproduction are now finding their sweet spots, and we are the beneficiaries of ever more natural sounding recordings. Abbado re-recorded the Bruckner First with the Vienna Philharmonic for DGG during his Berlin Philharmonic years, a fine reading, but the sound now stands out as dated with a bit of that metallic grit.
This performance, I should warn the reader, is of the late 1891 revision, the “Vienna” version. Almost nothing important changes from the usual “Linz” edition, except for the removal, rescoring, or smoothing out of some fairly awkward passages. But I do have one regret about it. The dramatic material leading up to the Finale’s recapitulation has been defanged. In the “Linz” version, it is as if the chords chasing you have overshot their target. The orchestra turns around to face you; it ticks like a menacing clock and slowly comes back to get you with ever increasing force and ever louder cycling timpani, until you are completely run over and flattened. Here, the timpani have largely been removed, the clock does not tick, and we get a passage more in keeping with the long line and smoothness of the later Bruckner symphonies.
With that small exception, though, this is the performance to have. It jumps off the page with remarkable beauty and power. The winds are idiomatic and characterful, the strings carry real depth, and the brass are flawless. So, astonishingly for Bruckner, every sound the orchestra makes comes across as gorgeous.