Monday, August 27, 2012

Jaap van Zweden’s Bruckner: The 4th, 7th, and 9th Symphonies with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic

Bruckner, Symphony No. 4
Jaap van Zweden
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Exton OVCL–00248 (CD-SACD hybrid)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 7
Jaap van Zweden
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Exton OVCL–00255 (CD-SACD hybrid)

Bruckner, Symphony No. 9
Jaap van Zweden
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic
Exton OVCL–00276 (CD-SACD hybrid)

After enjoying Jaap van Zweden’s fine performance of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with the Dallas Symphony at Myerson Hall earlier this year I was excited to get hold of these Japanese imports from the little known Exton label. All three discs are hybrid CD-SACDs of studio recordings made at Hilversum in the Netherlands and then mixed and mastered in Japan. The Netherlands Radio Symphony, usually overshadowed by its near neighbour the Concertgebouw, reveals itself to be a fine Bruckner orchestra, and the two of the three discs, the 4th and the 7th, confirmed my initial impression of van Zweden as a superb Brucknerian. The 9th is a more workmanlike performance, but with some fine moments.

Van Zweden plays the 1880 version of the 4th Symphony, which to my mind is completely misrepresented by Bruckner’s own program notes with their references to medieval towns, gates opening, knights on proud horses, and so on. What emerges so nicely from this performance is the sense of mystery that permeates the first two movements. The chamber-music like sections in the first movement are brought out with fine woodwind playing and a very well-judged dialog across the orchestra. The dialog continues in the Adagio, which is played with grace and delicacy, even in the funeral march, which on occasion comes close to breaking into a dance. In the Scherzo mystery is replaced by drive and momentum, with some brief interludes in the Trio. There is no question about the destination – the horn calls at the start of the Finale. The overwhelming impression from the Finale is self-assurance, with the bucolic moments lacking the fragility of their Mahlerian counterparts. All in all, a very satisfying performance.

In the 7th Symphony, van Zweden succeeds in bringing out the organic unity of the score. For example, the cantabile section at more or less the midpoint of the movement is perfectly paced, leading up to the force of the C minor section. The inner logic of the movement emerges very clearly, and the closing bars of the first movement have a real sense of inevitability about them. The overall architecture is also dominant in the Adagio, although here van Zweden allows a greater degree of dynamic contrast (e.g. in the transition to the second thematic group and then back to the first group – as well as in the reintroduction of the main theme at the start of the great crescendo). The resplendent climax, with full percussion, gives way to a well-paced and clearly articulated coda. The Scherzo seems to lack edge initially, but grows more urgent after the Trio. Conductor and orchestra bring out the structural and thematic complexity of the final movement, in a fine end to another very strong and recommended performance.

The 9th Symphony, however, was rather less satisfying. I found that the performance of the opening movement failed to bring out its large-scale structure, with the climax in the coda seeming rather disconnected from what has gone before. The Scherzo and Trio are more four-square than demonic, obscuring the symphony’s inner momentum. The Adagio is much more compelling, however, as van Zweden offers a much clearer sense of the different elements of Bruckner’s very complex composition (e.g. the return of the first theme at around 8’40” and the return of the chorale at 17’). Where the first movement seems to meander, here there is much more of a sense of graduate progression, building to the magnificently dissonant climax. The conflict and dissonance dissolve in the coda. But, despite the merits of the Adagio, the performance as a whole fails to convince.

From the point of view of the US purchaser, these are very expensive discs (with the 9th retailing at $45 on Amazon). I would recommend the 4th and the 7th for enthusiasts with fairly deep pockets. All but completists can pass on the 9th.