Monday, August 25, 2014

Karajan and Abbado recordings of Bruckner 9

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 9

Vienna Philharmonic
Herbert von Karajan
May 27 1962
Archipel Desert Island Collection  (ARPCD 0546)
(This disc also includes Bruckner’s Te Deum, from the same concert)

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado
August 21-26 2013
Deutsche Grammophon 4793441

Separated by just over 50 years, this pair of live recordings of Bruckner’s last symphony present a number of interesting contrasts. Herbert von Karajan’s performance from May 27 1962 is the first of his 12 recordings of the symphony. Claudio Abbado’s performance, recorded over a span of 5 days in August 2013, was his final ever recording before his sad death in January of this year. So we have two great Brucknerians, one at the very end of his career and the other at the beginning (at least of his recorded legacy). 
It would be hard to imagine two more different approaches. The timings tell the tale. Both conductors use the 1951 Nowak edition. Karajan comes in at a very brisk 53’45”. Abbado is much more expansive at 62’30”. Scanning John Berky’s Bruckner discography turns up very few recordings quicker than von Karajan (one of them being a justly celebrated Barbirolli live performance from 1966 with the Hallé Orchestra). Abbado’s timing is more mainstream.

Von Karajan attacks the first movement with great urgency and maintains momentum throughout. It is a very exciting performance, but not one that fully observes the Feierlich misterioso guidance – there is not much solemnity in the movement and the mystery really only comes in the coda. The second movement is much more in line with Bruckner’s concept, bringing out the menacing rhythms of the scherzo and trio. The third movement adagio is where it really all comes together. Karajan allows the lyrical dimensions of the movement to emerge in ways that he didn’t in the first movement. Here it really is Feierlich, building up to a very powerful climax and dissolving in the coda. 

A key to Abbado’s very contrasting interpretation comes in a remark from his assistant Gustavo Gimeno quoted in the booklet: “He conducted with broad, slow movements, with a long musical line, trying to create a form in which the musical discourse could develop. Slow, but flowing”. The great strength of Abbado’s conducting is his success in combining rhythmic urgency with expansiveness and an extraordinary clarity. There is a price to pay, though. The edge is taken off some of the more climactic and dissonant sections – certainly in the first movement and to a lesser extent in the scherzo. The Adagio is magnificent, however. The dissonant climax does not disappoint and the performance lives up to Simpson’s description of the movement – “though not his most perfect, it is his most profound”.

The sound quality is excellent on the Abbado and more than acceptable on the von Karajan recording (which, unfortunately, has no liner notes or recording details). For Bruckner enthusiasts the choice is easy. You need both!