Thursday, August 2, 2012

Schubert: Symphony No.8 · Bruckner: Symphony No.9

This live performance from Japan’s Takemitsu Memorial Hall constitutes the finest of Günter Wand’s Bruckner Ninth recordings to date. With each new version, Wand seems to be getting closer to some un-guessed and probably unattainable performance ideal. Only his 1998 Berlin Philharmonic recording fails to honor the trend of steady improvement–the orchestra’s smoothly refined playing style there is at odds with Wand’s rougher concept of Brucknerian sound. No such problems arise with the North German Radio Symphony: it’s been playing Bruckner with Wand for so long that the players seem to have absorbed part of the conductor’s nervous system, so that his every musical impulse is instantly communicated.

In this profoundly organic reading, virtually every interpretive gesture carries an air of inevitability. The opening horn call sounds with just the right amount of menace, and the first great climax–the mighty unison theme–completes its thundering arc smoothly but with tremendous power. For Wand, this theme’s dotted rhythm holds the key to the entire movement, and he emphasizes its every appearance by slightly extending the long first note and then stressing the following short ones. Wand also gives special attention to the trombones (as he did in his 1994 NDRSO performance), and it’s almost terrifying to hear them hammer out the dotted rhythm in the coda, where Wand ratchets the tension even higher with dramatic swells on the timpani. The great closing Adagio is where this reading has changed most. More than two minutes shorter than the 1994 account, Wand’s newly flowing tempos portray Bruckner as being passionately engaged with the remainder of his life–listen to the urgency with which Wand renders the development, particularly when the main theme (inverted) is marched about in a Schubertian manner.

Schubert’s Unfinished, which shares this program, also ends with a turbulent but ultimately serene adagio, and there is much in Bruckner’s method that stems from Schubert. Wand emphasizes the low strings (as he did in the Bruckner), and he creates a tremendous sense of expectation at the beginning of the first movement development. Again, there is a sense of inevitability as one passage flows into another, and the orchestra seems to realize Wand’s conception as no other could. This is yet another powerful, captivating performance, reveling in the dark drama of Schubert’s first movement while illuminating the grace of the second. The recorded sound has great impact and dynamic range, though 1994′s Hamburg Music Hall production yielded more acoustic space around the orchestra. The audience is mouse-quiet, perhaps feeling privileged to be in attendance at such a concert–a feeling likely to be shared by interested collectors, for this recording is only available by mail order from Japan. An expensive proposition then, but for Bruckner lovers, every penny will be well spent.

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