RCA Red Seal has released the first two volumes in a new Bruckner symphony cycle, led by the Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi. Currently acting as Music Director for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the pair are also working together on this series. Fresh off a successful cycle of Beethoven's symphonies, Järvi is now turning his attention to a later giant of German symphonic tradition. Although this is the first Bruckner cycle for Järvi, the Frankfurt RSO has already made an acclaimed set under the baton of Elihu Inbal. So although part of the success for these first two entrants in a new series should be attributed to Järvi, he is leading an already seasoned group of Brucknerians.
The Seventh symphony is probably Bruckner's most popular work. And in fact, he had the not-always-common benefit of his symphonies finding popular favor during his lifetime. The Seventh, in particular, puts his musical heart on his sleeve with overt references to Wagner. Bruckner had aligned himself musically in the Wagner and Liszt camp (as opposed to the more traditional Romantic vein espoused by Brahms). With Wagner's imminent death during the writing for the Seventh, Bruckner pays him homage, especially during the expansive Adagio.
Bruckner was notoriously fastidious in his work ethic (as well as in his self-consciousness, which resulted in numerous post-premiere changes to his works), but especially with these later symphonies we see the fruits of his labor really solidifying, and the more confident musical maturity taking a sublime form. The relentlessly rhythmic opening Allegro movement takes a very scenic and thrilling journey before reaching a lush end, and matched with the Adagio account for the bulk of the work. Although frequently performed, the reading here captures a wonderfully balanced take on these disparate elements and makes for a triumphant opening to the series.
Although his final and unfinished symphony, Bruckner's Ninth doesn't really convey much in the way of incompleteness. Part of this is due to his style of composition, which to be honest has more of a "Bruckner" symphonic form than a traditional one. The movements themselves are so long, and the structure so programmatic in feel, that there is always a sense that you could just as easily be listening to collections of symphonic poems. But there is also a more divine and austere feel that runs through this symphony, and adds to Bruckner's intentional homage to Beethoven's Ninth as well.
The opening movement shows particularly well the thoughtful pacing that Järvi and the Frankfurt orchestra bring to each work, bestowing on this one a purposefully glorious (as well as tragic) ode to life and death. The tranquil finality of the Adagio movement (titled "Farewell to life") has plenty of resolve on its own, just not of the typically rousing, Finale flavor. Had there actually been a completed fourth movement, the running time alone would have pushed things into Mahler-esque territory, and perhaps would have undercut the potency of the Adagio. A very moving work without any real perception of incompleteness.
In addition to just being worthy performances, these releases are also hybrid Super-Audio CD (SACD) discs. The surround sound layer is handled conservatively, but sumptuously. The orchestra doesn't sound as if they were recorded for dramatic spacial separation, but more just fullness of sound. The sonics of this layer scratch an audiophile itch more than they do a crazy speaker setup. But as a musical presentation, it's incredibly nice to have this option as well as just the standard CD layer.
These are beautifully played symphonies, and as aggressively-priced hybrid SACDs, they are fantastically easy recommendations. Järvi occasionally keeps things on the brisk side of the tempo markings, but nothing out of step with traditional interpretations. Granted, Bruckner's symphonies can feel overly elongated to those not inclined towards the high-German style of both Bruckner and Wagner, but even with that these are two of his more universally loved offerings. And to those who are already fans of Bruckner's symphonies, these should be considered very worthy additions, especially for audiophiles looking for impeccably performed and high-definition readings. If these are any indication of what's to come, this should be an exciting series to follow.