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 Recording of the Week  Bruckner Symphonies from Claudio Abbado and Iván Fischer

Claudio Abbado's final concert took place on 26th August 2013, during which he conducted the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. This performance has now been released on CD, and therefore counts as his final recording before his death in January this year.

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado

And what a recording it is, too: from the horns' opening portentous statement you can tell you're in for something special indeed. The booklet note includes a reminiscence by one of Abbado's assistants, who said that Abbado “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.” I think that sums up this performance perfectly: it definitely has a majestic sweep, with satisfyingly monumental climaxes. As powerful as these climaxes are, however, for me it's really the quieter moments that make this performance work. Everything sounds effortless, and with Abbado taking such care to ensure delicate, refined woodwind playing, he shows that there's more to Bruckner than just the loud brassy bits.

It's in the third movement where this performance moves to a higher plane, however. There's some magical playing from the strings in particular, with a wonderfully ethereal sheen, and a shattering climax, including some fine low brass playing. Abbado manages to give the movement (and indeed the symphony overall) just the right amount of weight and grandeur whilst never allowing the pace to drop at any moment. This movement's twenty-five minutes simply fly by, and the symphony's closing moments are sublime: the strings bring an autumnal glow to their final phrases, and the horns seem almost to suspend time as they hold their last chord for what seems like an impossibly long time. This is a very special performance.

Iván Fischer
Iván Fischer

Speaking of performances that are never plodding, another Bruckner recording released recently is Iván Fischer's account of the Seventh Symphony with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As far as I know this is Fischer's first recorded foray into the music of Bruckner, and what struck me here was a seeming determination not just to follow performance tradition, but to bring fresh ideas - not all of which I expect will be appreciated by all Bruckner lovers!

The first thing I noticed about this performance, even before I started to listen to it, was the timing of each movement: this one clocks in at well under an hour. The booklet notes expound the parallels between Bruckner and Mozart, and that was certainly something I felt more than once: there's a Classical lightness and grace to many parts of this, especially the last movement, which Fischer imbues with a Mendelssohn-like bounce.

Fischer doesn't hang about elsewhere either: the section about ten minutes into the first movement is marked molto animato, and he very much takes this instruction at its word. Similarly, the second movement, Adagio, is about five minutes faster than most performances, and Fischer is obviously keen to avoid stodginess. One could maybe argue that this flowing pace isn't quite in the spirit of the movement's marking of Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam (Very solemn and very slow), but it's certainly an interesting, individual interpretation, and it almost goes without saying that the performance from the Budapest players is very good indeed, with shimmering strings and solemn brass being the highlights for me. So, it won't be to everyone's liking, but then a controversial approach to such a repertoire staple as this piece is not necessarily a bad thing. We have sound samples (for this and the Abbado disc) to help you decide whether or not this is the way you like your Bruckner!

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer

Available Format: SACD