Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Stanislav Skrowaczewski, Minnesota
Anton Bruckner's sublime Ninth Symphony gets the royal treatment from a new Reference Recordings CD. Main RR engineer, Keith Johnson, consistently bathes the Minnesota Orchestra in a halo of sound that encourages their beautiful tone. And how appropriate the recorded sound is for this deeply spiritual work. Prof. Johnson and company get the Bruckner sound-world just right, with the massive sonorities displayed in all their perpendicular splendor, leaving no doubt as to Bruckner's organ-like view of orchestration.
The recorded sound is completely grain-free, enveloping the Minnesota Orchestra in a liquid blackness. This clear and uncluttered soundstage helps to shed light on the many nuances that the conductor, Stanislav Skrowesczewski, attempts to bring forth. Inner lines are heard clearly, allowing Bruckner's wonderful contrapuntal ideas equal billing with his elegiac melodies. The recording does illustrate many individual touches well, but, I found the interpretation as a whole did not convince.
On this occasion, the Minnesota Orchestra members play very well for their old director, but don't quite blaze the heavens in the way that I have heard from other groups. Try some legendary performances - Carl Schuricht (EMI CMZ 67279 with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra - coupled with the Eighth Symphony) and Bruno Walter (Sony SMK 64483 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra) - as comparative examples. Both of these conductors inspire their respective orchestras to play as a single glorious instrument, not only to produce consistently beautiful sound, but also to uncover the mysteries lying beneath the notes. In comparison, Skrowaczewski's performance never quite achieves the lofty heights that Schuricht and Walter occupy.
The wonderful opening of the first movement is one of the grandest of all orchestral gestures. The interpretation captures the solemnity well, but the mysterious aura lacks spiritual emotion. Listen to Schuricht and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as they control this difficult opening superbly while maintaining the solemn and mysterious feeling. Using the horns to magnificent effect, Schuricht makes the slow alla breve time feel like it is standing still, yet, courtesy of his strings and trumpets, they manage to impart a contradictory feeling of forward momentum. Bruno Walter also conveys majesty and digs deeply into the mysteries lying beneath the music. Skrowesczewski only hints.
Skrowesczewski's reading of the Scherzo is notable for its speed and power. This movement is played for all it is worth and is certainly the most successful of the three. I'm not sure if it was Bruno Walter, or another, who christened the opening pizzicato as if played by "...a great Mephistophelian guitar". It is a most appropriate description, though. Indeed, Skrowesczewski and the strings of the Minnesota Orchestra excel in conveying its demonic overtones. Hammering brass and timpani heighten the effect of the opening section, while in the gentle B section, the delightful melody is played amusingly by the solo oboe. Later, the scoring and tempo markings of the Trio emphasize fleetness, and the orchestra is virtuosic in its delivery.
The great final Adagio movement is affected by much of the same interpretive slant as the first movement. The beautiful tone is much in evidence, and power, when asked for, is ample. To my ears, however, Skrowesczewski's portrayal of Bruckner's paean to his own survival is bettered by others.
I continue to be impressed by the playing of the Minnesota Orchestra, especially when directed by their new conductor, Eiji Oue. And although this is not an entirely successful effort, despite good strings and outstanding winds, there is great hope that further excursions into the Romantic era will be more favorable. When judged, however, on its recorded merit, audiophiles will be astounded by the beauty it portrays, the detail it uncovers, and the power it unleashes.
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