Pretty much at the same time, around the end of high school, my two favorite composers were Brahms and Bruckner. As you can see, one survived and made it to the subtitle of my blog.
The other one, good old Anton, I listen too much less regularly these days. I still love mainly symphonies no. 4 and 7, but overall the broad romanticism and huge mountains of symphony blocks appeal less to me than they did at back then. Probably for similar reasons, I really still don’t appreciate Wagner that much, with some rare exceptions.
In parallel my taste moved backwards in time from the late romantic area to really appreciating Mozart and Bach. When I was really young I thought of Mozart as “too light”, and Bach as “could be composed by a computer, like painting by numbers”, Ah, the stupid arrogance of teenagers.
Anyhow, back to Bruckner. I still like him, even if I listen to his works only occasionally.
But if I do, it is usually with this box:
Anton Bruckner: Symphonies – Günter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker
Günter Wand is one of those amazingly underrated conductors, and usually only well known by die-hard Bruckner fans. There is something special about Wand and Bruckner. To be fair, Wand has recorded the symphonies at least 3 times, from a very good cycle in Cologne in the seventies, to several recordings with the NDR Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg he lead for many years, to this one, where he got to lead the BPO for a selection of the symphonies.
I grew up on Wand’ reading with the NDR. I even had the pleasure of hearing him live twice, with Bruckner 4 and 8. So obviously I’m biased, and you should certainly also check out other Bruckner specialists like Eugen Jochum or good old Karajan (yes, you Karajan haters out there, his Bruckner is great. Mind you, I used to be a Karajan hater as well….).
I only got introduced to this set 3-4 years ago from a good friend of mine from high school, who attended some of the Wand concert with me. A I had kind of moved on from Bruckner, I simply stuck to my old CDs whenever I wanted to go back and hadn’t really looked in to new recordings for nearly 20 years.
So what do I like about this? Well, it’ best of two worlds, you get Günter Wand who knows Bruckner inside out, and really has a lot of insights to offer, and you get a world-class orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic. The sound of the BPO is just perfect for Bruckner. As much as I like the NDR, they are obviously in a different league.
Wand approaches the symphonies in a very clean way: there is no romantic overload, no sweet sugary drama, just illustrating the actually rather introvert struggle of an underrated, very catholic Austrian organ player with an inferiority complex that Anton Bruckner apparently was for most of his life.
(Bruckner experts, if I painted a wrong portrait taken mainly from reading too many booklets, please correct me!).
My rating: 5 stars (I notice I’m giving too many five stars recently. But I still think this is purely due to selection bias of me wanting to write about music I really like and not some kind of star inflation).
You can get it here (Qobuz).
P.S. David Hurvitz disagrees with me and thinks Wand’s Hamburg recordings are superior to the BPO ones. You may want to check them out too if you find them, e.g. in this box set. You never know, I may eventually return to my “roots” as well.
UPDATE Jan 29, 2016: In the Feb 2016 issue of Classica magazine, the reviewers compared blindly ten selected versions of Bruckner’s 9th. Günter Wand’s BPO version comes out on top! Here’s the comment: “The best possible version for discovering this work. Pure music, marked by the seal of infinity and eternity” (French sometimes have a certain way of getting very poetic with their language).
17 thoughts on “My Favorite Bruckner – Günter Wand’s Late Recordings With The Berlin Philharmonic”
Quite ignorant of me to not know that Wand made some Bruckner recordings with the Berlin Phil. I absolutely love his Bruckner cycle with the Kolner Rundfunk-SO. Since you love these so much, I have to check them out!
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Please be aware though that Wand has stayed very true to himself over his entire life, which means that even the very late Berlin cycle is not extremely different to his Köln cycle 30 years earlier. We are talking nuances here in terms of style. But obviously you get the nice Berlin Phil sound.
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In my opinion, Wand’s recording of Bruckner 8 with the Munich Philharmoniker is even better than the RCA Berlin one a year later. It is slightly slower, the Finale has a “softer landing”. I also like his first Bruckner 8 from 1971, with the Gurzenich Orchestra Koln, on the Acanta label. It is faster overall than both his Berlin and Munich recordings however.
In my systematic journey through Tom Moon’s “1,000 Recordings To Hear Before you Die”, I have just reached Bruckner’s 7th. The recording highlighted by Moon is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Tintner, and in my research I did see much reference to Wand’s recordings being highly regarded. You have inspired me to seek out the BPO recording of this uplifting composition for comparison.
The Tintner cycle is surprisingly good. But Wand remains my favorite.
…..But frustratingly, just when one has decided that Wand’s BPO Bruckner 7 is his preferred prospective purchase -after spending an inordinate amount of screen time reading and re-reading reviews of competing performances – he finds that the cd has apparently been deleted and then unavailable. Because on-line reviews are often many years old they can be misleading to unwary cd collectors who are seeking out the ‘best’ options for a particular piece of music. Back to the shortlist: Bohm, Tintner, Blomstedt etc.
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Why choose only one? Can’t you have several favorites? There is always something more to be discovered by listening to several versions.
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
Gunter Wand – Berliner Philharmoniker
Günter and Gilgamesh
ByBernard Michael O’Hanlonon June 15, 2012
Format: Audio CD
Listening to Bruckner could be likened to lying on your back and looking up at the
constellations as they revolve around the axis of the earth. It may not be as viscerally
exciting, say, as a visit to the House of the Rising Sun in downtown Bangkok but there
is nothing to say that it should be boring. To that end, there is no substitute for
imaginative phrasing in this domain.
No one doubts that Gunter Wand is a competent Brucknerian. When allied with the
Berlin Philharmonic and an atmospheric recording, the output is always going to be
listenable in the least – to wit, this performance of the Fourth Symphony (cobbledtogether though it is from various performances). At times, the array rises to the
occasion: the `Holy of Holies’ chorale at the heart of the first movement and the coda of
the finale are virtuosity incarnate. And yet so often, to my ears at least, the affair is
militated by prosaic phrasing (just listen to the opening three minutes or so of the first
But there is a deeper failure here: this symphony is Bruckner’s most dangerous
excursion into “the forests of the night.” This performance, sad to say, but fitfully
addresses the age-old dynamic of man versus nature. What the hell: it is time for a
gratuitous quote to illustrate this point (and all the more so as it is more inspired than
anything from yours truly). It was written at the dawn of civilisation:
. . . . . It was then that the lord Gilgamesh turned his thoughts to the Country of the
Living; on the Land of Cedars the lord Gilgamesh reflected. He said to his servant
Enkidu: “I have not established my name stamped on bricks as my destiny decreed;
therefore I will go to the country where the cedar is felled. I will set up my name in the
place where the names of famous men are written, and where no man’s name is written
yet I will raise a monument to the gods. Because of the evil that is in the land, we will
journey into the great forest and destroy the evil; for in the forest lives Humbaba whose
name is `Hugeness’, a ferocious giant.”
But Enkidu sighed bitterly and said, “When I lived with the wild beasts in the
wilderness I discovered the forest; its length is ten thousand leagues in every direction.
Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard it and armed him with sevenfold terrors; terrible
to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is
like fire and his jaws are death itself. He guards the cedars so well that when a wild
heifer stirs in the forest, though she is sixty leagues distant, he hears her. What man
would willingly walk into that country and explore its depths? I tell you, weakness
overpowers whoever goes near it: it is not an equal struggle when one fights with
Humbaba;. he is a great warrior, a battering-ram. Gilgamesh, the Watchman of the
Forest never sleeps.”
Gilgamesh replied: “Where is the man who can clamber to Heaven? Only the gods live
forever with glorious Shamash, but as for us men, our days are numbered, our
occupations are a breath of wind. How is it that you’re afraid already! I will go first
although I am your lord . . . Then if I fall I leave behind me a name that is everlasting;
men will say of me, `Gilgamesh has fallen in battle with the ferocious Humbaba.'” . . . . .
This dimension is near-absent in this performance of the Fourth. It does not bespeak
danger; the immensity of Nature and its indifference to our aspirations are likewise
underplayed. It’s a Bruckner Fourth that is commodious for an age that would rather
forget the primordial roots of Homo Sapiens.
So by all means lap up the luxuriant orchestral response. With effort, convince yourself
that the Kapellmeister on the podium – and a talented one at that – is a great conductor.
And switch on the fluorescent lights as you listen on: they’re a cheap and efficient way
to dispel the darkness.
If, on the other hand you want to venture with Gilgamesh into the great forest, press
either of these into service:
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 Remastered
Herbert von Karajan (Conductor), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4
Sergiu Celibidache (Conductor), Münich Philharmonic Orchestra
ByDoug – Haydn Fanon May 25, 2012
Format: Audio CD
This is a perfect example of why you, the Amazon customer, should take laudatory
enthusiasms for favorite performers in any venue with about as many grains of salt as
Morton piles up every week.
Good grief! What unbelieveable slack conducting! Is this the first example on record of
a conductor beset with locked-in syndrome? Poor Wand seems utterly incapable of
getting the orchestra to phrase even the simplest section – lines simply pass by without
the slightest curve or rise, impulse or sign of life. It’s like the conductor died and the
featherbedding fireman, having been forced out, is not there to step in – the landscape
passes and the train just keeps rolling along down the rails. How such a performance
possibly could be released defies any qualitative judgment. Listening to the first
movement calls up adjectives like slack, listless, dumb, impotent. The Romantic
Symphony? I have this image of poor Wand, staring off into space while the orchestra
members look back and forth at each other, wondering if he’s ever going to give any
sign of life whatsoever. “Should maybe one of us call out, ‘Yoo-hoo! Günter?’ and hope
he snaps out of it?” But apparently decorum – not to mention German discipline – ruled,
and nobody broke etiquette. (Which causes one to wonder just what it would take to
stop a performance and lead the latest in a long line of hapless octogenarian conductors
who overstayed their time off to a much needed oxygen tent.) Because that’s what it
sounds where we’re headed as we listen to a first movement playing on and on without
any sign suggesting a conductor’s administration of inflection or point.
After the first movement, which goes down in my book as the most unconnected work
by a conductor in recent history, any humane producer caring for Wand’s reputation
would have mercifully turned off the recording machinery and junked it all. “Sorry,
Günter, a power surge knocked out the instruments…or maybe some fifteen syllable
engineering term meaning ‘we found the studio’s head’s Siamese cat hair was buggering
the bi-amp’s internals.’ Whatever saves face for all. But, no.
This live event – and I use the word ‘live’ merely to reflect the chronological and public
nature, not whether or not an actual discernible heartbeat exists in such a state of quietus
– is derived from three different performances. This leads me to wonder: If these are the
best movements taken from the three concerts, what did the worst sound like?
To sum up – avoid it! And in future I will NEVER trust any reviewer who had
ANYTHING good to say about this recording – the polar opposite of the dithyrambic
approach this triumphant and exciting work requires.
Alwa4 months agoIn reply toan earlier post
I have not heard this live recording. I own Wand’s earlier Cologne Bruckner cycle,
among several others, and I can see where you are coming from with your criticisms. It
is very square, “solid,” low-key, stately might be a kind word. I don’t dislike it but I
have yet to find much inspiration in it though I keep trying. It leaves me a little baffled
by the high praise he receives from most critics. I will say that his approach is unique in
my experience with Bruckner recordings and I can see how it might appeal to tastes
even if I haven’t quite found my way into it yet. That’s why I keep coming back to it
from time to time. There is something in it I like. However, I have tried some of his
Berlin live recordings to see if I was perhaps missing something there. With the 7th I
have been, so far, less than impressed. But with his Berlin 8th I was blown away.
Suddenly here was an interpretation that was deeply moving and dynamic and exciting.
It immediately became my favorite of my several recordings of that symphony, beating
out 2 Karajans, Giulini, Bohm, Jochum (Dresden,) Barbirolli, 2 Tennsdedts and
Furtwangler. I was pleasantly surprised to say the least and it has given me renewed
interest in Wand. I’ll keep listening to the rest of Wand’s Bruckner in the hope that I will
eventually find out what all the fuss is about as I did with his Berlin 8.
Doug – Haydn Fan1 year ago (Edited)
In reply toan earlier post
Thanks for the fair observations – I was being sarcastic when I wrote the review, but the
slackness was apparent.
Once – many years ago – Wand was simply considered a good serviceable conductor.
No one compared his work to that of the major conductors. The insidious term
Kappelmeister was thrown around, perhaps unfairly. But be that as it may, I don’t hear
anything in his later work that sounds any different from what I heard earlier. This
recent exaltation strikes me as more or less unwarranted, even odd.
I also remain amazed at the plethora of modern Bruckner and Mahler recordings -frankly it’s beyond excessive – it’s positively preposterous – even silly. It would take
years to hear them all – and life is far too short for such folly! Maybe a person could
give up a year of life listening to Mozart – but hearing the same nine symphonies of
either of those two repeated hundreds of times? Count me decisively out!
Mogulmeister2 years ago
Doug, it’s a shame you’ve stopped writing reviews. I wouldn’t have panned this
recording as you did, but by the same token I’m also mystified at those who rave about
it as a great performance. It’s not. And generally speaking, while Gunter Wand certainly
seems to have very passionate supporters of his Bruckner (or as George Takei would
say, “Oh my!”), it’s hard for me to understand where that passion comes from, because
Wand to these ears is almost always solid and square, but almost never inspired or
insightful. He’s functional, no more no less. Wand does not take listeners to the heights
reached regularly by Karajan, Jochum, Skrowaczewski, Giulini, or Celibidache in
Bruckner. But by the same token, if someone likes Wand’s Bruckner, that’s fine by me,
it’s just that I think one can have a much more rewarding experience with other
conductors, and none more so than Karajan and his monumental Bruckner, in my
I see you are posting several negative reviews of the Bruckner cycle. I presume from this that you are not in agreement with my review? I would just have been interested instead of just seeing somebody elses comment to hear your own voice why you don’t like these recordings.
Don’t get me wrong I have no problem with anybody disagreeing with my reviews, to the contrary, I believe there is something to be learned from this. Art reviews are by definition very subjective. So maybe you can summarize your own opinion?
Be aware that Bruckner scores had a bad history of being mucked about and tarted up by his pals the Schalks, in the case of Bruckner 5 for example, the score has had cuts and worse, 11 extra brass instruments added to buck up the Finale, viz 3 trombones, 3 trumpets, 4 horns & bass tuba. Later editions eg Haas & Novak have these additions etc removed. Gunter Wand hated to see Bruckner’s music mucked about like this.
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Agree and there are several very good recordings of the Novak editions available. Overall it doesn’t take away the charm of these recordings, at least to me. What do you think?
Late to the game but…: I had the pleasure of listening to Wand with the NDR SO multiple times as I grew up in Hamburg so pretty much saw all Brahms, Schubert, some Beethoven and Bruckner 4-9, all concerts between lets say 1990 and 2000. While Wand is great with the BSO the NDR SO was his orchestra and the connection is palpable and not always reflected in the BSO recordings. One of the last ones I attended was in 2000 aBruckner 8 in the (now old) Hamburg Concert hall. It was spectacular and we left speechless. At that time the NDR even gave you a CD with their recording for a nominal fee upon request, so I have that very concert on CD and cherish it unlike any other.
What is missing in this review are two seminal recordings: Bruckner 8 from 1988 and the 9th from 1989 from the opening concert of the Schleswig Holstein Music Festival in Luebeck Cathedral. It features a reverberation and acoustic that is unmatched and carries an aura and atmosphere unlike any other recording. Imagine these pieces with Wand and NDR – but int he acoustic of a large Cathedral…! On RCA and now available as reissue from RCA Japan, apparently remastered (I own the old RCA one and re-ordered the Japanese one). S P E C T A C U L A R.
Sorry, for my late reply here, work kept me away from my blog for too long. Thanks for your feedback, truly appreciated.
As I mentioned in my blog post, I heard Wand live as well in Hamburg several times. And for the performance of the 8th in Luebeck you mention, I don’t have to imagine, I was actually there. Well not for the recorded final performance, that was sold out way to fast, but I managed to attend the final rehearsal, which was public. So I had the pleasure not only of an amazing sonic experience (which I agree the RCA recording captures quite well), but also to see how gentle and kind the maestro worked out some of the final kinks of the performance. A memory to treasure.
Now on the topic whether the NDR or BPO recordings of the Bruckner symphonies are better, I’ve actually given up judging. I know I love both very much. The connection you mention clearly was there, but let’s also be honest, the BPO is technically quite superior to the Hamburg one, and has a very special sound, and obviously a century of experience with great Bruckner conductors like Karajan or even going back to Furtwängler.
Sorry, recordings were 1987 (8th) and 1988 (9th)
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