Jean Giraudoux once said that "Only the mediocre are always at their best." And it should go without saying that this applies even to great conductors, when they record complete cycles of works. So it is no discredit to Sir Bernard Haitink to say that he does better with some Bruckner symphonies than others. Still, a newcomer to Bruckner could hardly go wrong with any of these performances, except maybe the 8th (more on that later). They are all FRESH - even the least successful of them. This is because Haitink & Philips wisely chose not to plow through the whole cycle within a year or so: they took their time - 9 years, in fact (1963-72).
The "0" Symphony (June 1966) receives a truly sympathetic performance and recording. The Concertgebouw woodwinds make feast of the more plaintively bittersweet passages in the 2nd movement. And Haitink wisely plays the very opening "straight ahead," not trying to make the "nebulae" motifs as doom-laden or dramatic a Brucknerian "fingerprint" as they would become in the later symphonies. Still, everything comes off - in a work that often "goes for nothing." (Bruckner's VERY first Symphony, the F Minor "00", another work which often "goes for nothing", is not included in this box. Still, any true Brucknerian should have it, and the 1992 Inbal/Teldec does nicely.)
The 1st (May 1972), actually the last to be recorded, is rather aggressive (i.e., in a good way), brimming with daring and "intestinal fortitude". This is hardly the unimaginative performance of which Haitink has too often been accused. (In fact, Haitink's recent peformances show a Second Spring on his part : they have an energy and daring which he sometimes lacked at the outset of his career - i.e., in the 1960s, when he was thrust into the "shoes" of Eduard van Beinum at a tender age.) In any case, the Bruckner 1st featured here is, thankfully, the 1866 "Linz" version. To this writer's ears, it is the only "contemporary" competition to Jochum's 1965 DG Berlin account which, while a bit less incisive in execution, goes deeper into this work's inner content - such that it sounds even more "mature" than perhaps it is.
The May 1969 2nd (Haas edition) may be the greatest performance in the box, and perhaps the best 2nd ever recorded. In THE ESSENCE OF BRUCKNER, Robert Simpson points out the deleted 1872 passages which Haas restored to Bruckner's 1877 revision; he approves of all but one, in the second movment: the "repeat" of a solo-horn-and-woodwind passage, ending with a lone, climbing bassoon line. This performance is absolutely complete, but you would find it not a moment too long. Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest bring out such a subtle, "tangy" sheen in the strings, project such a purity of spirit, that they all seem to be possessed by the ghost of Eduard van Beinum (who never recorded a Bruckner 2nd). In spite of characteristic "fingerpints" in the "00" and "0", and the boldness of the 1st, it was only in the 2nd that Bruckner really began to evolve his own kind of symphonic structure. One could even speculate that this stretch of symphonic territory, initially staked out by Schubert in his UNFINISHED & GREAT, had been abandoned until Bruckner reached this point. (Incidentally, 1877 was also when Brahms at last achieved the definitive form of his SYMPHONY NO. 1.)
The October 1963 3rd (1878 edition) is actually the earliest recording in this box. (The 8th is from September 1969, not 1960, as an uncorrected typo would have it. ) Now, yours truly confesses a greater preference for the craggier, less "symmetrical" 1873 edition of the 3rd. (The 1982 Inbal/Teldec is superb, and so is the 2004 Nugano/Harmonia Mundi. Between them, the Nugano is a bit better played and recorded, but Inbal's grasp of pacing and structure is slightly more convincing: take your pick.) Still, if you must have the better-known 1878 edition, this performance is the one to have. It is far more fleet and unassuming than Haitink's rather lugubrious 1988 remake with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The 4th (May 1965) is one of the best in stereo - but one cannot help comparing it with the live 1956 van Beinum 4th (also with the Concertgebouwokest). Somehow, EvB struck an even more convincing balance between grandeur and humility...As did Jochum in his 1955 Bavarian Radio 4th (only available through amazon's German site). Still, as an introduction to the 4th, you could do a lot worse.
The 5th (December 1971), while faultlessly played, may be a bit too "serenely objective". This impression was confirmed by tumbling onto EvB's live 1959 5th (his last known recording, by the way) and Jochum's 1964 5th - both with the Concertgebouworkest. Unfortunately, Jochum was convinced that the 5th's Finale required extra brass (a tradition dating back to Franz Schalk). This writer is unfamiliar with Jochum's 1938 Hamburg and live 1986 Concertgebouw Fifths, but his '64 and his 1980 Dresden Staatskapell performances are marred by out-of-tune playing from some of those "extras." (Whether or not van Beinum used extra brass in the Finale, his version exudes all the "intestinal fortitude" necessary - AND beautifully in tune.) Still, in all fairness to Jochum, he had a uniquely exciting way with the 5th, which he believed to be Bruckner's greatest symphony. If you must have Jochum's 5th, go with his 1958 DG Bavarian Radio version (in Jochum's DG box; see my review), where the brass exhibit both beautifully rounded tone and good pitch.
With its many potentially awkward transition points and "gear shifts" (at least in the outer movements), the 6th may be the toughest of Bruckner's nuts to crack. Rarely will you find a great conductor and a great orchestra (in the same hall at the same time - that's the catch) who UNDERSTAND this work. What we usually get is a 6th, played and conducted in light of the 4th, 5th, 7th or 8th and "Here's this odd thing of Bruckner's and let's a GO at it shall we." The Haitink 6th (December 1970) was, at first, this writer's favorite. (Jochum's 1966 DG Bavarian Radio 6th was runner-up; too bad that EvB and the Concertgebouworkest never got around to it, together !). Now, Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest inscribe an almost supernaturally adept 6th - even if parts of the Adagio and the Finale are a little brisk. Still, it all "works", and then some. But if you can find it, the 1970 Steinberg/Boston account grasps the 6th's "DNA" better than any other...What had seemed "quirky" and inconsequential becomes not only logical, but enchanting: an alpine village progression from late summer to Christmas Festival, if you like.
(At the risk of a well-aimed bolt of lightning, yours truly finds Klemperer's fabled 1964 6th a tad overrated. Yes, it's excellent, but the Philharmonia, for all their collective genius, were NOT a Bruckner orchestra - compared to the Concertgebouw, the Berlin, the Bavarian Radio, or even Inbal's North German Radio. They just weren't. And although, in some quarters, it is reactionarily fashionable to dump on Jochum's Bruckner, his 1966 DG Bavarian Radio 6th is more idiomatic.)
The 7th (November 1966) is up against formidable competition. In terms of hi-fi alone, this includes van Beinum's 1947 and 1953 Deccas (and yes, they are both "hi-fi"), and several by Jochum. This writer's personal favorites: the 1947 EvB (in Dutton's transfer, which captures and enhances the original sound AND eliminates the infamous early Decca "ground hum" far better than the Tahra edition), and Jochum's surprisingly hi-fi 1952 Berlin 7th (on Tahra, if you can find it) as well as his 1964 Berlin stereo remake. Jochum's recently re-issued 1939 Vienna 7th (on Hanssler) has perhaps his most "trauerisch" second movement, but the Viennese turn in one of their sloppier performances; and the vague, rather undifferentiated articulation detracts from the momentum of the scherzo and the finale. Haitink's 1966 7th is indeed a convincing, beautifully rounded account, and one would not go wrong with it. Still, one can do better.
The 8th (September 1969, not 1960) is the weak link in this "chain". Compared with Haitink's own later version of 1981 and van Beinum's 1955, and next to Jochum's 1949 Hamburg or Karajan's early stereo 1957 (to name a few), it simply doesn't deliver the INNER drama and spirituality that a Bruckner 8th must-have-or-what's-the-point. While it is certainly PLAYED well enough, it is fairly clear that, in 1969, Haitink had yet to grasp the "measure" of this work. (In time, he did - let it be said !) The 8th was yours truly's "first" Bruckner symphony (Karajan '57); he would not recommend this 1969 8th as anyone's "first". It may not be "off-putting," but unless the Gentle Listener already KNEW the 8th, its core would be missed.
The 9th (December 1965) is a beautiful rendition - perhaps TOO beautiful to some...The "argument" is presented with such seamless logic that, if you expect something more consciously subjective, then at times this work's sense of crisis may seem to take a back seat to the beauty and sheen of the Concertgebouworkest. But here, the beauty and the crisis actually nourish each other; the inherent terror and exposed nerve endings ARE there - and all the more effective for not being "italicized in bold 'caps'". This is really apparent in the Scherzo, where Haitink's tempi - slower than with Jochum and others - allow those unsettling harmonies to sink in all the more spookily.
Still, nine years earlier the Concertgebouworkest, with Eduard van Beinum at the helm, had inscribed an even greater Bruckner 9th - replete with most of the qualities noted above (the Scherzo is even more deceptively lighter on its feet than with Haitink in 1965), but with greater depth AND a darker string sound. This is partly due to the greater number of violas which - rightly or wrongly - were eliminated during the Haitink years. (EvB's earlier live 9th - recorded on January 16, 1941, during the first, harsh winter of Holland's Nazi Occupation - is even more intense. Through the admittedly limited sonics, its more Mahlerian/Mengelbergian approach bathes this work in a harrowing, but instructive light.)
So there you have it. You WILL need another 8th, but there are several hi-fi choices for that: van Beinum's 1955; Haitink's 1981; Jochum's 1949; Karajan's 1957 or 1989. Still, this box grants us nearly perfect performances of "0", 1, 2 and 3 (1878 edition) and 9; and can't-miss versions of 4 through 7.
To end on a personal note : this was my first Bruckner cycle (in its earlier black-box incarnation), and the date was October 11, 1996. Only while writing the check for it, did I remember that this day was the centennial of Bruckner's death. It was a happy omen.