Any Bruckner acolyte is eventually going to get around to the recordings of Wilhelm Furtwangler (1886-1954), who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the prewar era, then returned after denazification to resume his career until his death. He was one of the preeminent conductors of his day and, with Toscanini, would probably be the greatest of the departed conductors few, if any, alive today saw perform in person.
Furtwangler was known for his Bruckner and the hypnotic effect he is said to have had over audiences, although not much of that comes through on these finely-wrought remasterings of recordings that range in age from 1944-51. I've heard this quality in other recordings, where Furtwangler seems to suspend time. If you can find a copy of Furtwangler conducting Mahler's "Wayfarer" lieder with baritone Alfred Poell singing, you'll get an idea of what I mean, as the audience holds rapt attention while the orchestra dies away during the finale of "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinen Schotz" (translates to "The blue eyes of my darling.")
Furtwangler's conducting style was, by his own admission, supposed to evoke nature. He thought music was a force of nature and that one grew from the other. Compared to the way authenticists conduct Bruckner's monolithic works these days -- often with a stiff baton, a martial rhythm and little if any flexibility in tempo -- Furtwangler was by turn a mercurial mad scientist, often fiddling with tempo in ways people would be horrified to attempt today. You hear him churn up tempo more often in these works than you hear him slow down to a crawl, something I expected from the conductor when I only knew him by reputation. In fact, Furtwangler's timing for Bruckner symphonies is more rapid than most, as you'll hear when you listen to the contents of this box.
When I compared Furtwangler's recording to my favorite stereo recordings, I found this (where editions vary I cited the stereo edition):
Symphony 4: Furtwangler 67 minutes/Bohm (Nowak edition) 68 minutes.
Symphony 5: Furtwangler 68 minutes/Horenstein 75 minutes.
Symphony 6: (3 movements) Furtwangler 36 minutes/Lopez-Cobos 40 minutes.
Symphony 7: Furtwangler 62 minutes/ Bohm (Nowak) 65 minutes.
Symphony 8: Furtwangler 67 minutes/ Jochum (Nowak) 72 minutes.
Symphony 9: Furtwangler 58 minutes/ Walter 59 minutes.
You'd expect Furtwanlger to be more rapid than Bruno Walter but not Jochum, the modern era (stereo) Bruckner specialist that was the most like Furtwangler in approach and tempo. This was one of the most eye-opening experiences for me to learn -- that Furtwangler's way with Bruckner was actually fast but not superficial.
These recordings eschew the 1950s-era Nowak editions that were championed by the likes of Jochum and Herbert von Karajan and few are the "original" editions often recorded today. Bruckner's symphonies are often named for either the editor (such as Nowak and Haas) or the first conductor to present them. The recordings in this box include the earliest editions of the Symphonies 4 (Gutmann), 5 and 6 (Haas), 7 (Gutmann) and 9 (Orel) while the Symphony 8 is a mixed version of Haas and Schalk. No recording here runs onto a second CD, making them all shorter than 80 minutes.
Everything Furtwangler does in this box is first rate and compares favorably to more modern recordings even though they are all concert recordings replete with flubs. The recording of 4, from 1951 in Stuttgart, is one of my favorite recordings of the "Romantic" symphony. It varies enough from the standard Nowak edition to give you pause the first few times you hear it. The playing is a little ragged at first, with horn clinkers a plenty (cleverly wiped out by this remastering in the opening movement), but this does nothing to diminish my fervor for this wonderful recording. Furtwangler's passion for this naturalistic music is clearly displayed in this, the Bruckner he performed most often along with Symphony 7. The Vienna Philharmonic is the instrument here, which I think is much of the reason for my personal fascination.
I offer a minority opinion on the Symphony 7 included in this box, recorded in Cairo in 1951. The Furtwangler Society recommends it secondarily and some critics have lambasted it for too much extraneous noise and poor playing. I look at this recording at one of Furtwangler's very greatest Bruckner achievements because of the overall conception, which is highly romantic, less mystical and verbose than many others. The Adagio from this symphony was played in Berlin's public address system the day Hitler died. It is, with the even greater adagio from Symphony 8, among the composer's greatest creations. I can't express enough how I believe Furtwangler's Cairo recording fully realizes this quasi-religious music to it greatest extent. Only a relatively fast and abrupt ending varies from what I would call a perfect reading of this music.
While not on this exalted level, the other recordings in this box are of magisterial projection. The Symphony 5, recorded 1949 in Berlin, and 9, recorded 1944 in Berlin, are splendid readings. The Symphony 9, in particular, has driven many critics overboard with praise for its often near-manic drama and darkness. Many think Furtwangler's historic recordings of another great Symphony 9, by Beethoven, are in a class of their own. Just as many think similarly about the Bruckner 9 in this box with its end of world drama. It isn't my favorite 9 but I don't argue with those whose it is, for it is masterful. The Symphony 8, recorded 1944 in Vienna, is a powerful, driven recording but not up to my favorite -- the 1949 Berlin version using Nowak's score available from Japanese EMI (Toshiba TOCE 6521, expensive but worth it.)
The one recording a novice, or anyone coming to Bruckner for the first time, should be wary of is Symphony 6. Like the other numbered Bruckner symphonies, no complete recording exists by Furtwangler. The 6 included here is the final three movements, the eloquent and heartfelt Adagio on one disk (with 4) and the concluding Scherzo and Finale coupled with Symphony 9. To me, this is heresy, breaking up the remaining fraction of a symphony like this. Fortunately, I burned my own set of these symphonies from earlier DG and A&E pressings and can listen to an intact 6 anytime I like. I burned Poell's Mahler songs onto my copy of 6, which to me makes a lot more sense than what they've done here.
While some have wavered over the quality of Furtwangler's only recording of 6, I find it as meaningful and satisying as any recordings I've heard from any era. People that are turned on by Furtwangler's way with these symphonies can search the World Wide Web for the fractions of recordings that exist of Symphonies 1, 2 and 3. I've seen these listed around the world but never purchased nor heard them. To hear them in other classic collections, try the new Volkmar Andreae collection on Arts and Music or the Criterion Collection (ASIN: B000C05XSW) that is out of print and more difficult to find.
Anyone that loves the symphonies of Anton Bruckner should own this box and compare Furtwangler's way with their favorite conductors. In most cases, you will hear a comparative edition that likely varies from the ones you've been listening to, and Furtwangler's way always make sense of the music even if he comes off more intemperate than someone like Gunther Wand. For, like this personal belief about music, Furtwangler was likewise a force of nature the world hasn't witnessed since his departure.