CD review: Lorin Maazel's Bruckner box set

By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:23 PM

Bruckner: 10 Symphonies

Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Lorin Maazel

BR Klassik, $79.99 (11 CDs).

Burnished brass and a nuanced understanding of the massive architecture of Bruckner's symphonies provided the underpinnings of Lorin Maazel's Bruckner cycle in Munich from January through March 1999. The subtle intricacies of Maazel's distinguished readings are fully captured in the live recordings of those performances, now available as a boxed set.

The ever-present Bruckner issue involves what Bruckner to play, which symphonies to count as among his "complete" set and which edition of each symphony to use. Maazel chose to include 10 symphonies, all in editions by musicologist Leopold Nowak (1904-1991). Nowak was the symphonies' best editor, but Maazel's choice is arguably the right one. (For one thing, there are 11 Bruckner symphonies, including an early "school symphony" sometimes given the number "00." Maazel omits that, but includes the one given the number "0," identifying it, however, as the "annulled second." This is chronologically correct - it was written in 1869, a year after No. 1 was completed - though numerologically confusing.)

The versions of symphonies chosen by Maazel are pretty much standard nowadays. For example, he uses the 1890 edition of the No. 8 rather than the largely discredited 1939 pastiche by Robert Haas that some conductors, such as Christian Thielemann, continue to favor. And most of Maazel's readings simply glow. He has a fine sense of structure and style, and understands better than many other conductors how to differentiate each Bruckner symphony from the others, even though all occupy a similar sonic environment because of the composer's unique handling of orchestration and thematic groups.

In some of the earlier symphonies, Maazel's instinct for monumentality is a trifle overdone: The first movements of Nos. "0" and 1 plod a bit, and the Schubertian freshness of No. 2 never really blooms. But the later symphonies are uniformly excellent. Nos. 7 and 8 shine most brilliantly of all, feeling - despite their considerable lengths - like extended, unified tone poems of sound and emotion, with soft passages as significant as fortissimo ones and as beautifully played. Indeed, the orchestra is superlative throughout - warm, wonderfully blended and thoroughly idiomatic.

Maazel breaks no new interpretative ground in these performances, but his finely honed approach polishes Bruckner to such a brilliant sheen that this set would be a worthy cornerstone for many listeners' Bruckner collections.

Estren is a freelance writer.

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