HERBERT VON KARAJAN has for years been one of the most persuasive Bruckner conductors around. While he may seem precise but impersonal in much of the music he conducts on records, his response to Bruckner is thrilling in its very precision and not at all bloodless. His approach, emphasizing the solid musical values in Bruckner's symphonies and letting the "spiritual" content take care of itself, is elegant, impassioned, exalted, utterly free of the inflated gestures still favored by some of his colleagues; like Bernard Haitink and Eugen Jochum in their quite different ways, Karajan gives us Bruckner that is not so much overwhelming as simply (and grandly) fulfilling.
All of Karajan's Bruckner recordings, for both Angel and Deutsche Grammophon, have been made in the last 20 years with the Berlin Philharmonic. One of his first stereo recordings for Angel was a splendid account of the Eighth Symphony which did not stay in the catalogue long and, with the fine versions of Horenstein, Schuricht (also gone now), Haitink and Szell available, was not that much missed. Four or five years ago, Angel brought out a three-disc set of the Fourth and Seventh which is still current (SC-3779), and in the last few months, DG has given us new recordings of Nos. 4 and 8.
The appearance of the new Eighth, late last year (DG 2707.085), was understandable enough, and most welcome. After nearly 20 years Karajan had polished and deepened his interpretation considerably, with a most effective tightening up of structural control, a refining of little overindulgences in the way of expressiveness here an there, and altogether more sweeping spontaneity without damage to Bruckner's expansive panoramas. The sound of the new recording, of course, while a little fiery, as a factor in its claim to top honors.
Karajan, incidentally (or not so incidentally, to Bruckner buffs), was one of the few conductors herefore favoring the edition of Robert Hass in performances of the Eighth, rather than the more widely used version of Leopold Nowak. (Haas, who prepared the first critical edition for the Bruckner Society, based his version on the composer's 1890 revision, but reinstated portions he had cut from his original version of 1887; Nowak limited his edition to the material Bruckner himself used in the 1890 version.) In this new recording though, Karajan has followed the more recently published critical edition of the 1887 version itself, and for that reason alone serious Brucknerians who are happy with their present recordings of the Nowak edition may want to add this brilliant realization of the Urtext to their collections.
If it seems curious that the Fourth would be rerecorded by the same conductor and orchestra after only four or five years, it can only by said that the new Fourth represents an even greater improvement over the already good Angel version than the new Eighth does. It is more alive, at once more intense and more warm-hearted, and DG has ensured maximum effectiveness by providing much more spacious and impactive sound the Angel, while managing to get the work conveniently on a single disc instead of spreading it over three sides. There is no resisting the glory of this Fourth, which sweeps the field among the dozen or so current recordings of this most popular of Bruckner's symphonies.
(Karajan has remade the Seventh, too, for DG, and that should be along shorthly, with Wagner's Siegfried Idyll as fill-up.)