SINCE Mischa Violin turned out to be a pianist, it is reassuring to know that Rhene-Baton was actually a conductor, and so is Guenter Wand -- though the significance of Wand's name is apparent only to Anglophones. (The German word Wand means "wall," not "wand.") In any event, the 70-year-old Wand, who conducted the Guerzenich Orchestra in Cologne for nearly three decades and this fall became principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is getting a great deal of attention in Germany for his Harmonia Mundi recordings of all the Bruckner symphonies, with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, and he just might change a lot of people's thinking about these works.
All nine of Bruckner's numbered symphonies are available now on imported Electrola pressings under Harmonia Mundi's own label; Nos. 5 and 7 are also on the domestic Pro-Arte label (comparable quality Wakefield pressings), and the rest will probably follow. The documentation is scanty in some cases, without even identification of the editions used, but the performances themselves are exceptional in almost every case.
In interpreting Bruckner, Wand apparently rejects the notion of ceremoniousness in favor of an unprecedented galvanic approach that brings these symphonies to life with fiery conviction. There are no empty gestures in his readings, no self-consciousness, no laid-on mysticism -- only living music, and a degree of excitement one hardly takes for granted in this material.
At least five of these nine recordings are serious candidates for first choice among some pretty distinguished versions of the respective works, and at least three of the others will be similarly appealing to listeners who go along with Wand's textual choices. The one disappointment, I think, is No. 6 (H.M. 065-99672), in which Wand's insightful reading is let down by some scrappy orchestral playing. In the rest of the cycle, there are few intimations of the orchestra's being less than a first-rate ensemble.
The questionable choices are Symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 7. In No. 1, Wand gives us the Vienna revision instead of the original Linz version. I think this is a mistake (particularly in the weakened end of the work), but Brucknerians who want the Vienna version for alternate listening (Karajan's magnificent new recording of the Linz version on DG 2532.062) will find it done to a turn on H.M. 065-99937.
Robert Haas' edition of the 1877 revision of the Second Symphony is recorded by Wand on H.M. 065-99938. Haas restored the cuts made in that version, so that what we have is an amalgam of the 1873 original and the revision, with the horn instead of the original clarinet, for example, at the end of the slow movement. Haitink (Philips 802.912) simply gives us the 1873 version intact, while Karajan (DG 2532.063) opts for the Nowak edition of the 1877 version but restores the cut in the finale. I think Haitink and Karajan still have the edge here.
In No. 7, which seems to be the most popular of all Bruckner's symphonies now, Wand omits the "controversial" cymbal clashes in the Adagio, which makes that climax sound like an "Add-a-Part" or "Music Minus One" record intended for home percussionists. Ekkehart Kroher's notes cite the matter of the cymbal clashes having been an afterthought actually pasted to the already finished score and eventually crossed out with the notation "Not Valid." Max Rudolf, however, who is himself a distinguished interpreter of this statement, points out that "Not Valid" is not in Bruckner's handwriting, and that if "the composer really wished to forget about the percussion effect he would have removed the strip." Bruno Walter and Hans Rosbaud, among other eminent Brucknerians, also omitted the cymbals, and Wand surpasses them both in terms of conviction and intensity (H.M. 153-99877/78 or specially priced Pro-Arte 2PXL-2010).
In the remaining five symphonies -- Nos. 3, 4, 5, 8 and 9 -- Wand allows no room for complaint; one may only allude to the glory of his vision and its realization. For No. 3, Haitink is yet again the only conductor to favor the early version (1878); Wand goes along with 1889, in Nowak's editon (H.M. 065-99923), and, like Karajan on DG, manages to avoid having his Adagio interrupted for turnover. In this work and No. 4 (the "Romantic"), Wand achieves a measure of vitality beyond most of his colleagues: He finds, as he does indeed in all the symphonies, the music's natural pulse and lets it appear to play itself, without the intrusion of an interpretive middleman. The famous scherzo of No. 4 (H.M. 065-99738) has never sounded so fresh.
The Fifth Symphony is one of the special peaks in Wand's series. His emphasis on clarity, as well as the vitality evident throughout his cycle, makes it quite the most compelling presentation of this work on records so far. The sound quality itself is not so rich as what Philips gave Haitink, or DG gave Karajan, but the linear clarity of the performance itself, most particularly in the staggering coda to the final movement, triumphs over any real or imagined technical limitations (H.M. 153-99670/71 or Pro-Arte 2PAL-2008).
Bruckner's masterpiece, the Eighth Symphony (H.M. 153-99853/54), and the incomparably poignant Ninth (065-99804) are extraordinarily affecting in Wand's performances. As in the earlier symphonies, he seems to understand that Bruckner wrote in all the emotional effects, and that those will take care of themselves just fine if the conductor simply makes musical sense of the works. He does not fuss over this or that phrase or shift gears in mid-movement; he does not underscore what is already obvious by way of saying "Look, this is great," but keeps it all flowing with a believable intensity that says "Listen, it's alive! "
Everyone who cares about Bruckner will have to have most of the Wand recordings -- and there just may be a lot more who do care, because of these recordings.