Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Bruckner Symphony No. 1 Ivor Bolton

BRUCKNER Symphony No. 1 (1865/66 Linz version)
Ivor Bolton, cond; Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
OEHMS 436 (51:36)

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Oehms Classics has a curious habit of competing with itself. A few years ago, an impressive Ring cycle from Sebastian Weigle in Frankfurt appeared almost simultaneously with another version from Simone Young at Hamburg State Opera. Similarly, this Bruckner symphony cycle with Ivor Bolton and the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg appears in the Oehms catalog beneath another recent entry, again from Simone Young, with the Hamburg Philharmonic. Young’s recording of the First Symphony (OC633) is one of the highlights of her series, and attracted impressive notices (not in Fanfare though, where Jerrfrey L. Lipscomb described it as “drab” in 35:6). I disagree, and find Young’s version both agile and lithe, but still retaining as much gravity as the music needs. The Hamburg Philharmonic is on superb form, and the SACD audio is first rate.
All of which is bad news for Ivor Bolton, whose reading, while serviceable, never excels in any of these areas. Like virtually every conductor of recent times, he opts for the Linz version (and that includes Simone Young—surely Oehms could have made good with their duplication by giving us a modern recording of the much neglected Vienna revision). But the nimble dexterity that characterizes Simone Young’s reading continually evades Bolton, and he turns in a reading that I found as drab as Lipscomb did its competitor.
At 51:36, Bolton’s is now the longest Bruckner First on my shelves. Taking Bruckner slow is almost always laudable, provided it is shaped with care and that enough contrast is provided in tempos and dynamics. Bolton does go to some dynamic extremes—the repeated chords at the opening are virtually inaudible, but by the time we reach the first climax we’re scaling the summits.
Tempo-wise, though, this is a very sullen reading. Passages that are usually slow, the quieter interludes in the first movement and most of the Adagio, sound elegant and stately now just a shade broader. But traditionally faster passages become ponderous and lose momentum. Bolton’s biggest problem is the rallentandos into climaxes in the outer movements; the logic of the music obliges him to slow down even further, but he has nowhere left to go. The expansive approach benefits the Adagio, and other recordings sound rushed after hearing this one. Punchy accents from the brass restore some vitality to the scherzo, but even here Bolton’s uniform and pedestrian pacing ground the music.
The orchestral playing and the audio are both good (thought neither match the Simone Young), and it is to the credit of the Salzburg players that they can maintain their tone and keep a sense of phrase structure over these extended spans.
In a sense, this is an old-fashioned reading. The majority of recent Bruckner recordings are by conductors who prefer swifter tempos and lighter textures. Bolton goes against that trend, seeking breadth and weight at every turn. But the results lack nuance, contour, and pace. It pains me to criticize any Bruckner recording for being too slow, but this one just is.  

This review appears in Fanfare Magazine issue 38:4.

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