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The Power of the Baton--and Bruckner

Recordings * Early music specialist Harnoncourt and modernist Boulez pull divergent sounds out of the Vienna Philharmonic.

* 1/2 BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 7 Vienna Philharmonic; Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor; Teldec

**** BRUCKNER: Symphony No. 8 Vienna Philharmonic; Pierre Boulez, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon

October 15, 2000|MARK SWED

Look who's conducting Bruckner with the Vienna Philharmonic now!

From opposite ends of the spectrum come early music specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt and high modernist Pierre Boulez. These CDs, both recorded live, are also interesting firsts--Harnoncourt's first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (although he conducts the orchestra regularly) and Boulez's first time conducting Bruckner.

It's striking how differently the orchestra plays under the two conductors, and how different they make Bruckner sound. Harnoncourt presumably attempts to produce something of the acoustic conditions of the late 19th century when the Viennese played Bruckner as new music. He divides the first and second violins and goes in for peculiar balances. The results either tell us that the 19th century Vienna Philharmonic wasn't the lustrous ensemble it is today or that Harnoncourt simply doesn't want them to be. The Seventh Symphony, a magnificent essay in the glories of lyricism, comes out astonishingly flat, rhythmically dull, sonically unimaginative. Even the recorded sound, from the performance in the orchestra's acclaimed hall, the Musikverein, is poor.

Boulez's performance was recorded at the 1996 Bruckner festival in what should be the problematic acoustic of Abbey Church in St. Florian. The recorded sound, however, is quite good, and the performance is staggering. Boulez manages to produce not only his characteristic clarity but to do so in a way that still allows the Viennese strings their creaminess, the brass and winds their golden majesty. Here is something the Viennese have never before known: the sonic equivalent of a Sacher torte with all the taste and texture intact but a healthy reduction of fat and calories. The epic Eighth emerges as some of the purest, most sculptural, most lovingly detailed Bruckner on record, the composer's magnificent harmonies exposed for all their luxuriant richness, his long lines flowing with utter surety.

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