Anton Bruckner is one of the great masters of the symphony, having taken the model left by Beethoven’s Ninth and run with it in his own series of Nine, all of which sound like a chip from that great model. However, Bruckner’s scores are infused with a wonderfully eccentric dichotomy; at one moment they are heaven and hell battles out of a Bruegel painting, while the next minute, an innocent polka barges in and sets the entire orchestra dancing. The sacred and the secular, the arcane and the naive—these dual qualities make listening to any Bruckner symphony a strange experience, and within the context of the nineteenth century, a highly original one. No one wrote like him until Mahler took up his pen, and many of his works—particularly the Second and Third Symphonies, owe him a tremendous debt.
Amazon is currently offering the complete cycle of symphonies (minus the shorter, yet completely mature First) for mere dollars under the capable baton of Daniel Barenboim. When I briefly worked at the Chicago Symphony in 1999, I had the privilege of hearing Barenboim lead the CSO in Bruckner’s most famous symphony, the Fourth (subtitled the “Romantic”), which was a tremendous experience. You can download each one for between $2.69 and $3.99, all in superior sound and played by the Berlin Philharmonic (who lives and breathes this repertoire).
Here’s a rundown of the symphonies and where to start if you’re a Bruckner beginner:
The Seventh: I would start here, since it’s the prototypical Bruckner symphony. It contains a glorious slow movement, written as a lament for the recently-departed Richard Wagner; as a nod to him, it employs Wagner Tubas, an instrument Wagner commissioned for use in the Ring operas. Starting with an austere, ceremonial lament, it gives way to a gorgeously Romantic theme which gains in intensity each time it returns. Add to this the mysterious first movement, a quicksilver scherzo, and an almost apocalyptic (and then playful) finale, and you have the blueprint for all the symphonies (more or less) to follow. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic Orchestra/dp/B003WNX5EK/ref=sr_ 1_ 12?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-12&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Fourth “The Romantic”: Less dramatic than many of the rest, it flows with Schubertian melody, no where more so than the second movement, with its ‘romantic’ theme (perhaps giving the symphony its subtitle). I also love the “hunting” scherzo, which is one of the highlights of the romantic symphonic repertoire. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B0012FFQZ6/ref=sr_1_13?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-13&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Ninth: Bruckner never lived to finish his Ninth, so the sketches for the Finale were doomed to remain silent (until they were recently completed and recorded by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic—to mixed reviews). Here, however, are the three canonical movements, and they are the most powerful symphonic utterance imaginable—like a grand old wizard booming out his final incantation. The opening movement is like Tolkein in its ability to conjure up an ancient world in modern terms: drama, melody, tragedy, triumph—it’s all here. The second movement scherzo is simply wicked: opening with a playful pizzicato march, it becomes mechanically defiant, stomping and strutting all over the orchestra like a forerunner of The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. Then you have the third movement, a long, deeply elegiac movement that works as a finale; though Bruckner didn’t meant it as a leave-taking, it certainly sounds like a good-bye to the joys and sorrows of life. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B001LGAVME/ref=sr_1_9?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-9&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Eighth: His longest symphony and perhaps the definitive “late nineteenth-century symphony,” it’s jam-packed with drama, fury, romance, and resolution. It would take me pages upon pages to document its twists and turns, but look out for the slow movement, which despite all of Bruckner’s great slow movements, might be his crowning achievement. I also love the opening of the finale, with its galloping rhythms providing a backdrop for a marvelously heroic horn theme. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B0012FB2W2/ref=sr_1_1?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&sr=1-1&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Sixth: His most quiet symphony, full of inspired melody and a sense of searching for a new symphonic direction. Again, the slow movement is a stand-out, and supposedly the inspiration for a very famous song in Bernstein’s West Side Story (see if you can spot it!). http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B0012FB58S/ref=sr_1_8?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-8&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Third “The Wagner”: Bruckner offered Wagner the dedication of either his Second or Third symphony, and seeing all the obvious ‘Wagnerian’ elements of the Third, Wagner opted for it. This nickname isn’t entirely fair to the work, which is very much Bruckner—but his love for Wagner clearly shines through. The opening movement is epic in every sense of the world; a great good and evil struggle is underway in some primeval forest (as I hear in the mysterious opening with its heroic horn calls). The long slow movement quotes Wagner as a nod to the master, and the fiery scherzo anticipates the more famous scherzo of the Seventh symphony. Most famous is the finale, which juxtaposes a chorale with a polka. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B00BZ17W3Q/ref=sr_1_14?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-14&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Fifth: A controversial symphony, which some critics find too bombastic or over-the-top; however you view it, the Fifth is among his most powerful, opening mysteriously and then exploding with Titanic force. Clearly, Beethoven’s Fifth was in the back of his mind. Even the scherzo seems more manic than playful. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B0012EGEH6/ref=sr_1_7?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-7&keywords=bruckner+barenboim
The Second: An early symphony, with occasional longeurs, this symphony allows us to see Bruckner becoming Bruckner. The long—sometimes very long—opening movement has all the trademark thundering brasses and soaring strings, yet takes longer to reach its resolution. The highlight is the extremely original scherzo, which is light-hearted and shows the more ‘rustic’ side of Bruckner’s talent. http://www.amazon.com/Bruckner-Daniel-Barenboim-Philharmonic-Orchestra/dp/B0012FFMAA/ref=sr_1_11?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1386347663&sr=1-11&keywords=bruckner+barenboim