Who is the best Bruckner interpreter of all-time?

Anton Bruckner

You can't drown, you fool. You're immortal.

Things here are slowly settling back to normal, and with that comes the hope that I’ll be able to re-kindle this blog a little bit with the final embers probably already burned out but still kind of a faint orange color.  I do have some pure gasoline, though, so I hold on to the dream.  By the way, the San Francisco Giants are World Series champs.

Somehow over the last few weeks, someone besides every member of the Giants and the guy who stole our shit has managed to be in my consciousness, and that’s Anton Bruckner.  I’ve found myself listening to the symphonies quite a bit recently, although I don’t entirely know why.  I can’t say they necessarily provide comfort in a time of stress, and they don’t really jive with baseball.  I guess it’s just that they’re really awesome.

Today, for example, I listened to this recording that BBC 3 played on their overnight program a while back.  It’s a raucous Symphony no. 6 from 1980 with Eugen Jochum leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, easily one of the very best performances of this symphony that I’ve ever encountered.  You can say that with Jochum a lot when it comes to Bruckner, actually.

Which got me thinking…

Every conductor has specialties, and by extension weaknesses.  Christian Thielemann, for example, is widely respected for his interpretations of Wagner, but had never tackled Mahler until a recent performance of the 8th Symphony that made me wish he had stuck to Wagner, or plumbing, or almost any other profession besides interpreter of Mahler Symphony no. 8.  And yet, Thielemann also has a pretty strong Bruckner reputation as well.  So does Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  So does Kent Nagano.  Do they deserve these reputations?  I don’t know.

But what I do know is that it seems like there is no shortage of “Bruckner specialists.”  I don’t know what it is about Bruckner’s music that has caused this, but it seems like a legitimate phenomenon.  This is not to suggest that these conductors are only Bruckner conductors, but it is to suggest that I know of more conductors with strong reputations for conducting Bruckner than any other composer.

Not unlike The Highlander, the God of Abraham, and any number divided by itself, there can be only one, right?  Surely in this crowded field, there has to be a best of the bunch, a single force to lead us down the path to Bruckner enlightenment above all others? But who?

I think I know who it isn’t:  anyone currently breathing.  With respect and apologies to the aforementioned Thielemann, Harnoncourt, and Nagano, and with greater respect and more apologies to Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, Herbert Blomstedt, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Batman Barenboim, Franz Welser-Moest, and the horribly underrated Donald Runnicles, the best Bruckner interpreter of all-time is probably dead.

If only that narrowed our search significantly.  That still leaves an incredibly crowded field: Wilhelm Furtwangler, Sergiu Celibidache, Gunter Wand, Eugen Jochum, Carl Schuricht, Takashi Asahina, Georg Tintner, Herbert von Karajan, Klaus Tennstedt, Otto Klemperer, Eduard van Beinum, and probably more.

So that’s my question to anyone willing to comment.  Who is the best Bruckner conductor ever?  I’ll think on it myself and give my answer next time, but if you have a thought, shout shout let it all out and tell us who and why.

And listen to that Jochum performance of the Sixth.  But don’t let it’s bad ass-ness sway you.




27 thoughts on “Who is the best Bruckner interpreter of all-time?

  1. Eugen Jochum, undoubtedly. Followed closely by Georg Tintner and Herbert von Karajan. NOT Daniel Barenboim.

  2. Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Sergiu Celibidache, Carlo Maria Giulini, Eugen Jochum. Danile Barenboim is a fine Bruckner conductor too, as was Herbert von Karajan.

  3. Celibidache !

  4. Gunther Wand ruled! Regrettably he was not as renowned as many other.

  5. Karajan and Jochum are allways respectable. Wand is sometimes gorgeous,but not in adagios. Tintner,likewise. Baremboim ,never. Furtwangler sounds too old in accoustic shape.For me, the biggest champion is Haitink , who keeps organic tissue without abrasive brass

  6. Celibidache, Karajan,, Jochum,
    Wand, Knappertsbusch, sometimes,

  7. Günter Wand. For me, personally, at least. His Bruckner interpretations are the only ones that feel completely right, inspired, really in line with Bruckner’s intentions and spirit. I had the honor of witnessing one of his very last concerts with Bruckner’s Symphonie No. 8 in Munich. The energy in the room was unbelievable!

  8. You may want to give Simone Young a try. I love her versions of Symphonies 0, 2 and 3

  9. Hi, All.
    I totally agree about the fact that the greatest interpreters of Bruckner have now passed away (with the possible exception of Dohnányi?). I am not sure, however, it is possible to isolate one out of that incredible multitude. As well as those I knew already (Karajan, Celibidache, Furtwängler, Walter, Giulini, Klemperer, Sinopoli, Abbado, Asahina), I found some recent discoveries really compelling listening (Schuricht, Beinum, Suitner). I must confess I am not too inclined towards either Jochum or Wand. I know this is probably an anathema to many but their performances don’t make me vibrate along with the music. It is a difficult thing to explain. As it is even more difficult to explain why a conductor I love immensely – Knappertsbusch – in Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, in Bruckner does not catch my imagination and senses.

  10. Forgot to add a wonderful 5th with Kempe.

  11. Celibidache … The Maestro ! Unfortunately I would loved bornt early in order to have the privilege to admire his talent, and passion in live …

  12. Klaus Tennstedt is among one of the best interpreters of Bruckner. Take a listen to his live performance with Berlin Philharmonic [available by Testament]. Although, he didn’t do a complete cycle of Bruckner [an especially gaping hole with not a single Ninth ever been recorded].

  13. Wand, Celibidache, and Horenstein. Wand because his two complete and partially complete third cycle show an interpreter who revealed the composer in unerring fashion. Wand became Bruckner in the Heideggerian sense of “uncovering” the symphonies.

    Celi because his Munich cycle has many moments of transcendant interpretive genius that perhaps revealed even beyond the notes themselves (eg final movement of the Fourth).

    And Horenstein who left the peerless live London rendition of the composer’s greatest symphony (the Eighth) where Nature seizes the baton from Horenstein’s hand. The summa of all Bruckner recordings of the past and present.

  14. my love for Bruckner revolves mainly around his 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies. My choice for great conductors is:
    For the 7th, I would rank Wand, Celibidache (except his recording with Berlin Philharmoniker, which is deadly slow!) for his Munich Philharmoniker recordings, Klemperer, Boehm and Ozawa (still alive!)
    For the 8th, my choices are, Wand, Celibidache, Guilini, Lorin Maazel (Berlin Philharmoniker), and Boulez (still alive!).
    For the 9th, Wand, Jochum, Guilini!
    I am not much inclined to Karajan’s, Abbado’s, Haitink’s or Barenboim’s recordings.
    We all have to be grateful to Bruckner for the great music he created, and to these wonderful Conductors who left behind such a legacy.

  15. In order of excellence: von Matacic, Asahina, Wand (all three of them outstanding masterpieces) … , Giulini, Skrowaczewsky, Jochum, (all 3 very good performances) …., Paternostro, Haitink (both plainly good) , …., Barenboim, Celibidache (both 2 lacking right accents), Dudamel (messy)
    Other conductors, such as Solti, Schuricht and v. Harnoncourt and more I have heard but I don`t remember well enough to rank. For anyone who`s into Brucker, certainly go and look after remastered CD`s of von Matacic, e.g. with NHK Symphony orchestra.

  16. I have to agree with Otto. I would also put Skrowaczewsky into the “outstanding” category.

  17. For me, Bruckner is the greatest composer of all time. My sense of spirituality and connection to God comes through Bruckner. The music is incredibly sublime, powerful, inspirational, otherworldly. He took the idea of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, infused it with Wagnerian instrumentation/timbre (and to some extent harmony) and somehow managed to infused all that with the transcendental and, in my opinion, brought music to unimaginable heights. Going to the point of the inquiry — conductors — personally, I find the best overall to be Karajan. I would highly recommend to you his version of the Fifth — no other recording can touch it. It’s amazing how Karajan understood that symphony on such an elemental level and the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is flawless and passionate. I like Haitink’s Fourth and Boehm’s version of the Third.

    I’m also a huge San Francisco Giants fan! So, quite unusually, given how disparate those two interests are, we share two great passions!

  18. Bruckner and the Giants? GOOD MAN! 😊

  19. Yeah — Bruckner is always amazing. The Giants hitting? Not so much, lately. But let’s hope these two recent victories over the Marlins augur a sustained upward trend. And maybe Cueto and Samardzija are worth all we spent on them. You know MadBum will ultimately be our rock and hopefully Cain and Peavy have enough gas left in the tank. Go Giants! And go Bruckner!

  20. This is difficult, there are many! To me Celibidache first, Jochum, Skrowaczewski second, Wand and Giulini also very good, Knappertsbusch sometimes

  21. Klemperer. He was the first conductor to convince me of Bruckner’s greatness – I’d tried the Chailly and Haitink recordings of the 7th but had come away nonplussed. When I heard Klemperer, everything – the architecture, the grandeur, that indefinable sense of ‘rightness’ just clicked – and I’ve never looked back.

  22. New cycles venzago the best in my opinion. The most radical view but stoll good bruckner nontheless. I enjoyed his cycle enormous.
    On a basos of bruckner 3 dresden girst version nezet seguin. Amazing performance
    Furtwangler jochum schuricht asahina van beinum klemperer matacic guilini karajan and haitink concertgebouw are all great bruckner conductors
    Wand has good performances but is bit mainstream. His koln cycle still his best.

  23. It seems pretty clear to me that the one greatest was Furtwangler, and all the others contributed their bits and pieces. I think Karajan was great for the later symphonies, Jochum left some pretty decent mid (5,6). Abbado also left some great performances with his Lucerne orchestra. Ahh, come to think of it, it’s been a while since Sinopoli also joined the club… I believe his contribution to B discography was significant. For the conductors who’re still breathing, I’d like to add Dohnany and S. Young as a strong candidate.

  24. Depending upon the symphony, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Carl Schuricht, Jascha Horenstein, Eugen Jochum, Hans Rosbaud, Theodore Guschlbauer

  25. Gotta say, I’ve been listening a lot lately to the Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin cycle that you can get for pretty cheap on iTunes (or at least you used to be able to). It’s pretty stellar. One of the best overall cycles around, in my opinion. The 6th is particularly strong.

  26. A five year old discussion that just keeps eeking responses! LOL Bravo!

    I’ll share my favorite and why: Eugen Jochum and it’s because I believe he thoroughly understood how profoundly the organ as an instrument influenced Bruckner; its tonality, often lingering on chord progressions built on continuous streams of air, ebbing and flowing with sharp evolutions occurring, but always built upon continuously evolving musical hints. Bruckner is all about building, building and building on massive clouds of chorded air while never missing the intricate inter-connectedness of woodwinds, brass, stringed instruments and bold apexes with tympany and percussion. At any time in his symphonies each section of the orchestra may very escalate from soft echoes of musical ideas to pounding, resonant triumph… and back again. When I hear interpretations of Bruckner that hurry and lurch to the musical exclamations without continuously evolving the musical material — I know the conductor profoundly misses what Bruckner was all about and where he learned and built his musical vision: alone, with a grand and massive organ, in a beautiful sanctuary and soaring thoughts on the Almighty.

  27. It’s interesting to read everyone’s comments. But to me, this is an open and shut discussion: Herbert von Karajan. The greatest Bruckner conductor who ever lived, or who ever will live. No other conductor so consistently gets to the soul of this visionary music as Karajan did. The box set of the Bruckner symphonies from Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic takes its place as one of the greatest recorded legacies in all of classical music. Every performance in that set, except for #1, can be counted as among the greatest performances ever recorded of the respective symphony. And some are clearly the best, period. I also greatly respect Bruckner from other great Bruckner conductors like Jochum, Giulini, Skrowaczewski, and even Celibidache at the margins. But to my ears, Karajan towers above all.

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