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Bruckner Symphony 1 (Jochum, Staatskapelle Dresden)

February 14, 2013

It begins heavily, a pianissimo heart beating in the lower strings. Several measures later, the violins enter, carrying a soulful tune. In a way, it sounds as if a military from a far-away country is beginning a long march. Moments later, the work explodes, and the violins tear away at sixteenth-note runs.

This is the beginning of Anton Bruckner’s First Symphony. Premiered in 1868, it is nicknamed “The Saucy Maid”, perhaps because Bruckner did indeed run around with young girls for much of his life. The work, the composed far before Bruckner’s heyday, hints at the talent he would show decades afterwards. A careful listener can pick up on many motifs, rhythms, and even musical tricks that Bruckner used in his later, more famous symphonies.

The recording, by Eugen Jochum and Staatskapelle Dresden, is of a decent quality. Despite periodic brass squeals and the fact that the saline tone of the first violin sections occasionally does not lend itself to the fast-moving, high lines Bruckner wrote for the violin, the symphony is well-performed. One reason that Bruckner is not as popular today as he should be is that many conductors choose to perform in the same dry, boring, and rather monotonous manner that it is easy to slip into, yet Jochum deftly avoids the trap.

Demonstrating clear knowledge of the musical score as well as an understanding of the players before him, Jochum shapes the sound in the right places: heavy when the piece needs weight, sharp and abrupt when there is a sudden dynamic change, and earth-shaking when Bruckner writes for depth in the brass section. Indeed, the most redeeming characteristic of this recording is that the orchestra plays with magnificent lyricism, performing Bruckner’s melodies as he would have intended. The wind section is particularly noteworthy for its blending of sound and tone color, and the strings play with the identifiable Dresden sound that fits Bruckner’s music. These qualities are epitomized in the third movement, as the Staatskapelle conquers the piece, playful, tuneful, and happy whenever necessary.

For many orchestras that play Bruckner, balance is a massive issue. Bruckner wrote for a large brass section of four trombones, four french horns, and two trumpets, and in other recordings, it is easy to lose the strings under a brassy wall of sound. Staatskapelle Dresden is an exception; the brass know when it is their turn to play out, and when it is time to quiet down! The winds and strings blend seamlessly, and the effect is jaw-dropping.

Ultimately, the Jochum version of Bruckner’s 1st is a good one, albeit screechy every once in a while. As an introduction to Bruckner, this recording would not be a bad choice.

 

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