The last time I made lavish claims about Sergiu Celibidache's Bruckner, a respected colleague picked up the gauntlet. "A generous gesture," wrote Richard Osborne in Gramophone, "but if you believe that, you'll believe anything." He did at least concede that superlatives were in order, "occasionally".
The set in question - released by EMI some two years ago - chronicled marmoreal Bruckner performances that "Celi" gave in Munich towards the end of his life. Twenty years earlier, he had conducted Bruckner with the SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart and in terms of tempo alone the differences between the two sets are astonishing.
Deutsche Grammophon's latest instalment of Celibidache: the Stuttgart Recordings includes readings of Symphonies Nos 7, 8 and 9 which, between them, are swifter than their Munich successors by almost 50 minutes. In those days, Celi was concerned more with the varying pulse of Bruckner's arguments and the textural implications of his harmonies than with moulding massive monuments in sound.
The digital Munich set scores highest on patience, architecture, tonal weight, interpretative consistency and sound quality (which is far richer than on DG's analogue set), whereas Stuttgart lets more of the light in, holds tighter - and keeps the arguments mobile.
I've always thought of Schubert as Bruckner's closest musical soul mate, which makes DG's coupling singly appropriate. Celibidache's performance of Schubert's Fifth Symphony is beautifully tailored, swift and airy, but the Brucknerian axis registers with immeasurably more force on a mid-price EMI Klemperer Legacy CD that pairs the Unfinished Symphony with the "Great" C major.
Otto Klemperer's Philharmonia Schubert is unsentimental, animated and refreshingly blunt. Nothing could be farther removed from Celi's blending of textures, though there are some parallels - not least an overall preference for slow tempos and an occasional tendency to surprise us with faster ones.
EMI also treats us to Klemperer's plain-speaking Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, so if you're turned off by the idea of Celi's "heavenly lengths", you may prefer this dignified, no-frills approach to one of the repertoire's loveliest symphonic masterpieces.
Bruckner, Schubert Celibidache DG 445 471-2 (four discs, plus rehearsal 'bonus')
Bruckner Klemperer EMI CDM5 67330 2
Schubert Klemperer EMI CDM5 67338 2
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