By Evan Sercombe
AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Author
Anton Bruckner’s nine numbered symphonies, though only eight were completed, comprise one of the greatest testaments to symphonic art to come out of the German-speaking lands in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Often reviled by critics and audiences alike in his own lifetime, over the last fifty years there has been a magnificent and well-deserved revival in recognition for this unduly uncredited composer. While still not a household name, his works gain new listeners and admirers with each day that passes.
In this article I hope to lay out the very best performances of his works, as well as rank those works in the order in which I find them most enjoyable and satisfying personally.
Due to his relative neglect, both in his lifetime and after, as well as a certain cult-like following he has attained, there are a number of problems present in the discourse surrounding his life and work. Look into these discussions for even a few minutes, and you’ll discover people talking about “cathedrals in sound” and “spiritual profundity,” and, to be quite frank, when I was starting out, I was immediately turned off by these statements. I know this to be a personal viewpoint, but it seemed to me that a lot of people were far more interested in talking about the music and its so-called “depth,” than actually listening to the music and forming their preferences that way, rather than simply parrot what they had been told by other people.
And if overly ideological, somewhat elitist fans aren’t enough to put you off, there’s more! Not only are the issues stated in the previous paragraph present there are musicological problems as well! Due to a combination of (often over-emphasized) self-doubt, and well-meaning but somewhat incompetent friends, Bruckner’s symphonies often come in multiple versions, not to mention the two unnumbered and effectively disowned symphonies that also flowed from the master’s pen. For his third symphony alone there exist three separate versions, each of these having a “sub-version” of its own, bringing the total up to no fewer than six independent versions of the same piece of music.
Now if all of this sounds like a bit too much to deal with, you’re probably right. I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from diving into this great body of work; in fact, I want to encourage as many people as possible to join in on celebrating his 200th birthday by enjoying his art, but I must lay out the problems before I can offer what I hope to be reasonable solutions.
Now that all of this is established there is one more extremely important piece of context you must be made aware of: Bruckner’s own preferences, set down at the end of his own life. Bruckner willed specific versions of his manuscripts to the imperial library in Vienna, stating, in that document, which exact versions he wanted them to preserve and publish after his death. Here is a summation of that list, handily created by the music critic David Hurwitz:
For the sake of concision in what will be a very long article, when I recommend recordings I will not discuss each version of each symphony. That would be a fool’s errand. I will discuss the most popular versions of each work, Bruckner’s Symphony no.”0” (a rather unfortunate piece of drivel he didn’t have the forethought to destroy), the early Symphony in F minor, and the 1877 version of his Symphony no. 3, due to his own preference.
With all of that out of the way, let’s get on to the ranking!
11. Symphony in F minor (WAB 99)
The reason for this work going in last place is incredibly simple: it does not sound like Bruckner. To my ear, and to most people’s ears, this piece is, if anything, a practical study in form and nothing more. Thematically it is somewhat reminiscent of Schumann, if Schumann were thrown in a microwave and warmed over to the point of turning to rubber.
Still, it is a solid exercise in listening (and, for some, patience) to take forty minutes from your day and listen to this piece. For that purpose, I recommend: Simone Young/Philharmoniker Hamburg.
10. Symphony no. "0" (WAB 100)
In my mind, this piece is truly tied for last place with the aforementioned Symphony in F minor. The reason for this is, of course, that while it sounds like Bruckner, it is clumsy Bruckner. Largely I think this is due to the incessant marching rhythm in the first movement, which was done much more successfully in his First Symphony. There is no reason why Bruckner could not craft a convincing march-like movement, he simply failed to do so here. The inner movements of this work I believe to be of a remarkably higher quality than the first movement and finale, but as such it does not add up to a convincing whole.
It is also worth noting, contrary to wider perception, that this piece was not written before the first symphony, but between the first and second “canonical” symphonies. Earlier scholarship placed it before the first in the chronology because of its formal problems, but that perception has since been proven false. This is interesting because it poses the idea that Bruckner had the first symphony “stuck in his head,” so to speak, and in a way, was trying to write a more direct sequel to it.
The best performance of this deeply flawed work is: Markus Poschner/Bruckner Orchester Linz. This is the one performance of this piece I feel to be almost entirely successful, due to Poschner's smart and well-placed manipulations of tempo in the first movement and finale, which give them a much greater sense of structural coherence than any other performance I’ve heard.
9. Symphony no. 2 (WAB 102)
The second being placed last among Bruckner’s “canonical” symphonies is hardly a unique placement. This piece is very nice and enjoyable, but it is transitional in style, and you can tell. This work is Bruckner finding his way from the fiery and furious Symphony no.1 to the granitic, grand style that would define his mature work. This placement is not necessarily a judgment of quality, as it was with the previous two entries, but simply a reflection of personal preference. From here on out, I regard each of these pieces as essential Bruckner.
And the recommended recording is: Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I am not the world’s biggest fan of Georg Solti’s work generally; however, his best music-making was in repertoire where he could use his trademark extremity for truly great effect. Solti’s work in Bruckner’s early symphonies (1 through 3-ish) is magnificent. This is the best performance of Bruckner’s Second that exists. Enough said.
8. Symphony no. 3 (WAB 103)
Some critics have called this Bruckner’s least perfect, but most magnificent, mature symphony. While I am not sure I agree with this, it is indeed a flawed and beautiful masterwork. It opens with a trumpet solo of exquisite power and beauty, which leads to the movement that made Bruckner famous, or notorious, if not for positive reasons. Its premier was a disaster. The scheduled conductor died suddenly only a month before that concert, forcing Bruckner, a bit of a socially awkward man, to step up and conduct his own piece. This, of course, went horribly, and the performance was a mess, leaving just a few people in the audience, a young Gustav Mahler included. Bruckner then entrusted Mahler with the score to the most ideal and excellent version of the score, the brilliant, and thankfully not interfered with, 1877 edition, to create a piano reduction.
The best recording, in my view, is: Haitink/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Haitink also made an excellent earlier recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but I find his later one with Vienna to be finer, if only because of the greater weight of the orchestral playing. Both performances are of a wonderful intensity and charm that I believe put this work's best foot forward.
7. Symphony no. 4 “Romantic” (WAB 104)
Coming in seventh place is Bruckner’s great nature poem. While I do love the fourth, its various versions point us toward a very interesting problem in Bruckner’s compositional style and habits. Most of the symphonies Bruckner wrote are symphonies in the classical (as in classical period) sense, that is, the largest portion of the intellectual and dramatic argument are placed in the first movement of the work with the finale more or less there to provide a good bang at the end. This is, of course, a gross generalization, but by the time we get to Beethoven, Schubert, and late-period Mozart and Haydn, there was already a trend occurring in which the weight of that argument was shifted away from the first movement and into the finale. Examples of this include Beethoven’s 5th and 9th symphonies, Mozart’s 41st, and Schubert’s 9th.
Bruckner really only wrote two such symphonies, at first, those being the eighth and the fifth. The reason why the fourth symphony’s development as a work is so problematic is that in the time between completing the first version, and the completion of the last legitimate one, he realized that the true weight of the work belonged in the finale, not the first movement. It took years, but this was eventually fully realized in the 1878/80 version of the piece.
The recommended recording is: Barenboim/Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I choose this for Barenboim’s swift and urgent way with the music, as well as the Chicago Symphony’s powerful and world-renowned brass section.
6. Symphony no. 1 (WAB 101)
Here is my placement for Bruckner’s first symphony. While many would rank it far, far lower, it is a much better work than that. Though Bruckner was already middle-aged when he wrote it, it is a work that is full of youthful fire and strength that never really showed up again in his music. That is not to say his later music lacks impact, quite the opposite, but it is a very different kind of impact.
Bruckner referred to this work as “das kecke Beserl,” or, “the cheeky brat,” and the fizzling energy of that descriptor lies in every bar. From the fanfare-like surges of the first movement to the crackle and snap of the scherzo, Bruckner lays out waves of texture and melody that grab the listener by the throat at every turn.
My pick for Bruckner’s first is: Abbado/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Abbado seemed to have a special feeling for this work and brought the sufficient intensity needed to pull it off. This recording is of the earlier “Linz” version of the symphony, and it is the one I prefer, though if you get Abbado's later recording in Berlin of the “Vienna” version you’ll be equally happy as the only differences between the two are in orchestration.
5. Symphony no. 7 (WAB 107)
The seventh symphony was Bruckner’s first true success in his lifetime. It made his name in Germany, even if the Viennese weren’t receptive to it at first. It is Bruckner’s most beautiful symphony just on the surface level, and in a world of music where listeners generally reward something they can enjoy on first hearing, that counts for a lot. The work opens with a lovely arpeggiated theme, rising in the cellos and horns, pulling the tonality away from the tonic and toward B minor and B major. The close of the movement is a whisper-quiet pedal point on E, the music being slowly drawn back to its root by tonal gravity. We then hear an elegiac, transfiguring slow movement and a light-footed, spritely scherzo before arriving at the finale.
This finale is a perfect example of the formalist idea I described when discussing the fourth symphony. This is a “classical” symphony. The argument is weighted more traditionally in the first movement, but it’s to such an extreme degree that it almost becomes a problem. In the wrong hands, the finale can come across as being extremely underpowered when compared with the length of the first and second movements combined.
And that is why for the seventh symphony, I recommend: Eugen Jochum/Staatskapelle Dresden. This is the best performance of a great work from one of the finest conductors of the 20th century, in Bruckner specifically. Jochum gives the finale what feels like equality with the first movement, despite not being overly slow, thanks to tastefully flexible tempi. He also delivers one of the most hushed, beautiful, and almost disturbingly intense accounts of the slow movement, all aided by fabulous playing from the Staatskapelle Dresden. You won’t find a better recording than this one, bar none.
4. Symphony no. 6 (WAB 106)
Like the first symphony listed earlier in this article, the sixth is an incredibly fresh, spritely work. Of all of the Bruckner symphonies, this is something of a redheaded stepchild. It’s his shortest mature work, but as a listener, you must not mistake that for a lack of impact. This symphony is rhythmically vivacious, contrapuntally virtuosic, and, best of all, delightfully modal in its harmony! It is refreshing and mysterious, and a perfect oasis in the midst of what can feel like a desert of heavy German romanticism. It is a delight from start to finish, though for me the standout movement here is the scherzo. It is light-footed and shadowy and bears more than a passing resemblance to Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The only true flaw in the work is the very end of the finale. It ends, rather abruptly, with a few chords punched out by the brass. This is fairly normal for Bruckner, but for whatever reason, in this piece, it can come across as somewhat underwhelming as a final conclusion. As with any relatively minor problem such as this, it can be easily remedied in a great performance.
And that great performance is: Klemperer/Philharmonia Orchestra. Klemperer takes an unorthodox approach, playing the music cast in quicker tempi slower and slower tempi quicker. The result is that the work feels much more balanced in structure while being contrasted enough to maintain interest. It is bold and strong, the first movement's Phrygian primary theme rumbling darkly under the texture, and returning with brute power at the end of the finale. The slow movement has all of its quiet, gentle beauty, and the scherzo flies as eerily as it must with all of its atmosphere sufficiently sustained. Like Jochum’s recording of the seventh, this is the very best recording of the sixth on record.
3. Symphony no. 5 (WAB 105)
Bruckner’s incredibly unique compositional style has no greater manifestation than the fifth symphony. While it is not my personal favorite as a piece to be enjoyed emotionally, it is a very, very great work. Bruckner’s trademark contrapuntal skill is at its very strongest in the finale, which takes the form of an immense fugal texture merged with his typically modified treatment of sonata form. There is a fascinating link between this piece and Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. Both are rare examples of the formal balance I mentioned when discussing the fourth, both have highly contrapuntal and motivically dense finales, and both are revered as among their composer’s crowning compositional achievements. It’s not hard to imagine why! The finale is a massive movement even by Bruckner’s standards, and, on top of that, most of the movement is merely buildup to the blazing chorale which comprises its conclusion. That being said, a good performance must not underplay the first three movements or the main body of the finale; otherwise, you’ll have a terribly boring experience lasting well over an hour.
And for me, the performance that best carries the momentum of the work all the way through the end is Poschner/Bruckner Orchester Linz. Markus Poschner’s Bruckner cycle hasn’t exactly been even. His recordings of the fourth and the second were, at best, nothing special, while his recordings of the eighth and the sixth are at the highest standard of performance in those pieces. Even better than his recordings of the latter two works, in my opinion, is his absolutely thrilling performance of the fifth! It is the best timed, most logical and structurally sound recording of the first movement on recording, the slow movement is on the quicker side, keeping a movement that can really have some dead spots flowing beautifully. The Scherzo is perfectly judged and very exciting, and Poschner goes into the finale all guns blazing. Where most conductors chop the tempo in half for the chorale in the finale, this one starts the coda that way and actually speeds up. The result is incredible. You’ll never hear anything better!
2. Symphony no. 8 (WAB 108)
Bruckner’s eighth symphony stands as a monument to all that his particular blend of austerity and 19th-century romanticism stood for. It is, by a considerable margin, his longest symphony, with the slowest performances taking nearly two hours and the average falling somewhere between an hour and fifteen to an hour and thirty minutes. The first movement is an incredibly dark piece of music and ends quietly after a huge climax that nearly tears the fabric of the piece apart. The Scherzo that follows is music of rejuvenation and joy, leaping upward higher and higher before dissolving into fountains of light. The slow movement is of even greater expressive weight than the first movement, with a pair of harps coming in, for the first and only time in Bruckner’s music, to assist its primary climax. The finale is even greater than the slow movement, ending, famously, with a massive coda piling each movement’s primary theme on top of each other in a glorious moment that has been compared to constellations moving through the night sky. If ever there were an argument to be made for Bruckner being a “spiritual” composer, this would be the piece to base that argument on.
Formally, this work is essentially a mirror image of the seventh. While that symphony can suffer the problem of the finale sounding somewhat underpowered, this piece has the opposite issue: you must be careful not to overemphasize the first movement’s apocalyptic message, or you risk not pulling off the rest of the work's brilliant light.
The best performance of this work is: Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording was made right at the end of Karajan’s career, and I find something about his late-period conducting, say from the late 70’s onward, to be a truly remarkable body of work. Like Solti, I feel Karajan could be generally shallow, though in a different way. Karajan was a conductor with a lot of philosophical and spiritual pretension, who used that pretension to hide genuine shortcomings in both his thoughts and deeds. That said, in his later years, his dictatorial hold over the Berlin Philharmonic slackened before his final separation from that orchestra, and there was a documented shift in his interpretive insight. This recording was made on tour with the Vienna Philharmonic not all that long before Karajan himself died. After a performance in Carnegie Hall on the same tour he is said to have walked backstage after the concert, surprised at the intensity of his own conducting. This is a fabulous recording with great sound — and easily findable online.
And, last but not least…
1. Symphony no.9 (WAB 109)
This is my personal favorite of Bruckner’s symphonies. It is the darkest, but in spite of that, for me, it feels the most real. In my mind, this is the honest confession of an old man’s crisis of faith, of fear of a beyond far greater than the human mind’s capacity to imagine. Due to that, I generally find completions of the finale distasteful. Without over-romanticizing the cognitive decline and unfortunate demise of a beloved historical figure, there is something poetic about the finale going unfinished. Where Bruckner would likely have ended the work with a bombastic and joy-filled finale, assuming he wouldn’t have substantially revised or rewritten what he had finished at the time of his death, after the utter blackness of the adagio, that would not have felt expressively honest. As such, I will not be discussing the completion of the finale, and I am not interested in arguing my view on it further in this article.
The work begins, famously, with a textural quote from Beethoven’s Ninth. Similar to that piece, there is some immediate harmonic trickery at play, moving between a few keys for a shocking cadence in D major, instead of D minor. This use of a modal mixture destabilizes the music from the very beginning in both works, but from this point on, they diverge substantially. Bruckner, of course, follows his powerful first subject with what may be the most beautiful of his Gesangsperioden, then a powerful, oceanic third subject. These go through a variety of developmental processes before being recapitulated in full, with the third subject effectively truncated and merged with a coda of brute strength.
After this large first movement, we get a Scherzo that, to me, has always sounded like a sort of German take on Ravel’s La Valse. Of course, Ravel’s piece was written much later, and he hated all things German so there’s really no way he could’ve taken inspiration from this movement, but the comparison is apt. This is a fatalistic dance of death, contrasted eerily with Bruckner’s feverishly Mendelssohnian trio. If we could listen to what the nightmares of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream sounded like, I imagine it would be something like this. The main body of the Scherzo is then repeated in Bruckner’s typical fashion, ending with a chilling upward gesture in the brass.
Then we come to the Adagio. This was the last symphonic movement Bruckner completed in his lifetime, and it is equal parts bleak and consoling. It opens with a string passage that seems to foreshadow a similar moment in the finale of Mahler’s ninth symphony: a large, barren leap upward, a turn, and, finally, harmony. In Mahler’s finale, this tonality is that of D-flat major, while Bruckner turns to E. In both cases, we are presented with a variety of themes, ranging from passionate lyrical tunes in the strings, to church chorales in the brass and winds, to quotations from both composers' own earlier works. However, where Mahler allows his music to build, fail to truly climax, and fade away in the most realistic depiction of a slow, gentle death in all of music, Bruckner ratchets up the tension. This is music of spiritual anguish. The strings play ever louder ostinati while the brass punches out a doom-laden melody underneath, slowly gaining ground as the music rises higher and higher, but just as it seems the work is going to finally break free of its shadowy bonds, the bottom drops out, and the listener is plunged into a pit of total darkness and despair. The music lets out an unholy scream on a chord so dissonant, nothing like it would be seen again until Mahler’s incomplete tenth symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. After this, Bruckner writes a soft coda, like a gentle landing after that terrifying leap into the abyss, but even he cannot stop the music from ending whisper soft and only half-lit.
The recommended recording is: Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This is the most brutal and unapologetically blunt recording of the work since Jochum’s recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden. What puts this performance over the edge for me, though, is its ability to totally suspend time while it’s playing. This is a reading of the work whose tempo flexibility gives it the ability to be a relatively slow performance while being totally suspenseful and thrilling. Honeck is a Bruckner conductor in the school of Jochum and of Furtwängler, and that gives him greater control over the pacing of events within the work as a whole. In the wrong hands, that kind of control can lead to totally disjunct, rhythmically lazy, incompetently paced musical performances, but in the right hands, in this case Maestro Honeck’s, the result is totally transfiguring.
Thank you for reading this rather long-winded article. I have a lot of personal affection for Bruckner’s symphonies, as well as his sacred music, which we did not discuss here, and I hope my insight and opinion offer a new viewpoint into his world. Happy listening, music lovers!
Evan Sercombe is a Wisconsin-based composer and tenor, currently attending the Interlochen Arts Academy. They have participated in the Interlochen Arts Camp composition program and studied under various composers, including Scott Gendel and Cynthia van Maanen. Their music spans from art songs to large-scale chamber and orchestral works. Primarily a neoclassicist, their current music is marked by an expressive intensity and lyric grace. They serve as the director of educational operations for the Deleuze New Music Collective. They began writing for AppreciateOpera.org in 2024.