There is a Bruckner Problem, yes, or there are even Bruckner Problems, but I think that the longer we consider these problems, the less problematical they are.  The first problem is, where to start?  We might suppose that Anton Bruckner (1824-96) is remarkable in the fascinating quality of his work.  Hardly any composer except Mahler has built a major reputation as he did, on nine symphonies and relatively little else: a string quintet, choral music, and so on.  Yet his distinction is related to his concentrated breadth of exposition, his development of elements we know from salient Beethoven and Schubert symphonies—from their skills and not from their skulls.  His accomplishment meant much to Mahler and Sibelius, and took its own place in history.

Anton Bruckner was a strange fellow, though many of his eccentricities were related to a mere rustic simplicity that was fired by an inspired imagination and perhaps even a twisted mind.  So this organist from Linz got himself into questionable troubles following little girls in the park—he yearned for a young girl even when he was 70.  He also showed a morbid and unwholesome interest in the physical remains of Beethoven and Schubert when these were reinterred.  Moreover, he wore inappropriate clothes at dressy occasions and said silly things even to the emperor.  Bruckner regarded himself as a devoted Christian and thought that musical harmony and counterpoint were related to the divine spirit and to the Creation.  He was obsessive-compulsive with supercharged visions of the mysterious world—such was his particular late romanticism.  Bruckner’s embarrassing or even repulsive aspects have seemed eccentric to some, and impossible to others.  But then there are also other problems.

Some of these points of difficulty have to do with the corrupt and then corrected editions of his symphonic texts.  Because of Bruckner’s self-doubt or insecurity, he was altogether too vulnerable to criticism, and overreacted to various suggestions about his work.  As a result, there has been a consolidated effort to restore texts that had been mutilated or unduly foreshortened by their own composer.  But wasn’t Bruckner’s self-censorship a part of his own composing process?  Bruckner was “wrong,” perhaps—but he was the creator as well.  Contraction is merely the opposite of expansion.  And expansiveness, hypnotic repetition, cosmic vision, and Wagnerian sound minus the mythology are what we hear in Bruckner.  Though he might be said to have written one symphony nine or even more times, addicted Brucknerians are undeterred by any such considerations—they just want to mainline the stuff, “Nicht zu schnell.  Keinesfalls schleppend.”

They are not thrown off the scent either by an unfortunate kink of history.  Because that notable Austrian also from Linz, Adolf Hitler, was a committed Wagnerite, he also favored Bruckner for his Wagnerian sound.  This resulted in such a bizarre rendition as the fourth movement of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony—a double fugue—being played at a Nuremberg rally.  As one who once heard a Strauss waltz referred to as “Nazi music,” I don’t let such stories bother me, for otherwise I would have to refuse vegetable soup for lunch because Herr Hitler demanded vegetable soup for lunch.  In spite of such associations, the symphonies of Bruckner are accepted and played in Israel today.

Bruckner is not so easy to warm up to: The work requires perspective and staying power.  When I first heard Bruckner—the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter—I couldn’t take it in.  I didn’t hear it, so I wasn’t interested.  I was in my callow youth—my salad days, when I was green in judgment and had no idea what I was missing.  And there have been conductors who seemed to be unable to relate to Bruckner.  Toscanini may have been one of those, and Leonard Bernstein another.

But later I got another chance, offered to me by an academic colleague and a generous friend, a classicist and an historian by trade and a music lover by inclination.  His LP of the Bruckner Fourth, conducted by Otto Klemperer, was a revelation to me, and the horn playing of Alan Civil was a treasure in itself.  Years later, when I played for an aging hipster from my own copy the outrageous triple-forte passage from the middle of the first movement of that Klemperer recording, he responded, “Far freaking out, man!”  Far, indeed!  So I owed something musically to Otto Klemperer, as well as to his academic proponent.  Then, when I realized I had just the slightest acquaintance with Otto’s niece, Kathy Klemperer, at college (in the slalom, she defeated the ski team of West Point), I saw that the mysterious cosmos was also a small world.

So the Fourth Symphony was more than a lesson; it was an experience—but what next?  The Seventh would or even should have been the answer, but I took ’em as they came.  A castoff came my way of what is probably the most challenging and even the greatest of the Bruckner symphonies, the Eighth, which the Austrians call “the Queen of Symphonies,” and rightly so.  The two-disc set that was palmed off on me was a Melodiya recording—a Soviet one, the Leningrad Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Mravinsky.  And the piece was a challenging and rewarding thing that provoked fascination.  Later on, I had the chance to hear the Eighth from Von Karajan, literally on his twisted last legs with the Wiener Philharmoniker in Carnegie Hall, and musical New York turned out.  In such a throng, I was unable to ask Frank Sinatra what he thought about a concert devoted to one great piece, but since it was far-freaking-out, I figured he dug it the most.  After all, Frank couldn’t read music, but he did do some conducting, as buffs will recall.

But never mind all the celebrity stuff—that’s not the point.  The point is that Anton Bruckner was a strange bird but also an obsessed genius, and his compelling works are, in the best sense, highly rewarding.  Harvesting such opportunities can be a necessary pleasure.  I have heard only four of the Bruckner symphonies in concert (the Fourth and the last three), and I will remember the performances as long as I can remember anything.  But there are recorded performances to fill the void, and some performances they are!

Following the Fourth Symphony, the Seventh Symphony of Bruckner is perhaps his most accessible and obviously pleasing work—that’s the one that’s supposed to have the cymbal clash denoting the death of Wagner in the slow movement, where Bruckner registered the news.  When that movement was played on German radio at a certain point in 1945, some intelligence officers knew that Hitler was dead.  But perhaps this symphony speaks for itself, and has connected with many on other grounds.  The third Von Karajan version was his last recording, and quite a good one, but there are others as well, of course.

There are, I believe, two extraordinary sources of Bruckner performances, as well as some good complete sets of the symphonies, as from Eugen Jochum, Günter Wand, and Herbert von Karajan.  And there are also particular individual performances that have a special authority.  Carlo Maria Giulini recorded the Ninth Symphony twice—the later version with the Wiener Philharmoniker is often singled out.  But I always liked his earlier recording, made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Giulini additionally recorded a celebrated version of the Second Symphony—an unlikely choice, but there it is.

But the two extraordinary sources are something else, one being free, and the other, cheap—yet both are of remarkable quality.  The first source is extensive offerings from YouTube of Wilhelm Furtwängler at work, in some examples under Nazi auspices, and in others after the war and going up to his death in 1954.  The twisted story of Furtwängler is a controversial one, and not only for political or moral reasons but for musical ones, as he was a remarkably subjective conductor, and fascinating for that reason alone.  His treatment of Bruckner is unique and even overwhelming.  His 1944 recording of the Ninth Symphony is downright apocalyptic—it seems to say that the only peace to come will be through destruction.  If ever there was a hair-raising orchestral performance, this is the one.  And other performances of other Bruckner symphonies are alive with vivid and pointed response to the texts.  It may be that Furtwängler’s flexible tempi and subjective approach worked better with Bruckner than with any other composer.  And it may be that the ideal or even the German Romantic ideal that some found in Wagner was better formulated in Bruckner, though in a Christian, not pagan, context.

The cheap (rather than free) source of Brucknerian experience is from the Naxos label—the nine symphonies as well as the “O” Symphony (Die Nullte) and the double-O or OO, as well.  Working with Irish and Scottish orchestras is the late Georg Tintner, a pacifistic Austrian who elicits carefully crafted and convincing work about which there is nothing second rate.  If you want a complete account of Bruckner the symphonist at a reasonable fee, this is the one to have.  Or perhaps Tintner might be useful for his coverage of the early works.

Finally, a problem that often emerges near the fountain at Lincoln Center is what to do when someone starts in on the matter of editions of Bruckner.  This Bruckner problem can be quite annoying, so my suggestion is to be peremptorily contrary.  If there is support for the Haas edition, you favor Nowak, and vice versa.  If someone prefers the first revised edition, you don’t, and so on.  Do whatever it takes to shut the kibitzers up, remembering that there are police at Lincoln Center, and you should be discreet because of all the iPhone cameras and recording devices around.  If you wind up in court, whatever you do, don’t dispute with Her Honor about Nowak or Haas or first revised editions!  Just tell her you like Bruckner the composer much better than Bruckner the Expressway in the Bronx, and she will understand.