Those Pesky Ritardandos

William Carragan
Contributing Editor, Anton Bruckner Collected Edition, Vienna
Professor of Physics, Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, New York

A paper delivered at the First Bruckner Journal Readers’ Conference, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England on April 10, 1999, revised in 2011


“There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as how one should conduct Bruckner. There is really only a right or a wrong way.” This quotation, from an unexpected source, Anton von Webern, suggests that at the time he made the comment, sometime in the later 1920s, the “right” way to play Bruckner should have been self-evident upon study or inquiry. After all, at that time there were still many people alive who had heard the symphonies played during Bruckner’s lifetime, with Bruckner present in the hall, and were aware of the traditions which had been inaugurated when the composer was able to give advice.

But can we, separated from these events by over a century, determine what that authentic style might be? Important volumes have been written on performance practice as it may have been in earlier times, yet the romantic period is not extensively studied, as if what we hear today were essentially the same as what one heard all of a hundred years ago. This is because the basic technique appropriate to most instruments was developed in the early years of this century–for example, for the violin by Leopold Auer and his students–at a time when romantic music dominated the concert hall, and the assumption is that these traditions are strong enough to have resisted change. Yet I can remember from my youth many expressive devices and techniques employed by violinists, pianists, and conductors which would today be considered undesirable mannerisms or affectations. The portamento or gliding of pitches by violinists, the anticipation of the bass note by pianists, and the inevitable accelerando accompanying every crescendo imposed by conductors, are heard in many historical recordings from the 1930s, but are hardly encountered at all today except in unkind caricature. As for tempos, many of the earlier recordings seem quite alien to us; they were made at a time when velocity was considered to be a necessary mark of a worthy performance, while today in the Age of the Adagio we seem to consider ourselves too refined for such athleticism.

Yet it is worthwhile to reconstruct the bygone style, the sound understood and expected by the composers of the most elaborate orchestral music ever written. The value of such an approach is shown in the spectacular recordings made by Barry Wordsworth and his New Queen’s Hall Orchestra; their account of the Tallis Fantasy of Vaughan Williams made me feel as if I had never heard this beloved piece before. Some of the restorations are simple, such as the seating of the second violins on the right, and some of them are very difficult to attain, like the creation of a gliding style of violin-playing which is both effective and tasteful.

Even if these efforts are made, though, establishing the place of Anton Bruckner’s music in the milieu of romantic musicianship is not simple. Attempts by certain historically-minded conductors to produce a more authentic Bruckner have been greeted by most listeners with skepticism, which in my opinion is to some extent deserved, as (paradoxically) these conductors seem to have made many interpretative decisions arbitrarily, without sufficient research into what evidence there may be.

The historical evidence we do have regarding the early manner of performing Bruckner’s music comes from two sources: (1) the first publications, and (2) historical recordings. The first-published scores contain a great deal of information which is not present in the manuscript sources–this is well known–but what is less well known is the fact that Bruckner himself realized that the manuscripts had to have tempo indications added to them before publication. In his preface to the 1954 Collected Edition score of the Seventh Symphony, Leopold Nowak mentions letters from Bruckner to Artur Nikisch dated July 17, 1884 and November 5 of the same year, where Bruckner says that “many important instructions and changes of tempo are not indicated in the score”. Not in Nowak’s quotation, yet crucially important, are these words of the July letter: “Recently [Josef] Schalk and Loewe played for me on two pianos the Finale of the 7th Symphony, and there I saw that I may have chosen a tempo that is too fast. I got the conviction that the tempo must be very moderate [sehr gemaessigt sein muesse], and frequent tempo changes are required, which in your great genius would probably happen by itself anyway [von selbst geschehen sein wuerde].” Bruckner goes on to ask that he might attend the last two rehearsals so that he could hear the work three times including the performance. (What a luxury we have today, with all our recordings!) I thank Mark Kluge for pointing this text out to me.1 In his letter to me, Kluge says that Bruckner’s letter “clearly shows his involvement and direction, rather than his being bullied, or practically blackmailed” as has been suggested elsewhere. Furthermore, Bruckner’s mention of a tempo choice means that tempos were always given in this symphony through metronome markings, just as they were to be in the finales of the Fourth and Eighth.

Since the first-published score, that of Gutmann, contains both metronome markings and copious tempo indications, it must represent a state later than that of the time of the letter, and further, one that satisfied the composer. However, Robert Haas published in 1944 a Collected Edition score of the Seventh which contained very sparse tempo indications and no metronome markings, and in the revised Collected Edition score of only ten years later, Nowak restored those tempo indications which had been expressed in words, but he did not restore the metronome markings. Thus Haas’s score seems to be in this respect from a time before Bruckner’s letters, and with no numerical specification, and the Nowak score is from after the letters, but still with no metronome marks. In neither case are we given all the information needed for a performance both authentic and effective.

In the accompanying tables, all the tempo indications given in the published scores are listed for easy comparison. For each movement, the first column is the Collected Edition in its two principal issuances, those of Haas and Nowak. Then comes the common witness of the early printed versions, including the Gutmann edition in two forms, viz. (1) the publication by Eulenburg and (2) the revision done in the late 1920s in the “Philharmonia” series by Josef Venantius von Wöss; (3) a four-hand piano score arranged by the Schalk brothers which gives listings for the Kopfsatz and Finale, and (4, 5) piano scores by Hynais and Singer for the Finale. These various sources agree to the point where there is no doubt about where the “frequent tempo changes” are supposed to occur in the Finale. There are in fact two pairs: mm. 7-9 and 17-19 in the exposition, and mm. 281-283 and 289-291 in the recapitulation. There are also two singles, mm. 169-171 in the development and mm. 251-253 in the C section of the recapitulation which, as every music lover knows, precedes the recapitulated B and A themes in a brilliant and most unusual arch structure.2

A careful study of historical recordings gives a fascinating picture of the observance, or nonobservance, by various conductors of the tempo markings as they saw them over the years. All of the recordings made of the Seventh before and during the war, and many after it–though very few in recent years–were made from the Gutmann score, and to one extent or another reflect the tempo indications and the rather few textual peculiarities of the first publication. These include recordings led by Oskar Fried (ca. 1923), Horenstein (1928), Ormandy (1935), Schuricht (1938), Eugen Jochum (1939), Oswald Kabasta (1942), Böhm (1943), and quite a few later ones also. Acceptance of the Haas score of 1944 was neither immediate nor universal, but in the 1950s, recordings of the Haas score, and shortly after, the Nowak score, became more prominent and today dominate the concert hall and recording studio. The earliest recording of the Haas score of which I know is that of van Otterloo (1954); the second was Rosbaud’s in 1956, although his performance shows intimate familiarity with the Gutmann edition (as we shall see) and demonstrates in many ways the performance style implicit in it. Meanwhile, the three Furtwängler performances we have, one from 1949 and two from 1951, although basically reflecting the Gutmann text, display certain features which suggest that Furtwängler was familiar with Haas’s work on the Seventh. His apparent reluctance to use Haas’s score exclusively might reflect the extensive experience he had already had with this symphony, and the habits of mind that go with familiar and well-loved music. Eventually, the Nowak score had its early advocate in Klemperer (1956); later we will have more to say about his three easily-available performances. Thus in a period of about fifteen years starting in the mid-1950s, one hardly knew what to expect in the concert hall or on a recording–Gutmann, Haas, or Nowak. By this time I was myself already acquainted with these works, in 1955 owning scores of most if not all of them, and I remember the problem. Like nearly every amateur Bruckner enthusiast then, I was a fierce denigrator of the first-published editions. But I look at matters differently now.

In old recorded performances, the differences among the three versions can be rather challenging to detect, with the exception of the famous percussion parts in the Adagio, which at any rate can easily be deleted, or added to a version which does not have them, by any conductor who chooses to do so. The Haas score, in omitting the controversial tempo indications in the Finale, and in other ways as well, seems here and there to represent an earlier version of the symphony than the Nowak score. As much was suggested by Nowak himself in his preface, where he indicates that his edition is preferable because it represents as a whole a version of the symphony which is internally consistent, that is, existed in that way at a certain time; he refers to his score as the second state (Zustand, confusingly translated “version” in the preface to the score) of the manuscript. In this study, determination of the edition being used was not made on stylistic criteria, but on the basis of five textual features belonging to the first movement. These were (1) the horn note used only by Gutmann in mm. 24-25, (2) the special brass parts in mm. 123-126 which were partially erased in the manuscript3, reinstated by Haas, and removed again by Nowak, (3) the chord not used by Haas in mm. 148-149, (4) the violin doublings not used by Haas in mm. 154 and 156, and (5) the violin doublings used only by Gutmann in mm. 339-343 (seconds) and 343-348 (firsts). These criteria were used to assign versions to the 56 recordings surveyed for this paper.

The Kopfsatz

The first movement (Kopfsatz) begins with a beautiful, lyrical and long-breathed melody which Bruckner told his friends he heard in a dream. The time signature is 2/2, and the tempo indication in the Gutmann score is Allegro moderato, minim (or half-note) = 58. From my measurements it can be said fairly that only a few recordings, those of Horenstein (1928), Ormandy (1935), Kabasta (1942), Rosbaud (1957), and perhaps Szell (1968), come anywhere close to following the composer’s wishes, minim = 58. The first three of these conductors use the Gutmann score; Rosbaud uses Haas, while Szell is using Nowak, and at any rate is hardly faster than the Haitink performance of two years earlier. (It is amusing that the commentary supplied with the Haitink set states that the version is Haas’s, but the brass is missing at measure 123 and there is a chord at 149 and the version is Nowak.) On the other hand, eleven conductors, using all three versions, begin the symphony at 40 or under, a tempo which cannot in any way be called “allegro moderato”. Horenstein is the only one over tempo, and upon first hearing, his speed gives the impression that the performance is to be just a rigid run-through. Yet this fast tempo enables him to take certain expressive options unavailable to the many conductors who start the symphony below 50.

The B and C themes are indicated in the first publication to be slower. The time signature changes to 4-4 upon the entrance of the B theme at measure 51, and the tempos of the two themes are to be respectively crotchet (quarter note) = 108 and 96, equivalent to minim = 54 and 48 for comparison. Although the development begins with an allusion to the A theme, it continues at the slower tempo until, again according to the first publication, the initial tempo is re-established with the A theme being played in C minor, fortissimo, in inversion, at measure 233 in the development. The indication at that point is Tempo I, and the time signature changes back to 2-2. The A theme is then treated more quietly, but presumably at the same tempo, until the recapitulation is reached at measure 281, and the theme is presented upright and inverted simultaneously, with a modest decoration in the violins and first flute. The indication of Tempo I. at measure 233 is the key to the proper performance of some 86 measures that follow it. By contrast, Nowak writes “molto animato” at this point following a manuscript indication4, while Haas writes nothing. What is the result? The measurements show that the average here is in the high 50s; indeed, from the calculations it is about 57. So at this point the conductors are, perhaps belatedly, playing the theme at the right speed. However the standard deviation is large. A further set of measurements established the relationship between the A theme at the beginning and the A theme at measure 233 is for each performance. According to the first publication, and also according to Haas who has none of these internal tempo changes, this ratio should be unity, while Nowak’s indication might suggest that the theme should be faster (or at least suitably fast) at 233. However, everyone has a ratio greater than one, with three of them, one using each version, occupying a place in the stratosphere. This effect is created by the slow tempos used at the beginning, not by a too-fast tempo at m. 233, as we saw from the average calculated above. The lowest ratios are Horenstein (1928), whose tempos are 63 and 66, Haitink (1966) with 52 and 56, and d’Avalos and Karajan (1989) whose data points overlap although d’Avalos plays quite a bit slower than Karajan. The high ratios are Böhm (1943) using the Gutmann edition, Hindemith (1960) using Nowak, and Sinopoli (1989) using Haas-ized Nowak parts.

Sinopoli creates quite a problem for himself with his egregious velocity at measure 233, 1.93 times as fast as his very broad opening tempo. The inversion of the theme at 233 is very stern and fast, but at measure 249, where the second violins play the melody and the firsts a decorative counterpoint, his tempo suddenly becomes slower and the listener is caught unawares. As the tempo further subsides, the indicated first-theme speed of 58 is crossed at about measure 261, at the D minor entrance. The melody is quite well shaped under Sinopoli’s direction, and the listener can observe that it would be quite practical to play it at that speed anywhere. At the recapitulation in E major, measure 281, the tempo has sagged to about 54, but the first-violin-and flute decoration is still played rather perfunctorily.

I believe that the correct thing to do would have been to start the movement at 58, return to 58 at 233, and then yield a little after 281 so as to give the decoration enough time to sound gracious. This is what one would do following the first publication, and perhaps even following Haas if one kept a steady tempo through the whole movement as, for example, Otmar Suitner (1980) does in his sturdy performance–but not using Nowak, whose “molto animato” creates a real problem. The Sinopoli performance is remarkable in that it contains many of Haas’s details, despite the statement Edition: Leopold Nowak supplied by Deutsche Grammophon. There are brasses at 123, or at any rate at 125, though the low brasses at 125 don’t seem to be playing the Haas music (they seem instead to be following the same line as is in the Karajan recording of 1970/71); the wind chord is missing at 149, the first-violin doubling is missing at 154 and 156, and for good measure, in the slow movement the strings start playing pizzicato halfway through 217, not halfway through 216 as in Nowak and Gutmann. Yet he uses the percussion earlier in the Adagio, in the famous passage beginning at 177. For his performance he seems to have started with Nowak and Haas-ized it to some extent, rather than the reverse, because of the “molto animato” which no conductor would introduce, with all of its problematic implications, into a score which did not already contain it. (Nor indeed, in spite of what Bruckner wrote to Nikisch, should one expect any conductor, no matter how inspired, to introduce the tempo changes in the A theme of the finale on his or her own.) One should not criticize the Sinopoli performance too severely, as the melodies are quite lovingly shaped, but the absence of clear tempo indications in the score he used seems to have gotten him into trouble.

Another important aspect of the large-scale first movement tempos is the relationship between the themes, each one slower, and more complex, than the preceding one. That preference of Bruckner’s, expressed in metronome markings and time signatures, is not observed by any conductor in this study. It is true that the B and C themes are usually played at tempos close enough to those specified to be considered in accordance with them, but not a single conductor slows down when entering the B theme, deciding instead to conduct a four-beat pattern where the minims are faster, rather than slower, that those in the earlier two-beat pattern. How can this be done? It must be that conductors are affected by the story about the first theme appearing to the composer in a dream. Nonetheless, if the movement is to be considered a sort of Allegro, and if the relationships among the themes are to be those specified by the composer, the speed of the opening theme must be stepped up considerably above today’s custom. And the curious fact is that the passage in the development, following the outburst at 233, shows in one recording after another that this theme can be perfectly gracious, and indeed quite dream-like, at quite a brisk tempo. This problem is somewhat similar to that encountered in the Gesangsperiode of the 1880 and 1888 versions of the Fourth, as I discussed in my 1996 paper delivered at the Manchester conference5. There the speeds must increase and decrease according to a complex pattern, largely unspecified in 1880, and the problem is solved by well-thought-out and internally-consistent tempo indications added in 1888. However, the difficulty in the Seventh is more severe, since it affects the whole movement. It seems simply that if the first theme is too slow, as it nearly always has been, the movement will not hang together as a whole.

It is also interesting to consider the extent to which the old practice of accelerating during a crescendo is still being done. It turns out that there is a ritenuto, indicated in all editions, occurring at the end of the B theme of the first movement; this is at measure 121 and extends for two measures. Many conductors accelerate before this ritardando over many measures, some by enough to give room for the whole ritardando. The Fried performance of 1923 has one of the stronger accelerandos, while Horenstein (1928), whose B theme is slightly slower than Fried’s although his A theme was the fastest of all, employs the effect much more discreetly. Ormandy (1935) has no accelerando, decreasing slightly through the theme and then sharply at the end, Schuricht (1938) has a substantial acceleration and not much ritardando, and Jochum (1939) is symmetrical, accelerating slowly and decelerating rapidly by the same amount. In 1966, Max Rudolf attains the highest speed seen in this theme in the study, almost 74, then slows down to 54; the effect is amazing.

Although everyone takes the ritenuto at 121, the tendency to accelerate before it is much less in the recordings since 1980, Haenchen (1991) being a felicitous exception. A similar accelerando with subsequent ritardando, specified in only the first publication of the Eighth, is cited by Korstvedt6 in his book on that symphony to show the persistence of the old tradition into performances using both the Haas and Nowak editions.

There is no indication of a Luftpause over the barline before m. 125, but some conductors use one as a means of separating the tempos. Among these are Ormandy (1935), Jochum (1939), Kabasta (1942), and Rosbaud (1957). Other conductors tackle the difficult task of making a sudden transition in a graceful manner without a pause. Fried (1923) solves the problem by making the final tempo of the ritardando equal to the C tempo, which incidentally is 48.1 to the minim–right on the mark. Jochum (1939) achieves parity at 52 but has a Luftpause anyway; Böhm (1943) does not achieve parity (44 at the end of B, 55 for the beginning of C) but does without a Luftpause. In recent years this device has become rare; since 1958 there have been only two substantial pauses, in Pesek (1985), and in Davis (1987), he of the reversed Adagio and Scherzo.

One of the criteria for distinguishing between Haas on the one hand, and Nowak and Gutmann on the other, is the existence of doublings in the first violin part, an octave lower, in measures 154 and 156. This effect can be difficult to hear, and sometimes one wonders why they were put in, although one does not wonder why it was done for the seconds at 339–the melody soars far more dramatically when doubled in the upper octave. At any rate, the music at 153 and after, which is structurally the codetta, is particularly light and charming, and the portamento which one hears on some of the earlier recordings heightens the effect, if one does not automatically dismiss it as vulgar. The first three recordings (Fried, Horenstein, and Ormandy 1935) have noticeable portamento, and so do Kabasta, Furtwängler in Cairo, and Rosbaud, and some of the others of that period have a very slight gliding, but after the late 1950s it is not heard at all. Once one becomes accustomed to the very special appeal of a discreet portamento, it seems a loss not to have it. Its warm and gracious effect would be a real enhancement to a performance conducted at the old flexible tempos.

The Finale

The Seventh, despite being much loved and admired, is frequently criticized for having a light and insubstantial finale, even though that movement contains one of the grandest and most impressive brass passages Bruckner ever devised. This same thought seems to have occurred to Bruckner himself, as shown in the July 17, 1884 letter quoted above. According to Nowak, Bruckner’s solution was to introduce ritardandos into the Finale, as integral parts of the thematic structure. Thus the theme as first stated in the treble has a ritardando at the end of it, and then as the tempo is reestablished and the theme is repeated in the bass, there is another ritardando. As mentioned above, this two-ritardando structure is found once in the exposition (mm. 7, 17) and once in the recapitulation (mm. 281, 289), although there are other ritardandos in the music between (mm. 169, 251, 257) that work in the same way. The ritardando pair in the exposition was timed for this study by establishing the tempo of the beginning of the theme, the tempo at the bottom of the first ritardando, the tempo as re-established in the repetition of the theme, and the tempo at the bottom of the second ritardando.

Fried (1923) and Ormandy (1935), working from the Gutmann edition which contains them, show deep and symmetrical ritardandos, but so did Matacic (1984) who at the time was using the Haas edition in which they are missing; evidently Matacic thought that the performance tradition in which he was brought up was worth preserving, no matter what the text might be. Klemperer’s three performances, all from the Nowak score into which the publisher wrote them by hand on the plates, show increasing ritardandos, with Klemperer’s third recording, that of 1960 with the Philharmonia, attaining the amazing depth of 29 from a height of 56. Mark Kluge regards the 1960 ritardandos as a caricature of what they should be, but David Aldeborgh and I rather admire their ponderous certitude. (In performances from 1965 and 1966 Klemperer did not go quite as deeply.) Horenstein’s and Schuricht’s ritardandos are much more discreet, being greater in the second ritardando than in the first, while that of Jochum (1939) involves only a very slight ritardando the first time and a very substantial one the second time. Jochum’s ritardandos became more symmetrical as he grew older The earlier Jochum recordings show almost no first ritardando while having a deep second ritardando. But as time went on Jochum seems to have become convinced that the ritardandos should be equally deep, and the last recording is in this respect quite similar to Klemperer’s. By contrast, the small or missing ritardandos of van Otterloo (1954), Hindemith (1960), Wand (1980), Rögner (1983), and Rattle (1996) seem quite perfunctory. With van Otterloo, Wand, and Rattle, the final notes of the phrase are actually clipped short. Sir Simon himself told me some time before he made this recording that he thought the ritardandos were very difficult. I replied that that might be so, but that they also were authentic. At the time I did not realize how many distinguished conductors had been able to make them succeed in spite of their putative difficulty.

The relationship between the A and B theme is also given in the score: the tempo changes from 63, with ritardandos, to 52 without them for the B theme at measure 35, and when the C theme enters at measure 93, there is to be no tempo change; in his edition, Wöss actually adds 52 in parentheses. However, most conductors seem to feel on some authority or another that the C theme should be much broader, with van Beinum (1952), Knappertsbusch (1963), and the three Asahina recordings being the slowest at 35 or less. Barenboim (1979) and Celibidache (1994) are almost as slow at 38.3. Celibidache makes it sound even slower by performing the second beat of measures 96 and 100 much more quietly than the first beat; there is no indication in any score, even in the first publication which is so rich in tempo indications, that such a thing should be done. (This is not the only highly individual feature of Celibidache’s performance; at 146-148 he introduces an unauthorized decrescendo which reminds the listener of the probably unauthorized dynamic changes Schalk made to the Fifth.) Meanwhile, Knappertsbusch (1949) is more sprightly at 43, while Ormandy (1935), Rosbaud (1957), Gielen (1986), and d’Avalos (1988) are all around 60 and Hindemith (1960) is an astounding 65.5, almost double the 34.3 of Asahina in both 1975 and 1976. The theme is clearly playable at 52, and Jochum (1952) has almost the ideal: A at 62 with second ritardando to 50, B at 56, and C at 50. This symphony was clearly in Jochum’s blood. Every performance of it from him is a delight. When I first heard people say that the finale was too short, I wondered why I had not felt that way as a youngster. Now I realize that it was because I was brought up on the magical Jochum of 1939. It was probably not for nothing that Jochum took it upon himself to make a friend of Nowak.

If it is true that in most performances the Kopfsatz is a long and discursive Andante, and the finale is a short and light Allegro of the type referred to by David Aldeborgh as “fluffy”7, then it is also true that there is a balance problem. And no matter how slow and ponderous the C theme might be made in order to give the finale weight, the harm is already done when the ritardandos are omitted from the A theme where the weight is really needed. It should not take a lot of advanced thought to see that if the tempo indications of the first publications were followed, the first movement would be shorter, the finale would be weightier, and the imbalance problem would not exist.

The Scherzo

At this point I confess that my original reason for studying this symphony in such detail was to investigate, as part of my work on the edition of the Second, an entirely different problem: that of the possibility that there should be an enclave of slow music in the scherzos of both symphonies, following indications in the early publications. This is not the trio; in the Seventh it is a passage within the main scherzo extending from letter E ( measure 125), through letter F (measure 157), and onward to some point before the recapitulation at letter G (measure 185). There is no indication at any of these points in either Collected Edition score of any tempo change, but the Eulenburg and Philharmonia (Wöss) scores have “Etwas ruhiger” at letter E, and the Behn piano arrangement published by Gutmann has that and an “a tempo” at letter G. Although none of the full scores has “a tempo” or “Tempo I” anywhere, there can be no doubt that the recapitulation at letter G must be at the original tempo, and that the crescendo beginning at m. 165 is intended to facilitate an accelerando to accomplish that.

Measurements show Schuricht (1938), Jochum (1939), and Kabasta (1942) taking quite slow new tempos at 125; Jochum and Kabasta, Horenstein and Ormandy as well, speed up slightly for 157, and re-establish the pre-ritardando tempo by 185. Fried makes a much greater slow-down, and that of Abendroth (1956) is truly amazing; he moves from 91, well above the specified tempo of 80, down to 60 at letter E, farther down to a lilting 54 at letter F, and up to 96 at letter G in a vertiginous acceleration which has to be heard to be believed.

By contrast, the conductors of the 1990s do not see much of an opportunity here, though Rattle slows down a little in response to the evident demands of the music. Most of those who change tempo in this region broaden slightly at letter F rather than E, perhaps seeing a hurried struggle at E, and a relaxed and lyrical reward at F. Eugen Jochum’s technique in achieving his imperceptible but wide accelerandos is amazing. Somehow he is able to gather tempo without any feeling of rushing or urgency. It is as if the music itself leads the listener to the faster tempo. And it must be that sense of graciousness and appropriateness which informed the old conducting style. Wand’s (1980) scherzo is well-organized and elegantly rendered in the same way, but without the sense of abandon which Jochum achieves. It is, incidentally, amusing to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in its recordings of this movement, for example under Karajan (1989), play such passages as mm. 93-96 with typical Viennese rubato.

Rosbaud’s (1957) scherzo is noteworthy for its slowness, which many listeners have criticized. However, I was struck by the sound of the trumpets in the normally-hurried passage stretching from 169 to 180, echoed by the clarinets in 181 through 184–that under Rosbaud’s direction, for once they did not seem raucous, but instead had a certain lyrical or melodic effect. Rosbaud only achieves 70 at the end of his accelerando, but it seems sufficient in context. Matacic (1983) is somewhat similar, though his letter F is even slower. Haenchen produces a particularly well-thought-out relaxing of the tempo, discreet but definitely present. As with Rattle, I believe that this is a reaction to the music itself. Some conductors get slow by stages in the measure or two just before letter E, but Fried (1923) establishes his new very-much-slower tempo extremely suddenly.


Perhaps it is the effort of comparing 56 recordings of this beautiful symphony that makes one long for the dramatic and the unusual. Perhaps, though, something else is at work, since there are many unusual or even anomalous effects achieved by these conductors which are hardly dramatic at all, particularly the leaden tempos adopted by most conductors for the opening theme of the Kopfsatz, and by an increasing number of maestri for the C theme of the Finale. One can argue that tempo choices are a matter of taste, for both the artist and the listener. However, when one sees so many interesting effects, and the solutions to so many problems, come directly out of the first publications, one might be excused a certain impatience with modern conductors who do not take advantage of them. Other lines of reasoning, stemming from totally different bodies of evidence, have suggested in recent years ever more insistently that the first publications do not deserve the opprobrium that has been cast on them since the 1930s. It is certainly true that all of these early publications contain some corrupt elements, but I feel at the same time that history shows that they led to better performances than the sanitized but seriously-misleading, or should one say under-informative editions that replaced them. With all of the honor and respect that I have felt for Hofrat Nowak, I still believe that it is necessary not only to recognize the path that he started to take in his edition of the Seventh, but indeed to go the rest of the way along that path–to take into account all the valuable indications present in these first publications, and introduce them in some way into the scores that are commonly used. There can be hardly any doubt that Bruckner’s music would be served well by doing so.

After having gone through these arguments, is one justified in saying that any performance which does not satisfy the criteria laid out here, and other parallel statements that could be made, is illegitimate, or just plain wrong? I do not believe so. It is surely true that listeners have been brought to this symphony, and to many another Bruckner symphony, by individual performances which vary widely and systematically or arbitrarily from the stipulations of the first publications. It is easy to name many a performance which by virtue of lyrical beauty or rhythmic vigor makes a tremendous impression on the sympathetic listener despite tempos which can be characterized as, at the least, uncooperative. However, considered as a whole, the trend toward slow tempos, and toward (for example) a relationship between the A, B, and C themes of the Kopfsatz which is in defiance of the early indications, is most definitely wrong. Thus one might ask, to balance the slow performances of Asahina, Davis and Celibidache, where are the fast performances? There have been none since Horenstein 1928, and there should be. What is permissible for individuals is not permissible for the aggregate; this is a principle which we have always known, and the time to apply it to Bruckner is now!