The bicentenary of the birth of Anton Bruckner may still be 12 months away, but the record companies are already mustering their anniversary celebrations. On Sony Classical, Christian Thielemann’s cycle of the symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic is well advanced for completion next year, while in two weeks’ time Deutsche Grammophon will release the complete set of Bruckner recordings that Andris Nelsons has been compiling over the last six years with the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Other archive-sourced sets will doubtless follow, but in the meantime the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has got in first with a set of the nine numbered symphonies (that is not including the rarely performed early F minor and D minor works) all taken from concerts in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam between 1972 and 2012. The recordings can already be streamed on Apple Music, and will be released on CD (both individually and in a box) on 8 September.
The RCO’s history of performing Bruckner may not be quite as remarkable as its pedigree in Mahler, but it has been a distinguished one, under a succession of chief conductors. It’s a shame that the set does not include anything conducted by Eduard van Beinum, who took over as the orchestra’s principal conductor after the liberation of the Netherlands in 1944, remaining in charge until his death in 1959, who made a point of including Bruckner in his programmes. But four of the conductors who followed Van Beinum over the next half century are represented here Bernard Haitink (who was chief conductor from 1961 to 1988) is represented by the First and Seventh Symphonies, Eugen Jochum (who shared the role with Haitink for the first two years of his tenure) by the Fifth, Riccardo Chailly (1988-2004) by the Second and Ninth, and Mariss Jansons (2004-2015) by the Sixth.
Some of these performances have appeared in RCO collections before, while Haitink’s set of the Bruckner symphonies for Phillips remains among the defining performances of these works on disc, and a posthumously released box of Jansons’ performances of Bruckner with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra includes the Sixth, which is the work he conducts here. If those conductors’ Bruckner, together with Chailly’s, whose performance of the Second is a wonderfully elegant account of a too little performed work, is a pretty well known quantity, then it’s the one-off performance included that are more revealing, especially Jochum’s spacious, unforced Fifth, Kurt Sanderling’s robust account of the final 1889 version of the Third, and Zubin Mehta’s majestic Eighth. It goes without saying that the orchestral playing is uniformly superb, a reminder, if any were needed, that over the last half century the RCO has had few peers among the world’s orchestras.