One of the marvels of music history in the latter years of the twentieth and the early years of the twenty first centuries was the ascension of Daniel Barenboim to the ranks of the "great living conductors." Signed first to EMI then DG then Teldec, music director in Chicago and guest conductor in Berlin and Bayreuth as well as a virtuoso pianist, Barenboim had it all. With cycles of the complete symphonic works of Beethoven and Brahms, plus the canonical operas of Wagner to his credit, Barenboim was among the recorded elite of his time and his cycle of Bruckner's complete symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic recorded for Teldec was widely regarded as the pinnacle of his art.
What made Barenboim so successful? Cynics said it was his ability to turn the silk purses into sow's ears, thereby appealing to crasser tastes. In this Bruckner cycle, they say Barenboim took the most spiritual symphonic art of the nineteenth century and transformed it into pure entertainment for the masses. Barenboim bends lines with dynamic exaggerations, twists forms with excessive tempo rubato, inflates climaxes with enormous accelerandos, hobbles codas with immense ritardandos, and allows the super-virtuoso Berlin Philharmonic to run riot over the Brucknerian landscape, bludgeoning and pillaging with infallible precision as they go. Barenboim's Bruckner is clearly modeled on Furtwängler's Bruckner, but while Barenboim mimics his master's mannerisms, he misses the essential soulfulness and quintessential spirituality that holds Furtwängler's rapturously ecstatic performances together and the result is more parody than homage. Teldec's sound is loud to the point of roaring when it's loud and quiet to the point of whispering when it's quiet.