Let's get something clear from the start: the orchestra is spectacular! The Cologne band is the same orchestra featured in Bertini's marvelous Mahler cycle. They perform with fire, passion and virtuosity. I defy anyone to point out lapses in ensemble or faulty intonation anywhere. Fiendishly difficult passages--as in the Scherzo of Symphony No. 1 (Vienna version), the Finales of the 5th and 8th symphonies, among many others--are executed with both precision and musicality. There is no struggle in their music-making and they are recorded (especially in this 24-bit mastered issue) in demonstration quality sound. I own complete and partial cycles of Bruckner symphonies by Solti, Haitink, Chailly, Karajan, Celibidache (EMI), Barenboim (DGG and Teldec), Jochum (DGG and EMI), Dohnanyi, Inbal, Tintner, Skrowaczewski, Asahina, Davies, Rozhdestvensky, and many single issues by the likes of Furtwangler, Klemperer, Boulez, Bernstein, Harnoncourt, Simone Young (keep your eye on this young woman!), and many more. (Readers can hopefully surmise that I do have other examples of Bruckner with which to compare.)
Now, Wand. I came very late to the work of this maestro, as I had also done with Bertini. After buying Wand's Bruckner recordings with the NDR (another world-class orchestra) on a whim, I was amazed at the clarity, command and intensity of his readings. Don't be fooled by the amiable grandfatherly photos of the conductor: his heart, mind and spirit are not arthritic! After purchasing and listening to Wand's Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, I am convinced that this man deserves to be considered among the greatest conductors of all time. This is not a Kappelmeister--in the pejorative sense--approach to music. His performances are always involved, individual and --thank God--well rehearsed!
Even though Wand's Berlin recordings of Bruckner (4, 5, 7, 8 and 9) are often singled out as his best recorded Bruckner, I must absolutely disagree. They are good, very good, but nowhere as bracing as his Cologne and NDR versions. While the Berlin performances are quite beautiful, the overall impression is slightly static, somewhat careful, and noticeably slower (most of the time confused with profundity). Compare the 5th, 7th and 8th symphonies with Cologne and NDR, with the ones from Berlin--for me, the difference between "alive" and "artistically embalmed."
I passionately recommend this reviewed set to anyone who loves Bruckner. If you are able to find it, I also encourage you to listen to Wand's NDR (live) cycle (Nos. 3-9 only). I guarantee that you will soon be collecting Wand's other recordings in due time.