Bruckner: Symphony No 8, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Robert Bachmann, Barbican 16 March 2000
Bruckner's great Eighth Symphony has justly been described as the Everest of symphonies. In tonight's performance, however, one was less aware of the great peaks of this work; it was more akin to a hiking trip through the Welsh mountains. Gone was the panoramic splendour of Bruckner's great score, here replaced with something as damp as the Welsh landscape. The wonderful sonorities, the cataclysmic, seismic shifts in dynamics were clouded under the most leaden of skies. It was all a dreadful disappointment, and the first thing I did when I arrived home from this concert was to play Giulini's performance of the work, just to reassure myself of its greatness!
Much of this had to do with the version of score being used: the 1887 version, Bruckner's first musings, as such. This was purportedly only the second time in little more than 10 years that this particular version has been played live in London. It was one time too many. The differences between this score, and those of the Haas and Nowak versions are too numerous to list here, but the first movement appeared disfigured beyond recognition, the second less remotely Viennese than normal, the adagio less noble. In fact, everything was less than it should have been.
Bruckner's music sinks or swims depending on how a conductor grapples with the multi-coloured dimensions of this work. Mr Bachmann is beyond these, I am afraid. His hands waved frantically, his arms gyrated like a great wheel - yet to little effect. Pianissimos were either inaudible or swallowed beneath a deluge of brutally phrased dynamics. I have rarely heard brass playing as caustic or as coarse as this, often out of tune, always played without soul. Woodwind were bitter and acidic, and the principal flute appeared quite incapable of playing a single beautiful note the entire evening. I do not believe this was entirely her fault. Much of the orchestra seemed unconvinced by this version and Mr Bachmann seemed quite alone in his opinion of it.
The string playing was actually very fine - at least when the music came from the lower registers of the instruments. But upper harmonics often displayed a dire shrillness and were often bereft of the sheen one needs in Bruckner. Nowhere was this more evident than in the great Adagio - not at all solemn as Bruckner marked, and dragging where it shouldn't. To say I was unmoved would be an understatement. In fact, I can't quite think of an adequate phrase to sum up the experience of this non-event.
Only the day before this concert I had been watching Sergiu Celibidache's Tokyo performance of this symphony on Sony video. Mr Bachmann is indeed unfortunate that this was my last experience of this symphony, for the contrasts between the two events are so far apart as to be almost from different universes. Celibidache has said that every performance of a Bruckner symphony is a first performance 'every rehearsal a thousandfold no to achieve a single yes'. Mr Bachmann's performance of this work is not his first, but it should perhaps be his last.
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