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Seen and Heard Prom Review


PROM 72: Bruckner, Symphony No.8 in C minor (ed. Nowak), Wiener Philharmoniker, Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 8 September, 2005 (MB)



The terrain of Bruckner’s vast Eighth Symphony offers many paths: the metaphysical epiphenomena of a Celibidache, through to the electrifying, intensely mercurial way of a Furtwängler up to the cool, precise methodology of a Boulez. Christoph Eschenbach – on paper at least – suggested the slow, epic route but the reality was surprisingly different. With hand gestures, in the symphony’s ecstasy of its Adagio, offering a rare glimpse of a Karajanesque figure moulding phrases with sculptured refinement, this performance came closest to Karajan’s last recording of this work, also with the Wiener Philharmoniker. Unlike Karajan, however, Eschenbach chose Nowak’s 1890 completion and given Eschenbach’s occasionally idiosyncratic way with internalized phrasing (as in the Trio) he was wise to have done so: the Haas-inserted passage in the third movement, for example, may have dissipated tension more noticeably in Eschenbach’s hands than it does in the more experienced Karajan’s.


What is unquestionable – ironically, given the mystery of this symphony and its complex relationship to symphonies which both precede it and follow it – is that Eschenbach had the measure of its musical glories. The grandeur, epic structure and expressive intensity of the work were layered masterfully by him, helped in no small measure by wonderfully assured playing from the VPO. This performance shaved some eight minutes off Eschenbach’s NDR Symphony performance of the work from December 2004 (available on En Larmes) and it showed: the music flowed logically, phrasing was tight and the clarity of the symphony’s dynamics was never compromised. Those distilled, hushed pianissmos which had marked out the previous evening’s Prom were here even more radically quiet, whether intoned on a single string or on a horn, or from within a cumulative orchestral diminuendo.


Of particular interest was how keenly Eschenbach defined the symphony’s unsettling tonality. The opening pages, for example, felt slightly more indistinct than they normally are, and yet come the development the pitch seemed to acquire enormous freedom so that harmonic intensity and shattering dissonance worked with each other to give great musical clarity to the orchestra’s phrasing. Some may prefer to see this as typical Eschenbach interventionism, but the reality was somewhat different. What can sometimes sound opaque here had quartz-like precision; and how beautifully the strings and brass blossomed together, as if melting into each other’s notes. This astute dynamic subtlety marked out much of the rest of the Symphony’s map: the spontaneity of the Scherzo had a ruggedly assured quality to it that looked back to the first movement, while the idiosyncratic Trio, with its expressive appoggiaturas and emblematic use of harps, looked forward to the glories of the Adagio. (If there is a criticism that can be levelled at Eschenbach’s handling of the second movement it is in the almost perfunctory manner in which it came to a close.)


The Adagio, so often the point at which this Bruckner symphony encounters paralysis, was almost over-emphatically articulated in its single arc stretch. Eschenbach secured a wonderfully expressive tonal response from the strings, but there was also a throbbing pulse to the tremolo phrasing that, quite eerily, gave a life force to this movement one rarely encounters. With harps blending in magisterially, and Wagner Tubas intoning with golden brilliance, and with only the slightest hint of rubato to highlight a note here and there, Eschenbach’s conception of this movement moved between sublime lyricism and heroic tension. The richest sonorities were never occluded, and neither were the climaxes which were allowed to unravel with a fervent uncoiling of tension. They were shattering, but measured; dissonant yet refined.


Bruckner described the final movement of his Eighth Symphony as “the most significant movement of my life”. In this performance it also seemed the most significant movement; in short, the Wiener Philharmoniker’s playing of it and Christoph Eschenbach’s conducting of it were just breathtaking. The opening bars weren’t just boldly drawn; they were sustained with a ferociously vivid fanfare that marched towards Valhalla with almost Wagnerian wrecklessness. The contrast with the lucent passages which sit between the opening and the recapitulation were often very stark at times, but this was what gave Eschenbach’s reading of this movement such glorious, life-affirming purposefulness. Magnificent timpani had a brutal heroism, but nothing quite matched the orchestra’s and conductor’s handling of the astonishing coda: here, the cumulative, yet compressed, genius of Bruckner’s drawing together of all the symphony’s main themes, had a glowing, blazing force to it. As the final notes crashed down one felt that Bruckner’s glory was utterly complete. The Wiener Philharmoniker’s and Christoph Eschenbach’s achievement had been to realize that glory in a performance of rare distinction.



Marc Bridle





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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)