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Symphony No 8 in C minor
Wiener Philharmoniker, Pierre Boulez
DG 459 678-2, 76'14, Full Price
(Recorded Live at the International Bruckner Festival in 1996)

Reading through Pierre Boulez's collection of essays, Orientations, the reader will find a single entry for Bruckner. It is in the essay, Mahler: Our Contemporary and Boulez writes only that 'Bruckner and Mahler appear as the Castor and Pollux of the symphony'. How extraordinary, therefore, to find Boulez not only conducting a Bruckner symphony (the only one he has ever conducted) but also giving us a performance of quite astonishing power. Both the first and second movements seethe with an electricity I have not encountered elsewhere, and the third and fourth movements are beautifully expansive without being in the slightest bit self-indulgent. It is a remarkable disc.

The genesis of this recording is fascinating. After a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1992 Boulez was asked by the orchestra's then managing director if he would consider conducting Bruckner's Eighth in the Abbey Church at St Florian in September 1996. Boulez initially thought of turning down the offer, but later accepted the engagement and after rehearsals in the Musikverein moved onto Linz where the concerts were recorded on 21 and 22 September at St Florian. When Boulez was asked about his first experience of Bruckner he believed that he had first heard the Eighth under Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in the 1960s - a performance, Boulez states, left a formative influence upon him. Klemperer's daughter, Lotte, however, is certain that the performance Boulez heard was actually of the Fifth symphony. To this day, Boulez remains uncertain to whom he owes his first experience of Bruckner's greatest work.

Like Günter Wand, Bernard Haitink and Herbert von Karajan before him, Boulez plays Bruckner's Eighth in the Haas Edition. Boulez's own conviction in the 'rightness' of Haas is based largely on the 'unnecessary' cuts that Nowak made to the score (notably in the Adagio and Finale), but he also feels, perhaps incorrectly, that the Nowak edition sometimes destroys the symmetry and logic of the structure. Contrary to Boulez's views on this, I would argue that Haas' restitution of the 10 bars in the Adagio (at mm 209-18) [16'55 to 17'33 in this performance] actually reduces, rather than enhances, much of the unresolved tension that has developed in the preceding bars. If you listen to a great performance of the Nowak (and Guilini is superlative here) the tension is never allowed to dissipate for a moment. Boulez is surely right, however, in ignoring the 1887 version's imperfect ending to the first movement (fff) in favour of the Original Version's ppp. The moment is so subliminal as to give real cogency to the work's overall structure: it not only recalls the peaceful coda of the Adagio, but also of the triumphant closing pages of the Finale.

The Adagio is a superb place to start in analysing Boulez's recording for he brings to it a superbly integrated dynamic range. Perhaps because Boulez is such a great conductor of Stravinsky and the Expressionist composers the harmony of this movement's orchestration is often more tense and anticipatory than we are used to. This is most evident in the great tonal ascent to the climax itself [19'40 to 20'07], where Boulez shades the distinctions between Bruckner's dynamic markings so explicitly as to make them newly minted. In contrast, the close of the Adagio is printed in the most delicately subtle of fabric - it almost dies away like a final heartbeat. It mirrors the opening of the movement more closely than normal and gives it the perfect 'symmetry' Boulez sees in the Haas version. None of this would have been possible without the staggering refinement of the Viennese strings which seem to spin warmth and tension in equal measure.

In contrast to most conductors, Karajan and Wand included, Boulez takes both of the opening movements at a cracking pace. Even though he takes the first movement almost two minutes faster than Karajan the complexity of texture and rhythmic prominence remain totally intact. The sparseness in the writing is still there (although only Celibidache gives the single notes an unparalleled transparency). The C minor ending is almost poised on the bridge of impossibility so perfectly attuned are the Vienna strings in balancing the ppp writing. Boulez takes the second movement Scherzo at a similar pace - although he allows tremendous space for the Trio to emerge so the triadic stillness takes its effect. The single trumpet call is a glorious moment.

This is such a symphony of two halves that only the very greatest conductors can reach the Finale and make it work. Boulez's is a major achievement - even following on from his profound Adagio. The opening accelerandi to the Finale is gloriously sustained with horns breathing fire through the most phenomenally articulated string figuration. The long crescendi develop beautifully as the tension is gradually wound up, and the shading of the dynamics and thematic clarity are perfectly judged. One of the problems with Furtwängler's otherwise extraordinary performance is the wild oscillation in the sonic intensity of the orchestral playing. Listen to Boulez at 7'05, where lower strings are as burnished as mahogany and how he controls the entry of the flute at 7'18 and how by 7'25 the playing is just enveloped in the most perfectly graded pianissimo. It is a moment Furtwängler and others (notably Jochum) scramble. By the time we approach the coda, Boulez is already in his stride. Rather uniquely for a modern day interpreter of Bruckner Boulez does add a visceral quality to the coda's preface - but it is also handled with exquisite beauty by the orchestra. As it starts from 17'28, the string figuration is noticeably faster paced than we often hear and by the timpani's entry at 18'28 the performance has moved from solemnity to a gripping majesty. The coda itself, starting at 19'43, moves from beautifully balanced strings to the most astonishingly graded forte on brass, with the orchestra at full tilt, bringing the symphony to its triumphant conclusion.

Single disc Bruckner Eighths are less frequent nowadays than we might expect. Part of the reason for this is that Bruckner's tempi markings are not explicitly stated in the versions most conductors use (Haas or Nowak). As such, it is almost impossible to say, outside the main tempo indicators for movements - such as Allegro moderato for the first, or Adagio for the third - what remains the ideal pace for a great performance of Bruckner's Eighth. Eugene Jochum's EMI Dresden Eighth (on a single disc) is an example of a performance that falls very flat. Not only is it disfigured by abrupt and sudden changes of pace, it is also dynamically corrupt with brass playing that makes one shudder. Celibidache, on the other hand, takes Bruckner's tempi at such a slow pace that many find it hangs fire when in fact it is so revelatory as to be well ahead of its time. Boulez crosses both of these boundaries - his Adagio contains some of the most astonishing examples of ritardando I have heard from this conductor - and he does so magnificently.

There is no doubt that Boulez' Bruckner Eighth falls into that very select category named 'great recordings' - worthy to stand beside recordings by Karajan (Vienna Philharmonic), by Celibidache (Munich Philharmonic) and by Guilini (Vienna Philharmonic). There is also no doubt that this recording would not have been the great one it is without the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic who are simply magnificent throughout and who are given a quite superlative recording by the DG engineers. Boulez is quoted in the booklet notes as saying, '..from the very outset, I accepted that I would undoubtedly get more from the orchestra than they would get from me'. It is a rare perception, but true nevertheless, and sets the seal on what is a landmark recording in both the Boulez and the Bruckner discography.

Marc Bridle

Performance & Recording -

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