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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no 8 in C Minor (Original version, ed. Haas)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Günter Wand
Recorded live in the Philharmonie, Berlin, 19-22 January 2001
BMG RCA Red Seal 74321 82866-2 [87’07"]

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Very occasionally one is lucky enough to receive for review a CD which is of such distinction that it constitutes a Special Event. This recording of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony belongs in that rare category, I think.

Over the last 28 years Günter Wand has made many recordings of the Bruckner symphonies, including most of the canon with the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra and a complete cycle (his earliest Bruckner recordings, I believe) with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the last few years this output has been crowned with a series of recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, all recorded, as is Wand’s preference, ‘live’ in concert. Numbers 4, 5, 7 and 9 have already been issued to wide acclaim and now we have this account of Bruckner’s most majestic utterance. Sadly, in the light of Wand’s death in February 2002 this will probably be the last issue in the series; if that is so then the series could scarcely have come to a more distinguished conclusion.

The first thing to say about this performance is that the playing of the BPO is something at which to marvel. Between them, Bruckner and Wand here construct a most imposing symphonic edifice and its foundations are laid on the fabulously rich sonorities of the Berlin strings. The bass line is rock-steady: rich, yet always clearly articulated. At the other end of the spectrum the upper strings have a lustrous sheen. Then there’s the brass, golden and heroic in tone. These brass players pour out torrents of sound with never a suspicion of forced tone. Wind players get fewer opportunities to shine in the Bruckner orchestra but here the woodwind choir makes a full contribution to the proceedings helped, no doubt, by the care with which Wand balances the sound throughout. Praise too for the harps which are accorded just the right place in the sound picture by Wand (and by the engineers) and for the dynamic, but never over-assertive timpanist. The players are accorded fine sound by the RCA engineers.

Presiding over all this is Günter Wand, just a few days past his 89th birthday when these performances took place. It is readily apparent that age had dimmed neither his physical energy nor his intellectual grip. In his hands the symphony is presented lucidly and the tension never flags over the symphony’s span of nearly 90 minutes.

Above all the performance is characterized by a sense of absolutely coherent structure. Each movement is paced to perfection and the tension ebbs and flows completely naturally and with a feel of inevitability. In the notes we are told that Wand first conducted a Bruckner symphony in 1947 and that he added the Eighth to his repertoire in 1949. So, what we have here is the fruit of over 50 years experience of this work and it shows in every bar and paragraph.

The first two movements are commanding. The opening Allegro moderato is prodigiously powerful and dramatic but the drama is never forced. This is a performance of great integrity and fidelity to the score. All the noble climaxes are thrillingly achieved and the coda dies away in resigned melancholy. The scherzo has all the drive that it needs but, just as importantly, the lyrical trio relaxes to remind us that Bruckner was a musical successor to Schubert (another composer in whose music Wand excels).

I don’t want to give the impression of glossing over the first two movements which here receive performances as magnificent as the music itself. However, the great Adagio is the very heart of the symphony and, rightly, it is the heart of this performance also. If I had to use just one word to describe Wand’s account of this movement it would be ‘dignified’. To be sure, the heights are scaled at the appropriate points but for the most part he lets the music unfold and speak for itself. Of course, this is not laissez faire conducting. Rather, it is conducting which results from great experience and from the absolute authority which comes from that experience. Above all, it is conducting of great patience and cogency by a man who has prepared himself and his players thoroughly and who trusts his players (and Bruckner) completely. In Wand’s scheme of things there is no need to rush fences; he guides the music wisely and when the huge terraced climaxes come their effect is all the more impressive as a result, especially the last, crowning outpouring (at 21’27"). Wand’s control throughout this movement is formidable and nowhere more so than in the final five minutes or so where the BPO’s playing is of the utmost eloquence (the Wagner tubas making a magisterial contribution to the coda). This is a riveting performance of what is probably the finest symphonic movement that Bruckner wrote.

After this the finale is unleashed with great power and majesty. This is a more difficult movement to bring off than its predecessor, I think, for the music does not have the same seamless flow. Indeed, it can seem episodic but not here. Wand handles all the transitions convincingly and leads the listener on. He is a persuasive guide to Bruckner’s logic and he holds the movement together with consummate skill. Again, this is the fruit of experience. After laying out the whole argument skillfully and carefully Wand builds the coda magnificently (from 22’52") to bring this great symphony to a regal, tumultuous conclusion. What a shame that the ovation which undoubtedly followed has been edited out.

Originally I had planned to compare this recording with some of the other fine ones in my collection, including Wand’s own previous, ‘live’ recording from 1993 (with the NDR Symphony). However, the more I listened to these new CDs the more I came to feel that comparisons would be superfluous, even impertinent. This is a reading of towering stature, a truly great account that demands to be judged on its own (enormous) merits. In this recording a master Brucknerian lays before us the vast canvass of what is arguably Bruckner’s greatest achievement and we can only admire the artistry and integrity of both composer and conductor.

I don’t believe that my judgment of this recording has been influenced by the death of Günter Wand during my listening process. That said, this release is a most fitting testament to his work. There have been many fine recordings of this symphony over the years, though only a few great ones. This, Günter Wand’s last word on the subject, emphatically joins the select ranks of the great ones. Indeed, I suspect it will come to be regarded as a benchmark against which other recordings will be judged in the future.

This is a towering achievement and I think it is likely to be one of the most significant orchestral releases of 2002. It is an essential purchase for all Brucknerians and for all devotees of great orchestral playing and great conducting.

John Quinn



 

 


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