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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BRUCKNER’S EIGHTH SYMPHONY

Personal reflections on a favourite work and some key recordings

by Patrick C Waller

Introduction

I have long since given up hope of being invited onto Desert Island Discs but allow myself occasional fantasies. Over the years, my eight discs would have changed considerably ... and I would now find it almost impossible to choose them. However the piece I would choose for the "if you could only take only one" disc has remained unchanged for many years – Bruckner’s 8th Symphony. This article attempts to explain why. I will also describe the work from a listener’s perspective and consider the merits of some of the recordings which have been made. I am a music lover rather than a musician or musicologist, so please don’t expect anything erudite. If you know and love this work, there is probably little I can add to your understanding. My target audience is people who are discovering Bruckner and my aim is to help them to get to know this great symphony.

In 1976 I was a student in Sheffield and a season-ticket holder for the Philharmonic concerts held in the City Hall. The resident orchestra was the Hallé and their chief conductor James Loughran. One Friday night, Bruckner’s music was on the programme – a composer I had not even heard of previously. Had I looked him up in my copy of the 9th edition of the Oxford Companion to Music (as I probably did), I would have read the following quote : "…he was half Caesar and half a village schoolmaster: such men are, in art or life, difficult to place" – hardly words which would have produced great expectations. The piece being played was his most popular work – the 4th Symphony – and, at the concert, I was quite simply blown away by the music. By 10 o’clock the next morning I was the owner of a tape of Karajan’s then recent DG recording and by that evening I had played it several times.

Of course, I then wanted to hear more of this composer and soon afterwards came across (and immediately bought) LPs of the 7th and 8th Symphonies in recordings conducted by van Beinum and Horenstein respectively. Initially the 7th Symphony appealed to me more but a friend to whom I lent the discs was immediately taken with the adagio of the 8th. I soon came to understand that and the 8th Symphony became a work which I played frequently. Since the work lasts for around 80 minutes, I invested a lot of time in getting to know it. Twenty-eight years later my enthusiasm is undimmed.

A year or so later I was delighted to see the 8th Symphony on the programme of a Hallé concert (under Loughran) and I heard it live for the first time. Alfred Brendel played Schumann’s concerto in the first half. This was one of the most memorable concerts I have yet been to. I used to sit in the "choir" behind the orchestra and recall that, as the orchestra began the great crescendo in the coda of the finale (about a minute or so from the end of the work), an elderly lady in the stalls got up and trotted out, presumably to catch the last bus. Probably the greatest live performance I have yet heard was at the 1985 Proms when Gunter Wand conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Composition and editions

In order to understand the composition of the 8th Symphony, some background is necessary. Bruckner was a devout Catholic, a rather simple man and a late developer. He was about 40 before he attempted symphonic composition and his first four numbered attempts (there are two prior attempts, often known as No. 0 and No. 00), written between 1866 and 1880, taxed him greatly. All were subject to revisions and there is scope for endless debate about which edition is best and what the composer’s final intentions were (some of the revisions having being suggested or made by others). Obviously, Bruckner wanted his works performed and the length of his symphonies was a barrier. Many of the revisions were therefore cuts and often they added to structural problems which Bruckner had not quite solved. Curiously, a major revision of the 1st symphony was undertaken after completion of the 8th. Many Brucknerians prefer the earlier version of the 1st and wish that he had spent the time on the 9th symphony (which remained incomplete at his death). The 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies, however, flowed more easily between 1878 and 1883 and were not subject to significant revisions. The 7th was played in Leipzig under the baton of Nikisch in 1884 and for the first time Bruckner triumphed. Sadly, he was never to hear the 5th played.

Bruckner set to work on the 8th in 1884 and it was complete in 1887. He sent the score to one of his admirers, the conductor Hermann Levi and was distraught at his less than enthusiastic response. Nevertheless he spent three years revising the symphony in many ways. Most importantly, he omitted his traditional "blaze up" coda of the first movement and introduced a quiet ending. He also completely replaced the trio in the second movement. Most people (including me) take the view that Bruckner improved the work markedly – an inspired response to criticism. The second version of 1890 is almost invariably played in preference to the first version but there is the complicating factor of editions.

In the 1930s Robert Haas produced editions of most of Bruckner’s symphonies for the International Bruckner Society. In trying to put together the "best" versions for performance, he had a lot of difficult decisions to make about some of them but had no difficulty in opting for the second version of the 8th. However, he believed a few of revisions made between 1887 and 1890 were disadvantageous to the structure and/or the specific suggestions of others, notably Joseph Schalk. He therefore added some passages from the first edition, which had been excised, back into the second version.

In the 1950s Leopold Nowak took over and set out to produce editions representing Bruckner’s final intentions. In 1955 he published the second version of the 8th as Bruckner left it and since then there has been much debate about the merits of Haas versus Nowak. In 1972, Nowak also published the first version of the score and this was then performed for the first time and recorded. Haas’s edition is probably still the most widely played and certainly the most recorded version of the work. His version lasts about 90 seconds longer than Nowak’s and musicologists tend to argue that it is preferable. As a listener, I agree, primarily because the build-up to the great climax of the adagio seems more effective. However, I am happy to listen to the work in either version and, for me, this should not be a major factor for or against a particular recording. One practical point, however, is that if you want a score, buying the Nowak is easy whereas finding Haas may be more of a challenge.

A brief guide to the work

Bruckner’s 8th has no programme but I have occasionally come across the soubriquet Apocalyptic (for example in the 9th edition of the Oxford Companion to Music). I do not know where this comes from and suspect it could be exclusive to the English-speaking world (as for Beethoven’s Emperor concerto). In the sense of the word meaning "revelation" it might be appropriate but this symphony is not about the end of the world!

This work is in four movements with the adagio placed third. The key is C minor (with the adagio in D flat) and it is of interest that Bruckner’s first two numbered symphonies were both in C minor and that he had not since returned to the key. Tonality is very important, the first, second and last movements are rooted in the home key and the adagio is in D flat, providing a markedly contrasting atmosphere. When Bruckner composed this work the world was just a few years away from atonal music – but, despite very imaginative harmonies, it seems light years away when you listen to it. The first two movements both last about 15 minutes, the adagio is immensely long-breathed and takes about 25 minutes and the finale takes at least 20 minutes. As with all Bruckner’s works, a large orchestra is required but this is the only one in which he used a harp; to great effect, notably in the trio and adagio.

Below, I shall attempt to describe the main features of the work. It is intended that this could be read whilst listening to the work. A score is not necessary but would obviously be an advantage. Since it is one of the most readily available recordings, timings are taken from Karajan’s 1988 recording. If, as they might well do, any passing musicologist should spot glaring errors, please (a) forgive them (b) let me know by e-mail so that I can correct them.

First movement – Allegro moderato

Over a tremolando on the violins, the first theme enters immediately and quietly in the lower strings. At 0’58" the tremolando is repeated fortissimo and the main theme iterated majestically in the brass. After a long diminuendo, at 2’10 the gently rising second theme appears in the first violins with string accompaniment. Intensely beautiful and expressive, this seems to emerge out of nothing despite the absence of any pause. The first bar suggests D or G major but the final three bars take us back to the home key. The woodwinds and then brass answer in music that, in just a few bars, conveys many moods, varying from sombre to exultant. After some development there are five bars of increasingly prominent pizzicato on the strings before at 4’27", the third theme bursts in fortissimo on the brass. This is based on a very simple downward progression in triplets but by repeating it several times a tone higher and layering the sound between the instruments Bruckner achieves a monumental effect. Eventually harmony is restored at 5’20" with a massive climax using a relative major (E flat) chord. The music rapidly dies to pianissimo and returns to the first theme. Initially mysterious, Bruckner here conveys a very different mood to the opening – almost pastoral but ever ambiguous. The thematic material is shared between brass and woodwind, the upper strings play tremolando and lower ones pizzicato. Eventually there is a diminuendo and it is time to return to the second theme (7’45"). As before, this emerges from nowhere in the first violins but here it is inverted (i.e. downward moving). The expressive calm of this theme is only brief as Bruckner is soon moving steadily towards a massive climax (which occurs at 9’13"), primarily based on material from the first theme. Ultimately this dies to a premonition of the ending at 9’44, following which Bruckner prepares us for a return to the second theme in its original form. This occurs at 12’13", and is played here in the relative major. As before, this leads into the first theme (13’59") first stated boldly but then dropping to pianissimo before building to a massive climax at 14’52". This ends with repeated Cs in the brass giving out the underlying dotted rhythm. At 15’47" the music suddenly breaks off and gives way to the powerful quiet coda which is so much more effective than in the first version. Wisps of the first theme are played by the clarinet, the timpani trills at piano-pianissimo and the strings convey an intense feeling of mystery before ending with repeated pizzicatos in the tonic key. Some spice is added by the violas. The first movement of all Bruckner’s other symphonies ends in a blaze of sound but this passage seems so conclusive that it now seems hard to believe that he initially conceived a loud ending.

Second movement – Scherzo: Allegro moderato ; Trio: Langsam

A repeated appoggiatura on the horn and downward chromatic progression in the violins lead into the simple main theme on the violas and cellos after just two bars. Unlike the first movement, where tonality is initially ambiguous, this is firmly in the home key. The theme is built on repetition, as is the whole of the first section. The punctuating appoggiaturas are repeated on the oboes and soon the main theme is transferred to the brass. Gradually a huge climax builds but the music breaks off abruptly after at 1’50" and, in the second section, the woodwinds muse whilst the strings play an inverted version of their underlying progression. At 3’58" the mood is broken by a crescendo of pizzicatos in the violins, leading to a return of the main theme at 4’15". A variant of the opening section leads to a massive climax and a repeat of the abrupt ending of the first section (6’02"). After two beats of silence the trio provides a much contrasting, plaintive atmosphere in duple time. Initially the strings dominate but at 7’11" the brass enter and rapidly build a climax which dies away amongst rising figures in the strings which are answered in the woodwind. At 7’41" the harp enters to accompany a gentle motif in the horns and pizzicato strings. This is followed by the violins returning to the plaintive feeling of the opening (8’01") before the main theme of the trio is recapitulated at 8’51". The brass climax is also repeated before the harp and flutes bring the trio to an end in pastoral vein. The scherzo is then repeated unchanged.

Third movement – Adagio: Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend

The main theme enters on the first violins in the third bar over a tonic chord (D flat) played by the other strings. As in the previous movement, the theme has very simple roots but the music derived from it is ultimately profound. Initially, although beginning on the A flat above middle C, it is played on the G string. The woodwind and brass enter at the end of the sixth bar, accompanying the violins in a chromatic downward scale which imparts an elegiac mood. At 1’17" a climax is reached with a rhetorical upward arpeggio following which the violins leap downwards to A natural (or is it B double flat? Bruckner gives both in the score). This leads to a peaceful interlude based on development of the initial material in which the harp is prominent. From 2’44" there is a section of recapitulation before the cellos introduce the second theme at 4’30". This is long-breathed and quite majestic. At 6’03" the horns play a variant and gradually the music builds to a climax (6’54") in which the second theme is partially iterated in the lower strings and brass. But here Bruckner breaks off and introduces a questioning, ambiguous passage in triple time based on material from both first and second themes and concluding with 4 bars of heart-rending accented string music. After a pause of one beat, the opening theme returns and Bruckner takes a long time to build a climax. This is reached at 10’41" but is foreshortened and dies away after just four bars to a quiet iteration of the downward scale theme in the violins. This gets louder and faster before giving way to a short woodwind passage which returns us to the original tempo and leads to a restatement of the second theme at 11’46". At 13’19" the tenor trombone gets the tune and leads into an abrupt and anguished climax (13’44") following which the violins play the second theme and give it a quite different, more hopeful character. The mood gradually becomes calmer until at 15’09" the first theme re-enters. Almost immediately dark overtones are added and the music builds to an anguished climax with the brass most prominent. At 17’05" the first of the passages that Haas reinserted from the first edition is played. The effect of this passage is to bridge two climaxes by adding some music which builds towards the second. The second climax (17’49") is more hopeful in character and brief. Soon the strings are building towards another but it proves a false alarm. At 19’09" a calm interlude briefly intervenes. Finally we are moving towards the ultimate peak and this is reached at 20’05" with five bars of glorious blaze following which the orchestra quietens immediately to leave the harp to conclude. Without a pause the violins play a C flat triple forte (20’32") by way of introduction to a dark iteration of the first theme. These eight bars of music are stunning in conception and must be difficult to bring off in performance. A more peaceful mood gradually prevails over the next eight bars with the harp again prominent. At 21’50", after a long pause, we enter the coda, initially with the second theme played on the first violins. Horns play a prominent accompanying role as the strings play music of exquisite simplicity, ending with a simple downward tonic scale played very quietly. The mood is restful and ethereal.

Fourth movement – Finale: Feierlich, nicht schnell

The opening of the finale never fails to thrill me and, indeed, the contrast between the sublime close to the adagio and blazing fanfares of the first section of the finale is immensely striking. The fanfares are an unusual mixture of major and minor keys, and throughout the strings play crotchets with chromatic appoggiaturas, establishing a very clear rhythm base. The feeling provoked is one akin to setting out on an epic journey. At 1’45" a slower section begins with deeply felt string writing. The mood is initially dark but there are flashes of light. The initial tempo is soon resumed and a pastoral interlude interspersed with semiquaver figures on the flute and clarinet leads at 4’08" to important new material where the strings provide a plain rhythmic base and the woodwind and brass introduce a long descending third main theme. There is a gradual development to a climax following which, at 4’56", the music breaks off. After a long pause, the downward theme is played slowly and expressively. After another pause, Bruckner seems to building a climax but it is a false alarm again and then suddenly, at 5’47", the fires are raging and anguished brass give vent to their feelings in triple-dotted rhythms. Eventually the music dies and at 6’36" there is a pastoral interlude which is one of the passages Haas reinserted from the first edition. A brass chorale at 7’10" brings us back together with Nowak and is followed by a minor key rendition of the downward third theme played with immense feeling on the strings. At the end of this is another additional passage in Haas (from 7’54" to 8’06") – a kind of answering section just a few bars long. There follows then a return to the opening material but it is highly developed and the climax comes on the strings. Here Bruckner weaves in material from the various sections until, at 10’06 there is another sudden blaze and from 10’44", several more concerted climaxes. At 11’25" the music becomes peaceful and primarily based on the opening material. An emotional climax builds without the brass. At 12’36" the music breaks off and the brass quietly intone material reminiscent of the first movement and an ambiguous but beautiful passage gradually dies. At 14’03" there is a proper recapitulation of the opening and if anything, an even greater climax, finally blazing in C major in a foretaste of the ending. At 15’17" the music is suddenly quiet, brooding and then building to a loud and positive sounding iteration of the downward theme of third section. All the material is starting to come together here but there is time for recapitulation of the second section, again in a slower tempo (17’05"). From 17’47" to 18’17" is the final additional passage in Haas, giving an extra brief mini-climax following which there is a link passage which dies away to lead us to a final recapitulation of the third section (from 19’03"). A climax is built and the first theme of the first movement appears in the brass at 20’12" as preparations for the coda are made. There is time for an iteration of the emotional string writing of the second section. Then a long pause is needed before the coda steals in quietly at 20’28". This builds and builds and uses every block in the symphony to achieve one of the most powerful endings in all music. Initially in the minor, C major bursts in providing majesty and hope. A sustained climax is reached and the work ends with the notes E, D, C – played fortissimo and tutti, simplicity itself ... but to quote Robert Simpson, it has "tremendous finality".

Selected recordings

Bruckner’s 8th symphony has been recorded many times, perhaps by as many as a hundred different conductors, some of whom have had several attempts. There is an excellent discography of his symphonies here. A check of a UK classical CD sales website reveals that there are about 20 versions readily available, not counting those which are part of complete sets. Here I will only consider the versions that I own, these are conducted by Horenstein, Haitink, Karajan, Tintner, Boulez and Wand. I have heard other versions and there are some that I am still looking out for so it should not be regarded as a comprehensive review – merely personal experience and choice.

The Horenstein recording is his studio version made for Vox with Pro Musica Orchestra in the mid-1950s (a live recording from 1970 is available on BBC Legends). It was probably the first recorded version of Nowak’s edition (which was published in March 1955). Unfortunately, I do not think it is currently obtainable – I imported the CDs from the USA a few years ago and the postage cost almost as much as the discs (it is coupled with Liszt’s Faust Symphony). The sound is mediocre for the period and the orchestra not in the same class as the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics. And yet there is no doubt that this is a great interpretation. Perhaps I am biased because this is the first version I ever heard but, in my view, this version should still have a place in the catalogue even though there are now many excellent alternatives. Horenstein’s conception of the work is seamless and tempi are perfectly judged. Although he does not linger in the first movement, an essential sense of mystery is retained. His adagio is perfectly poised, simply ethereal at the close and the finale as fine as in any other version I have heard.

Bernard Haitink has rightly gained a reputation for his conducting of Bruckner but his first recording of the 8th, made in 1969, has been considered a relative flop. I have it as part of the complete set of Concertgebouw recordings he made in the 1960s and 1970s. When re-issued about 10 years ago, Richard Osborne commented favourably on the whole set in the Gramophone but suggested that "you will need another version of the 8th". That goes without saying but, personally, I would not write off this version. At just under 74 minutes it is the fastest reading I have heard but I do not have a problem with any of its speeds. For me this work can legitimately last anywhere from, say, 73 to 88 minutes without necessarily being too fast or slow. Haitink’s reading has both vigour and structural coherence, and it is very well played. I don’t feel it detracts at all from the complete set. Interestingly, Haitink’s 1995 version with the Vienna Philharmonic is a very different conception and in some ways it has the best sound of any of the recordings I have heard. This version runs for over 83 minutes and is evidently the product of long experience. Again, it has not really been given its due by some critics but it is currently available on a Philips Duo coupled with a magnificent version of the 3rd symphony at bargain price (see review).

It would not be possible to have a discussion of recordings of this symphony without considering those made by Herbert von Karajan. He made three studio versions and there is also a live version which has been reviewed recently on MusicWeb. Unlike Haitink, Karajan’s conception did not vary dramatically over the years although he exhibited more urgency when performing live. If you can find his earlier studio versions cheaply, they are worth having but the 1988 reading with Vienna Philharmonic is the most desirable, particularly as it has recently become more affordable; previously the two discs were at full price without a coupling. This was one of Karajan’s last recordings and was first issued around the time of his death in 1989. The music-making affects you in a way that can’t easily be described and this factor underlies the Rosette awarded in the Penguin Guide. In places there is an "earthiness" that is not normally part of Karajan’s make-up; he had a special affection for the work and surely knew that this was his last time. The playing and sound are marvellous throughout and this version is well worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it.

Tintner’s recording is one of only four that have yet been made using Nowak’s edition of the first version of 1887. Whereas Inbal, who made the first recording of this score, did so because he was recording a cycle of first versions, Tintner apparently did so because he believed that it was preferable to the 1890 version. He doesn’t convince me but I am glad he made the recording since listening to it is a good way of exploring and understanding the origins of the work. Tintner adopts rather slow tempi throughout and the adagio lasts for over half an hour. The playing of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and recorded sound are fine. The coupled Symphony No. 0 is a bonus and, being on the Naxos label, this will not break the bank (see review).

Boulez made his recording with the Vienna Philharmonic live at St. Florian (where the young Bruckner was a chorister; he later became the organist and is buried there) on the 100th anniversary of his death in 1996. As far I am aware, he had not previously recorded any Bruckner nor conducted this symphony. He brings surprising freshness and great coherence to the work, and his reading is highly recommendable. It is available on CD or DVD video - I have the latter which also contains an interview with Boulez and has the benefit of displaying the wonderful surroundings. These provide some indications of the inspiration behind Bruckner’s "cathedrals in sound".

Last and, certainly not least, there is Gunter Wand’s final recording, made live with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2001. As with Karajan’s 1988 version, it was one of his last recordings and a fitting memorial. Wand and Karajan had little in common but their last readings are not dramatically dissimilar in overall approach. Wand’s tempi are slightly broader and to my ears he brings rather more humility and humanity. Ultimately, this may be why at the moment, I prefer this recording by Wand to any other version (see review by John Quinn). This is my current single choice for the desert island.

Postscript

If you are interested in this work, all of the recordings I have discussed above are worth hearing. The Wand is a personal first choice, Karajan a close second and an obvious general recommendation. Haitink’s Concertgebouw series would be an excellent choice for a set of all the symphonies. All three of these recordings use the Haas edition of the score but, if necessary, it is not difficult to follow them with Nowak’s edition bearing in mind that there are some short extra passages in the adagio and finale that will not be in the score. For an authoritative account of the works, Robert Simpson’s Essence of Bruckner (originally published in 1967 and updated 10 years later) is unsurpassed but unfortunately seems to be out of print. Apart from the discography mentioned above, I find the main sites that internet search engines take you to a little disappointing. However, a biography by Gabriel Engel which was originally published in 1940 is worth reading.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that my devotion to this symphony is to the exclusion of the others by this composer - far from it. However, there is no doubt in my mind that it was his greatest completed achievement. The work moves beyond the heights gained in the middle symphonies into new territory – hence Bruckner struggled again initially but, in the revised version of 1890, he created something quite extraordinary. The unfinished 9th is comparable as far as it goes. Although I do not feel a sense of incompleteness as its great adagio draws to a close, sketches (and realizations) of the finale, with which he grappled for about two years before his death, show that he was struggling again. We shall never know whether or not he could have excelled the 8th. For me, therefore, this is a musical experience unsurpassed by anything else I have yet heard.

Acknowledgment

I am grateful to John Quinn for reviewing this article and for his helpful suggestions.

Patrick C Waller

Addendum of December 2008:

First, I would like to thank quite a few readers who took the trouble to feedback to me about this article. To my surprise, they included a conductor who was about to perform the work in Sheffield! In the four or so years which have elapsed since the article was first posted I have heard several more recordings of the Eighth symphony and the main purpose of this addendum is to discuss them briefly. Regarding the point made above about score availability, it was recently pointed out to me that both Haas and Nowak editions of the 1890 version are available from sheet music plus.com in the USA. Apparently the Haas edition currently costs about $60 more – quite a lot for about 30 extra bars of music! Many of the scores I have found on various websites do not clearly specify which of these editions is for sale. So if anyone knows how to get hold of the Haas edition at a reasonable price, please let know by e-mail and I will add this information to the article. Whatever your preference in this respect, if you are going to listen to recordings of both editions and want a single score, the ideal approach would be to acquire the Haas edition and mark the passages in the adagio and finale which are excluded from the Nowak edition.

First, I will mention three recordings made in the mid-1950s which are therefore contemporaneous with Horenstein’s Vox recording mentioned above. Eduard van Beinum’s rendition with the Concertgebouw Orchestra has resurfaced in the Naxos Classical Archives from which it is available very cheaply as a download only. This is a very decently played, dramatic reading with swift tempi and a reasonable recording. Klemperer’s Cologne recording on Medici Masters is live but has better sound. As one would expect, Klemperer adopts an objective approach and, interestingly, his tempi are remarkably similar to van Beinum – both versions come in at about 72 minutes. Em Marshall liked this version and I can understand why. No need to dally much on Carl Schuricht’s Stuttgart radio version (on Hänssler CD93.148). Although the interpretation is admirable enough and I have been impressed with some of the other Schuricht recordings of the period, this one has too many fluffs for repeated listening. Despite the virtues of van Beinum and Klemperer, Horenstein’s version remains the most desirable of the period and it is now much more readily available - as a download - than in 2004.

Also from the same era is Karajan’s EMI studio recording which I reviewed when it returned to the catalogue in 2005. Admirers of the conductor will want to have this version but I am increasingly of the view that his 1988 recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra are finer. I say “recordings” because, in addition to the DG set which I mentioned above, Sony has issued a DVD containing a studio performance made in the same month which is very similar but not, I suspect, identical. The visual presentation is a little spartan but the sound has been remastered for surround capability and, in stereo, is better than on most DVDs I have heard. There is a coupling of a live Berlin performance of the Ninth symphony dating from 1985, all on a single disc which costs about £7. This is an unmissable bargain and a reminder of how great a conductor Karajan was in this repertoire.

Two other conductors with a considerable reputation in Bruckner are Karl Böhm (notably his Fourth) and Giulini (notably his Second), both of whom recorded the Eighth with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for DG. The former gives a very solid reading on a mid-price single disc with a notably light touch in the scherzo. Carlo Maria Giulini is more spacious and refined throughout but perhaps too beautiful in a work which is meant to have a tough side. I have also seen and heard him conduct this symphony in a live performance on DVD from Stockholm which was the inaugural concert of the World Philharmonic Orchestra but had some reservations there too (see review). To me, Giulini seems more completely convincing in his recordings of the Ninth symphony.

I recently acquired Bernard Haitink’s 2005 live Concertgebouw performance as a free download (until 31 December 2008 only). John Quinn reviewed the same when it was issued on disc and has said it all – a very decent recording in all respects. It’s a toss up between this and his Vienna version but I seem to find myself less moved by Haitink in this particular work over time.

In addition to the above recordings, I have also acquired recordings of the Eighth as part of complete sets conducted by Barenboim (review), Skrowaczewski (review) and Jochum (his Dresden version on EMI). The first two are decent enough but neither lingers in my memory greatly. The Jochum reading does linger but for the wrong reasons – too many liberties with tempi and surprisingly poor sound for the period and venue. Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1944 live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has been made available on various labels but sounds most tolerable in a recent remastering by Music & Arts (see review). Furtwängler also plays about with the tempi and he uses what is effectively his own edition by making several modifications to Haas. There is some indefinable magic here but it’s hardly a mainstream choice.

One curiosity I should mention is the organ transcription made and performed by Lionel Rogg on BIS CD-946. It is fascinating to hear the work played on Bruckner’s own instrument and it works surprisingly well. Some of Rogg’s tempi are as quick as I have heard, particularly the adagio, but they make sense in this context.

Aside from the Rogg, I have covered twelve additional recordings above and been rather negative about only two or three, perhaps because this is piece I find it hard not to enjoy listening to! Nevertheless, I don’t think any of them displace the version which was at the top of my pile in 2004. Since then I would find it much harder to pick just one version so I am now going to recommend three: Horenstein on Vox as my historical choice, Wand on RCA as a top modern CD version and Karajan on Sony for a DVD. Such a trio won’t break the bank but it would give you three different but greatly satisfying views of this visionary work.

 

 



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