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CD: AmazonUK

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (revised version 1890) [77:04]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
rec. October 1994, Philharmonie, Berlin
WARNER CLASSICS MAESTRO 2564 691748 [77:04]
Experience Classicsonline

The first thing to say about this Warner Maestro reissue from Teldec is that it represents extraordinary value for money at budget price. Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is one of those awkward pieces that either fills a full CD or spills over into a second. In this live performance from Berlin in 1994, Barenboim (b. 1942) is just within the single-disc range. The added bonus is that his performance is suitably spacious and does not sound rushed or lightweight. Moreover he chooses the Haas edition of the revised 1890 score, which is more extended than the Nowak alternative.

Bruckner tends to be better served in the recorded music catalogues than he is by our orchestras in the concert hall, though London audiences are faring better than the regions in the coming season. There are plenty of alternatives for the discerning collector, including Barenboim's own Chicago performance on Deutsche Grammophon (429 025-2GX10) which is more spacious than this live performance. In the first two movements there seems an extra dramatic intensity in the Berlin edition, so perhaps the faster tempo produces a galvanizing effect. On the other hand, the mood of pathos in the first movement coda that Bruckner created for the revised 1890 version is even more moving and searching when the music moves as slowly and mysteriously as possible. Not for nothing did he call it 'totenuhr' ('death watch'). Gunther Wand (1912-2001) is a master of the ebb and flow of Brucknerian tension, and his recordings with the Berlin Phiharmonic (RCA 74321 82866 2) and North German Radio (CDS 7 49718 2) orchestras have a surpassing eloquence and depth at this stage of the work, which ranks as one of the great things in the composer's output.

Barenboim's scherzo points the rhythms to exciting effect, supported by the clarity and depth of the recorded sound and the disciplined playing of his great orchestra. He is also as eloquent as the wonderful Adagio slow movement demands, although somehow he does occasionally give the impression of allowing the flow of the musical line to drag. This was something which the composer sought to avoid, his instruction being AdagioFeierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend (Slow and solemn, but not dragging). Perhaps the recording contributes to this feeling, since the string sound is weighty but has less bloom than might be ideal. However, it is a live recording and the acoustic of the Berlin Philharmonie may have contributed to this. The best arbiter is therefore comparison with Herbert von Karajan's 1975 recording (439 969-200A2) in the same venue. While the sound is similar, the latter's flow of phrasing is probably more supple. This approach is a deliberate choice on Barenboim's part and there is more than one way to perform a masterpiece. Karajan's 1988 Vienna version (427 611-2GH2) enjoys the acoustic of the Musikverein, which is livelier, resulting is a more forward string sound.

The finale is, like the Adagio, an extended movement of more than twenty minutes' duration. Barenboim shapes it with an unerring sense of symphonic direction, the different phases balancing the experience for the listener in tension, tempo and texture. For a symphonic journey such as this, a recapitulation alone cannot be enough, and the final phase is heralded by the fulfilment brought by the return of the first movement's opening subject. The magnificent coda follows, majestically combining themes from all four movements in a blaze of C major sound, and representing the ultimate and most radiant affirmation of Bruckner's devout faith. There is no question that an experienced and devoted Bruckner conductor such as Barenboim understands what is required, and the coda in this performance is certainly of compelling magnificence. Different results will be found in different performances, from different conductors, orchestras, acoustics and recordings. It seems churlish to dismiss any one at the expense of another. If ultimately Gunther Wand (North German Radio Symphony) and Herbert von Karajan (Vienna Philharmonic) must emerge as my first choice recommendations, it needs also to be said that Barenboim is a masterly conductor of this composer and this symphony. At bargain price on a single CD this reissued performance offers compelling value both financially and artistically.

Terry Barfoot

Masterwork Index: All reviews of Bruckner 8 on Musicweb



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