Between 1985 and 1995 Philips recorded four Bruckner
symphonies with Bernard Haitink conducting the VPO (I am not aware that
any more of the symphonies were recorded by this team, which is a shame.)
Recently I reviewed the reissued pairing of Symphonies 4 and 5 and now
the Third and Eighth make an equally welcome reappearance.
In the Third Haitink chooses the edition of Bruckner’s
second version of the score. This was made by Fritz Oeser in 1950. The
other two versions of the score are the original version of 1873 of
which a couple of recordings exist, including that by Georg Tintner
for Naxos, and the revision of 1889 which Bruckner was encouraged to
make by Franz Schalk. This latter has found favour with many conductors
and those who have recorded it include Karajan and Wand. Haitink is
one of the few to prefer the 1877 score on disc and this is his second
recording – he first set it down in his earlier cycle with the Concertgebouw,
a version which I bought years ago on LP. Bruckner devotees will no
doubt have their preferences for one edition or another. I must say
that I find the 1877 score preferable: the 1873 version is just too
much of a good thing (it is over 200 bars longer than the 1877 version)
whereas the 1889 edition is something of an act of butchery, albeit
well intentioned. So, I applaud Haitink’s choice of text.
All of Haitink’s many virtues as a Bruckner interpreter
are manifest here. At the very start the music unfolds with a steady,
measured tread. He and the VPO impart a legendary feel to the opening
measures: we feel to be at the start of a journey.
In general the reading is purposeful and so is the
playing. The dynamic control is superb and, as ever, Haitink is attentive
to the details of the score. Time and again one marvels at the sheer
quality of the string sound (sample, for example, the lyrical idea in
the first movement (disc I, track 1, 3’48") which the strings present
refulgently, later reinforced beautifully by winds and horns. Nor are
the brass to be outdone. A few minutes later the members of the brass
sections call to each other right across the sound stage, a moment which
the high class Philips recording captures thrillingly (track 1, 7’18").
In truth, after a while I stopped noting individual passages of excellent
playing and simply revelled in the pleasure of hearing a world-class
orchestra playing music to which it is so eminently suited – after all,
it must be in the blood of many of the players.
Listeners will find the adagio features exceptionally
warm and affectionate phrasing by the strings (typical of their work
throughout the symphony.) The first two-thirds of this movement are
essentially peaceful and innocent; the storming of the heavens is reserved
for the last five minutes or so – when it is achieved to great effect.
The close but not pedantic attention to dynamics pays great dividends
in the scherzo and I relished the Viennese lilt which is here evident
in the trio.
The finale opens in a blaze of excitement and the VPO
brass ring out gloriously. This is one of Bruckner’s most episodic movements,
I think, and as such it needs an expert guiding hand to keep things
on the rails. In this Haitink succeeds triumphantly, constantly leading
on the ears of his listeners. When the final apotheosis arrives, with
the opening theme of the whole work now gloriously transformed into
the jubilant key of D major (track 4, 14’48"), we feel the moment
has been inevitable from the outset: when Haitink set out on his musical
journey over an hour ago he knew exactly where he was heading.
I wouldn’t claim this symphony as one of Bruckner’s
greatest; there are several places where the seams show (for example
in the first movement at 19’19") and I’d agree with the assessment
of Mark Audus, the author of the (good) liner notes that many of the
features of Bruckner’s mature style are present but "in roughshod
form." However, Audus is quite right to quote the judgement of
the eminent Bruckner scholar, Deryck Cooke that the Third is "the
least perfect of Bruckner’s nine symphonies (though not the least magnificent.)"
In truth, it’s a work of transition, sometimes uncomfortable, between
the first two symphonies (and, indeed, the two earlier, unnumbered symphonies)
and the last six in the canon, these last being works of greater experience
and stature. However, Haitink makes an excellent case for the Third
and I found his performance wholly convincing and very enjoyable.
Recently I was seriously disappointed by a live recording
of the Eighth conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch and it was something
of a relief to turn to Haitink’s objective and faithful view of the
score. I missed this performance when it first appeared, probably because
I already had both of Haitink’s previous Concertgebouw recordings of
the work. These date from 1969 and 1981 and clearly by 1995 Haitink
felt, rightly, that he had more to say about the Eighth. Interestingly,
the latest version takes a little less time than the 1981 account; it
is shorter by some two minutes with most of this being attributable
to a slightly quicker traversal of the adagio.
Yet again Haitink displays a masterly control of pace
and dynamics in this performance. His thinking is clear-sighted and
this ensures that none of the movements "peak" too soon. Again
the playing he gets from the VPO is both trenchant and sonorous (though
I think their playing was even finer in the coupling of the Fourth and
Fifth.) The many quieter passages are played with great finesse but
the intense climaxes are forcefully projected (sample, for instance,
the tutti in the first movement (disc 1, track 5 9’13") but just
as impressive is the descent from that peak (10’00") featuring
excellent solos from flute and trumpet.)
I must praise particularly the great final climax in
the first movement which is delivered with suitably massive intensity
(14’36") but immediately after this Haitink handles the desolate
coda superbly This was an inspired later addition by Bruckner, replacing
a pretty obvious concluding blaze in C major. How right he was to amend
his original thoughts one can hear in Georg Tintner’s fascinating and
dedicated recording of the original version for Naxos.
Haitink’s scherzo is quite excellent. In particular,
one really notices and enjoys the many little woodwind figurations which
abound in the less fully scored passages.
The cornerstone of the work, and the litmus test by
which a performance must be judged is the towering and sublime adagio.
Haitink and his players display profound feeling and a true sense of
innigkeit here. For much of the time the music glows like hot
coals, the quartet of Wagner tubas making a telling contribution to
the depth of the sound. When the tension starts to build (disc 2, track
2, 10’21") Haitink is masterly, controlling the build-up with great
skill so that the first great climax (11’42") seems inexorable
and natural. However, this climax, grand though it is, is only a staging
post along the way; Haitink knows exactly where the music is going.
When the summit is finally reached (21’45") it follows much patient
preparation and is all the more impressive for it. In the coda Haitink
is very moving and extremely dignified. His is a profoundly satisfying
account of this magnificent movement.
The keynote of the finale is grandeur and the music
is performed aristocratically here. Everything about the movement just
feels right. This is the result of scrupulous preparation by the conductor
and dedicated execution by his players. The majesty of the final peroration
(track 3 from 21’16") is a fittingly magnificent conclusion to
a very fine performance indeed.
To accommodate both the symphonies in a ‘twofer’ format
the Eighth has been split, with the first movement on CD 1 and the remainder
on the second disc but I don’t think this presents a drawback of any
significance. Of far more importance are the quality and integrity of
the interpretations and the lustrous playing which is captured in rich,
truthful sound. In the present parlous state of the recording industry
it must be doubtful that there will be any more Bruckner recordings
from this illustrious partnership. That’s a great pity but we must be
heartily thankful for what is available. This is an issue of
very great distinction and I recommend it very highly.