> Anton Bruckner - Symphony No. 8 [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Emma Johnson

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (Nowak Edition) (1887)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Ricardo Chailly
Recorded 10th-12th May 1999, Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
DECCA 466 653-2 [79:04]


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If a work can persuade me to take Bruckner completely seriously as a composer, it’s the 8th Symphony. Don’t misunderstand me; there is much that is great and beautiful in the other symphonies, but the 8th seems a convincing totality, where the dimension and character of the four movements balance and complement each other in a way that doesn’t seem to happen elsewhere in the same satisfying way (though for obvious reasons, the 9th Symphony stands outside this discussion).

It does, though, make huge demands on conductor and orchestra. The former needs the ability to deal securely with the myriad ensemble problems that occur while still keeping an eye on the distant goal and the big picture; the latter need an inner sense of unity that is so secure that it makes the huge textures work like chamber music. In the Concertgebouw Orchestra, we surely have that here; hearing them this week at the Proms, I was struck, as ever, by the flawlessness of the playing, but much more by the sheer musicality that they display at all times; nothing narcissistic or superficially sensation-seeking, just musical honesty at the highest level. That was in Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, but this symphony calls for many of the same virtues, the 3rd being arguably Mahler’s most Brucknerian work.

Ricardo Chailly wasn’t on the box that night, having injured his shoulder; Eliahu Inbal deputised ably, and, given that he arrived 25 minutes or so before the Prom started, and had no chance for rehearsal with orchestra, soloist or choirs, the performance was near-miraculous. However, I very much regretted Chailly’s absence, never having seen and heard him conduct live. And he certainly shows here that he has a real feeling for the music of Bruckner. The symphony is full of wonderful touches of scoring; Bruckner is more attentive to his woodwind than usual, and all the detail is heard with wondrous clarity. The great first movement hangs together superbly, and the massive central and culminating climaxes are built up with a secure dramatic as well as structural sense. Here, though, the name of Karajan has to crop up, indicating that this performance is to be judged by the highest of standards. Where does Chailly fail, where Karajan succeeds? Well, to me it’s not a matter of failure but of degree; Karajan seems to create an even greater sense of catastrophe and conflict. There is a tangible sense of evil forces at work in both of his versions that I am familiar with. As the trumpets are left repeating the main theme’s rhythm near the end of the movement, Karajan gets them to articulate the rhythm with such vicious clarity, full of spite and menace. Chailly seems tame, polite even, compared to this.

The Scherzo is done superbly here, with tingling string tremolando, and tight yet swinging rhythms. The great Adagio brings a point of interest at the very start; Bruckner sets up a quietly throbbing string accompaniment in second violins, violas and basses, over which he introduces his plangent main theme in the first violins. The accompaniment figure is usually played so that the actual rhythm is quite indistinct, acting as a mere carpet of sound on which the melody can tread softly. Chailly, unusually, articulates the rhythm with clarity and some weight. I found this wonderful, as it emphasises the heavy-hearted emotions, and a sense of fatefulness too. Chailly moves the music on, never lets it languish or over-indulge, with the result that it moves inexorably toward the clinching climax at around 20:15 (track 3). It should be said that there is the one and only ragged moment of ensemble here, where a couple of harp notes ring out awkwardly at the sudden cut off. Maestro Chailly would probably point to the score and say "It’s what he wrote!", to which I say "Fair enough; but it’s your job to make it work, and I don’t think it quite does!"

The coda is sublime in its tranquillity, though a slight engineering balance problem emerges here, which is more troubling still in the finale, which is to say that the Concertgebouw’s horn section seems just slightly undermiked. We can here them quite clearly, but they seem very ‘deep’. In some passages in the finale, they seem slightly at odds with the quartet of Wagner tubas, with whom they share some gorgeous moments. An amateur musician friend commented that he thought the horns and tubas were ‘out of tune’ at 2:48 (track 4). They aren’t in point of fact, but the perspective is all wrong, which creates much the same net effect.

This is a very fine Bruckner 8; if not the best available – that accolade probably belongs, according to taste, to one Karajan and the VPO – this is certainly a highly impressive reading, with gloriously confident and stylish orchestral playing.


Gwyn Parry-Jones

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