> Anton Bruckner - Symphony No.8 in C minor [TD]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-96)
Symphony No.8 in C minor

(1890 version edited by Robert Haas)
Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich
Conducted by Rudolf Kempe
(Recorded in Tonhalle Zurich Studio, 12/13 November 1971)


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This is the first appearance on CD of a recording made in 1971 and first issued on the Tudor LP label. It was made during Kempeís seven-year tenure as Chief Conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and Iím glad to see it restored since the Kempe recorded legacy is far too thin for such a great artist who died at the height of his powers. His Bruckner is impressive and distinctive. It is conjured from within; nothing is imposed upon it. Certainly not the kind of personal odyssey that a Furtwängler or a Jochum embarked on every time they lifted a baton in front of this composerís scores: the kind of approach that can lead to extreme changes of tempo from section to section no matter how seamlessly done. Kempe, on the other hand, moulds the music but never at the expense of underlying structural integrity.

In the first movement all attention is on the natural lyrical pulse, an innate knowledge of precisely where to press forward and hold back and by how. The climax of the movement is therefore arrived at with a natural inevitability though others might leave more desolation after the trumpets have roared out their warning. In the second movement there is an admirable balance between weight and forward movement. Furtwängler was always too fast here, Jochum always too lightweight. Horenstein got it dead right both in his Vox studio recording and his BBC Legends "live" performance. I like also the optimism that Kempe finds here. A fine antidote to what has gone and an appropriate preface for what is to come, I feel. The wonderful trio section, the one Bruckner wrote especially for this revision, is given luminous space. I well remember how in his first recording Bernard Haitink rushed this sublime music; a mistake he didnít make in his Vienna remake. Under Kempe the great adagio third movement is then sonorous and searching with that same gently subtle flexibility that never intrudes. There is also the impression of every warp and weft of the music under an eye that at the same time never loses sight of the big picture. The same applies to the last movement. It takes a great conductor to span this remarkably disparate piece out and convey its grandeur and drama without exposing its joins. Karajan, Horenstein, Boulez and Van Beinum certainly do it too and Kempe is in that number. However I wonder if a better orchestra than this one would have given us something that would have truly rivalled those named, both here and in the entire work, though more of that in a moment. There are a few more rhetorical touches apparent in this movement than in the previous ones but they come naturally and add to a feeling of "live" performance.

If you collect CDs you are in the fortunate position of being able to hear the very best orchestras at the press of a button. The downside of this is that lesser orchestras suffer more in comparison. The Zurich Tonhalle are a fine band, responsive to Kempeís vision, possessed of good ensemble and accuracy. However when you then compare their playing with that of Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam or London in other recordings available of this work you begin to see how any of those cityís orchestras under Kempeís baton would surely have given us a Bruckner Eighth to really treasure. The Zurich brass, for example, is just not in the same league as that of Vienna or Berlin. They havenít the expressive range or, most especially, the effortless power when playing full out. You know they are playing at their limit in these passages. The strings also need a little more weight and more power.

The recorded sound gives us a well-balanced, general picture that is quite sonorous and possessed of a good bloom of reverberation. But it is slightly limited in that the "top" seems a little clipped and there is a limit in dynamic range. There are passages in Bruckner where you really need to hold your breath at the profound near-silence of it all and that never really is possible here.

Jascha Horensteinís recording on BBC Legends (BBCL 4017-2) is a "live" performance with the LSO that balances the cerebral and the emotional in near-perfect accord and remains my own personal favourite, and you should read my review of it to see why. However I was also mightily impressed with Pierre Boulezís recording on DG (459 678-2). Here the Vienna Philharmonic are recorded in Brucknerís beloved St. Florian in a performance demonstrating the virtues of an orchestra like this playing this music. Boulez also delivers an interpretation in the grand tradition and I hope he regards that as a compliment. The recorded sound is the best modern digital too. Marc Bridle reviewed that release here and I agree with every word of what he says. You must also consider the Berlin Philharmonic under Günter Wand whose Berlin Philharmonic recording on BMG/RCA (74321 82866-2) was enthusiastically reviewed here by John Quinn. Finally let me draw your attention to a superb recording by Eduard van Beinum with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw made originally for Philips in 1955 but which can now be found on the Musical Heritage Society (515229F). Here is another great Bruckner orchestra under a conductor whose interpretation has some similarities to Kempeís. The sound recording might be in mono but the playing represents a kind of gold standard and that is what this symphony demands.

A welcome addition to the Kempe discography though not a top recommendation.

Tony Duggan


See also review by Colin Anderson

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