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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    


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Also includes interview with Pierre Boulez
Recorded 21-22 September 1996, St Florian
TDK DV-VPOBR [95.00]


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Recorded at two concerts in September 1996 celebrating the centenary of Bruckner's death, this well produced DVD captures the experience of a special occasion. For the great baroque monastery church of St Florian in Upper Austria is not a regular concert venue. It became one because of its special association with the composer, who is buried there beneath the organ, and who chose the location as the one which meant more to him than any other in the world.

Brian Large is an experienced hand at visual presentations of musical performances, and he directs this production admirably. There is a good sense of space and of the occasion, with the two performances used so discreetly that the viewer/listener is unaware of more than one performance being used. And a very fine performance it is too, already available and highly praised from its CD issue several months ago.

The CD sound outstrips that of this DVD, although the latter is acceptable enough. But the volume level needs to be boosted to allow details to make their mark and climaxes their impact. The timpani, for example, have relatively less focus than they do on the CD.

Boulez conducts a beautifully controlled performance, using the Haas edition of the score and avoiding extremes of phrasing and tempi. Since as a conductor he was coming to the music for the first time in his career, he made his own study of the score his priority, rather than following the precedent of others. He admits as much in the accompanying interview, which is interesting as far as it goes, but does not show that Boulez has any special insights into Bruckner other than as a leading practitioner of the art of conducting. It goes to show what a good conducting technique and experience can do, especially when there is the Vienna Philharmonic on hand to play the notes.

There are some wonderful images of St Florian, which remains a very special place, unspoiled by the trappings of tourism and modern society. It is easy to understand why it remained so important to Bruckner. But the project surely missed an opportunity and took an easy way out, when a more details look at the place could have been offered, with some documentary material on Bruckner's association with it. Merely getting Boulez to give an interview seems like an easy option.

The written documentation is weak, and includes one extraordinary howler. Boulez quite rightly opts for Bruckner's 1890 revised version (the first version having been completed three years earlier). The insert notes, which emanate from Japan, state: 'The original adaptation of the score was published by Leopold Nowak in 1890 and later reworked by Robert Haas in the 1930s.' Oh dear. In fact Nowak was born in 1904, fourteen years after Bruckner's second version of the symphony was completed. The Nowak edition of the score was actually published in 1955.

The Boulez performance is one to be reckoned with. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra plays as well as one would expect them to play, and an advantage they offer is the longer bore horns which Bruckner himself expected. The blending of horns with Wagner tubas is a feature of the work, and of the performance too, though there were a couple of occasions, including the magnificent conclusion of the work, when the recording might have given horn tone greater prominence. But the interpretation is compelling and valid. My only quibble relates to the trio of the scherzo, in which the tempo seems rapid and the phrasing straight-laced. More rubato might have brought more character.

There are many fine things to be experienced, and subtleties emerge most naturally. Never have Bruckner's harps made a more telling contribution, and they certainly add a special dimension to the great climax of the Adagio. The revised coda of the first movement, an addition which Bruckner entitled 'Totenuhr' (Death Watch) is suitably sombre and atmospheric. Boulez, however, admits in the interview that he simply followed the notes in the score to achieve this effect. The visual aspect certainly takes up the challenge of this imagery, however, cutting to the crypt and featuring images of skulls and bones. But nothing in the accompanying booklet notes explains why this was done, and that is typical of the sloppy approach to this aspect of the production. In fact this is much the weakest aspect of it.

It would be wrong to dwell on the less successful aspects of this DVD package, however. For the music is beautifully played, the composer is well served and the orchestra sounds splendid. At the same time the visual imagery and camera work respond to the nobility which lies at the heart of Bruckner's conception.
Terry Barfoot


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