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Anton BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (Haas Edition) (1884-87, rev. 1889-90)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded October 1994 in the Philharmonie, Berlin. DDD
WARNER ELATUS 2564 61297-2 [77’01"]

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it is well known that one of Barenboim’s greatest examples in the conducting world was Wilhelm Furtwängler. Many critics have said on numerous occasions that Barenboim’s performances are copied from those of Furtwängler, and whilst I can hear what they mean, the criticism does Barenboim a great disservice. After all, he is an excellent conductor, and if he is influenced by the older man, so be it. It remains a performance conducted by Daniel Barenboim, not a Furtwängler clone.

Barenboim has recorded the complete symphonies twice, once with the Chicago Symphony on DG and the later set issued by Teldec, currently being re-issued at higher mid-price by Teldec on Elatus. This second cycle is generally held to be the finer of the two, and the Eighth Symphony, one of the highlights of the cycle. This is to do with the combination of orchestra and conductor; in the earlier version, the conductor’s extrovert style is aided and abetted by the massive power of the Chicago brass, whereas his style is somewhat tamed by the warmer sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. In addition, recording techniques have improved over the years and the Teldec offering sounds superb.

This performance has been recorded live but by taking passages from alternative performances and rehearsals the engineers have managed to give us a relatively noise-free recording. This is, of course, apart from Barenboim’s well known habit of singing along with the orchestra, which he does here, in abundance. No amount of patching will solve this problem, only a gag, and even that might not ensure a quiet background. Anyway, I don’t find his vocal contributions too much of a distraction. If you can live with Barbirolli’s singing at the climax of the slow movement of Elgar’s Second on EMI with the Hallé, this disc is unlikely to be a problem.

A few years ago it was rare to find a single disc Bruckner 8th. We are fortunate to be able to buy it in this format at mid-price ... and in such a good performance and in admirable sound.

Barenboim gives us the well-known Haas version of the score, which will suit many. Gone is the loud conclusion to the first movement. Similarly absent is the different scherzo as first brought to our attention by another Teldec Bruckner cycle, that by Eliahu Inbal. Included however, are the two cymbal crashes at the climax of the adagio, so all is not lost.

Throughout, I was mightily impressed by the tonal splendour of the Berlin Philharmonic, with superb blending and great corporate virtuosity well in evidence. The first movement starts quietly, but soon is at fever pitch, such is Barenboim’s insistence that we hear every climax in close-up. This can, in some other conductor’s hands sound overbearing, but here, due to Barenboim’s keen ear and long experience in conducting this orchestra there is no real problem. Speeds throughout the symphony are on the brisk side. The coda of the first movement is taken at a thrilling pace and makes its impression all the more forcefully, although it fades away sooner than I might have expected.

The scherzo is genuinely a scherzo. The music progresses fleet and exciting. This prepares us to settle down for a slow, luxuriant reading of the great adagio. This is enhanced or otherwise by the conductor’s vocally noticeably involvement with the music. Once the adagio has expired (beautifully played by the orchestra), we are into the drama of the finale. This is as fast as the adagio is slow again complete with vocal contributions from the podium. The coda is as thrilling as I have heard, with a great accelerando into the final bars and the final three chords sounding like gunshots. There is no audience applause which is great. However in concert the reaction of the audience cannot have been this sober – a patch, I think.

Highly recommended to all Bruckner, Berlin Philharmonic and Barenboim fans.


John Phillips

 

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