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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No 8 in C minor ed. Nowak* [85’50]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) Symphony No 8 in G major, Op. 88** [35’40"]
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Semiramide: Overture*** [12’21"]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
Recorded: *Royal Festival Hall, London, 18 September 1983; **Royal Albert Hall, London, 8 August 1963; *** Royal Festival Hall, London 25 November 1963 ADD
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4159-2 [60’56" + 73’31"]

The ninetieth birthday of Carlo Maria Giulini, which occurred earlier this year, has been marked in contrasting ways by different labels. EMI, with whom he was associated for many years, issued a fascinating and excellent compilation of his recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Shamefully, both CBS/Sony, for whom the maestro recorded towards the end of his career, and DG, with whom he had a much longer association, have so far not marked the anniversary in any way whatsoever. With due respect to EMI, who had many studio recordings on which to draw, I think the palm has to go to BBC Legends. They have already issued two celebratory releases of live broadcasts and now complete the hat trick with another mouth-watering collection of examples of Giulini at work.

With two symphonies to consider I hope I’ll be forgiven if I pass quickly over the Rossini overture. Suffice to say that it’s a delightful performance. Interestingly, the piece was played not, as is usual, to start a concert but at the end of the programme in question.

The Dvořák symphony is my favourite in his symphonic output. In particular I relish the mix of generous lyricism and hints of darkness in the music. Giulini brings out both aspects splendidly. Thus, the glorious introductory melody with which the whole work begins is shaped and moulded with style and just the right degree of loving care. The main allegro has a beguiling freshness. Throughout the first movement and, indeed, throughout the whole piece, the various instrumental voices are balanced with fastidious clarity.

At the start of the slow movement the Philharmonia strings play with great richness of tone. The critic Michael Steinberg has drawn comparisons between this movement and the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. I’m not entirely sure I go along with this but there is a definite element of sadness and Giulini brings this out. Under him the music glows darkly. The central dramatic section (CD 2, track 3, 6’35" – 7’36") is urgently done, typical of the conductor’s ability sharply to characterise the music where appropriate.

The enchanting third movement is, in Steinberg’s memorable phrase, "full of melancholy chromatic droops." This account of the movement is most engaging and here, as elsewhere, the playing of the Philharmonia is splendidly responsive. The set of variations that forms the finale largely exudes a feeling of well being and this performance is vivid and enthusiastic (some may feel the trombones are just a shade too enthusiastic at times.) In summary, this is a fine reading of this wonderful symphony and I enjoyed it very much and will return to it often, I’m sure.

But fine though it is, the performance of the Dvořák is put in the shade by the account of Bruckner’s Eighth. With this reading Giulini inaugurated the Philharmonia’s 1983/4 concert season and I can only describe it as an Event. The following year he went on to make a recording of the same work for DG with the Vienna Philharmonic. After hearing this present performance I looked up a review in Gramophone by Richard Osborne of that VPO recording. Osborne offered the following assessment: "It is an immensely long-breathed performance yet it is of a piece with itself and the music it serves. It is a reading that is suffused from start to finish with its own immutable logic.." In my view that judgement applies equally to this present performance. Giulini uses the Nowak edition here, as he did in his VPO performance. Though the notes are silent on this point I am sure it’s the Nowak edition of the 1890 score rather than that of 1887.

The first movement is noble, dedicated and expansive. Every paragraph seems to follow its predecessor with a seamless inevitability. From the outset the playing of the Philharmonia makes a deep impression, especially the splendid warmth of the strings and the golden tones of the brass choir. The climaxes are as powerful and majestic as you could wish but never sound forced in any way. Time and again we experience Giulini’s care for balance and texture. Let me mention one tiny point. As the imposing final climax of the movement is built at 14’44" we hear just for a couple of bars a short but telling little phrase on the horns. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this symphony but I’ve never remarked that detail before. Yet, it is brought out in a way that is neither distracting nor self-regarding.

If I have a reservation about this performance it concerns the pacing of the scherzo. The chosen tempo is quite deliberate, firm and measured. I have to say that there were a few passages (for example 2’48" – 4’00") where I felt a bit more forward momentum would have been desirable. The trio is exquisitely sculpted.

I have no reservations whatsoever about the reading of the great adagio. This huge movement is at the very heart of the symphony in every sense. Giulini conceives it on an expansive scale, drawing the long lines beautifully. The playing he obtains from the Philharmonia is nothing short of world class (sample the passage between 2’02" and 2’52".) From start to finish the reading is characterised by beauty and nobility. The great climaxes grow organically, with complete naturalness and are all the more effective as a result. This is the work of a master conductor, directing proceedings with total concentration and conviction. A rapt account of the closing pages (from 22’43") sets the seal on a truly outstanding performance of this great movement.

The finale opens, as it should, in majesty. Giulini is not afraid to linger in some of the more lyrical passages but he is always persuasive. There is an abundance of power in the tuttis (e.g. 6’45" to 7’37"). Some may feel that the fugue at 19’28" is a bit too smoothly voiced but I think Giulini gets away with it. The long build up to the final peroration (from 22’13") is hugely impressive in its patience and cumulative power.

In summary, this is a wholly dedicated and masterly performance by a great conductor at the height of his powers. As I said earlier, this performance was clearly an Event and I would have counted myself privileged to have attended it – as the audience clearly did to judge by their applause. Now, thanks to BBC Legends, this great traversal of Bruckner’s supreme masterpiece is widely available for us to savour and marvel at.

The sound in all three performances is very good (the Rossini is in mono) and there is a useful note by Alan Sanders chronicling Giulini’s long relationship with the Philharmonia.

For all collectors who appreciate greatness in the art of conducting this is an unmissable set. I recommend it with all possible enthusiasm and I just hope that BBC Legends will continue to give us splendid Giulini offerings such as this long after the celebrations for his ninetieth birthday year are over.

John Quinn

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