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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 (1887 version) [80.36]
Bruckner Orchestra Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 10 March 2004, Brucknerhaus, Linz
ARTE NOVA 82876 62856 2 [28.29 + 51.57]


Any performance or recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony will to a large extent be a labour of love. The nature of music determines the nature of the experience, for the performers as for the listeners. This live performance from Linz, with an orchestra whose name pays homage to the master, and in all that does likewise, captures the experience of a special event.

The conductor, Dennis Russell Davies, chooses to perform the less well known original version of 1887, rather than the revision of 1890 which represented Bruckner’s final thoughts. There is always room for more than one view of a great symphony, but the general consensus has been that on this occasion the composer’s second thoughts were better than his first. True, if we only had the first version it would still rank as a masterly score. Moreover there is a danger that any listener will become familiar with one performance or edition, inviting doubts when another is presented. Even so, for this reviewer at least, Bruckner’s Eighth in its 1890 version is as great a symphony as the repertory contains, whereas the earlier version does not quite maintain the tension, build the sonorities and move the spirit to the same extent.

Either version is now well represented in the recording catalogue, and anyone seeking the 1887 version will find that Davies and the Linz Orchestra have as much to commend them as anyone else. But set against the experience of the Vienna Philharmonic and Karajan (DG), the Berlin Philharmonic and Wand (RCA), or even the Saarbrücken Orchestra and Skrowacewski, this newcomer does not quite pass muster. But remember that all these alternatives are of the revision. Among the recorded performances of the original version Davies ranks strongly alongside the likes of Eliahu Inbal (Teldec) and Georg Tintner (Naxos).

The Arte Nova price is attractive and so, as ever, is the recorded sound. There is an appropriate warmth and atmosphere, while the playing of the Linz Orchestra is altogether admirable. Davies keeps the music flowing and, at some 80 minutes, his performance might nearly have fitted on to a single CD, as some others do (e.g. Boulez on DG). The cogency of the symphonic development emerges strongly out of this approach, nor is sonority wanting when the climaxes build. If there are doubts they tend to linger when considerations of atmosphere and line take priority.

The scherzo is driven hard ... and why not? This allows the contrast of the (different) trio section to make a strong impression. In the slow movement the flow is compellingly symphonic, with a convincing sense of line and direction. A little weight of tone is sacrificed while the great climax, which works rather better in the revised version, lacks a little in intensity in this performance.

There is some fine playing in the finale. The timpanist, for instance, covers himself in glory, while the brass create a magnificent sonority. Details of development seem less compelling than in the revision, but even so there is an abundance of symphonic weight in the best sense of the term. Whatever doubts may emerge along the way, there is no question that this performance invites the compelling assertion that the best single performance of a Bruckner symphony must always be the next one.

Terry Barfoot

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