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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1884-7, revised 1890, ed. Robert Haas) [85:45]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Bernard Haitink
rec. live, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 18, 20 February 2005. DSD
RCO LIVE RCO 05003 [61:01 + 24:44]

Understandably the first few issues on the Concertgebouw Orchestraís own new label have concentrated on performances in which they are conducted by their new Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons. However, Iím delighted that the first guest conductor to appear on the label is the Concertgebouwís highly distinguished Laureate, Bernard Haitink.

This orchestra has a long and notable Bruckner pedigree. The tradition was honed and nurtured by such luminaries as Eduard van Beinum and Eugen Jochum. However, arguably no-one has done more to foster the orchestraís reputation for excellence in Bruckner than Haitink.

This is his fourth recording of the symphony. He first set it down with the Concertgebouw in 1969, a recording that I only have on LP. He recorded it again with the same orchestra in 1981 and made a third recording, this time with the Vienna Philharmonic, in 1995. Itís this last version that, coupled with the Third, is available in the Philips Duo series. Now along comes a brand new, live version with Haitink back on "home turf" in Amsterdam.

Anyone who has read the survey of Bruckner recordings that Patrick Waller and I compiled a while ago read here will know that Iím a great admirer of Haitink as a Bruckner conductor. Although in that survey Gunter Wandís 2001 reading of the Eighth Symphony emerged as my own first choice I feel that Haitink runs him very close in this work, especially in his 1995 Vienna Philharmonic account review. Many of the comments that I made when reviewing that Vienna version apply equally to this newcomer.

Patrick Waller, who has the 1969 version on CD, has kindly supplied the precise timings of that recording. Itís instructive to compare the timings of all four performances
Movement 1969 (RCO) 1981 (RCO) 1995 (VPO) 2005 (RCO)
1 13:57 16:05 16:53 16:40
2 13:33 16:13 15:09 16:05
3 25:17 29:16 27:28 28:01
4 20:44 23:53 23:53 24:44
Total 73:31 85:27 83:23 85:45

Really, thereís not a great deal of difference between timings of the last three versions but the consistency between the 1981 and 2005 Amsterdam performances is especially remarkable. Listening to the different recordings confirms what the timings suggest, namely that Haitink hasnít altered his basic view of this great work very much in the last twenty-five years.

I read a generally favourable review of this performance in the September issue of International Record Review in which the distinguished critic, Richard Osborne expressed some disappointment that Haitinkís view of the work "has not become more visionary, more probing." Mr. Osborne is someone whose judgement of Bruckner recordings Iíve found to be extremely sound and perceptive over the years and he well may be right in this verdict too. However may I suggest an alternative view? Itís quite clear that Haitink re-thought his interpretation pretty radically between 1969 and 1981, broadening his whole conception of the piece significantly. Though Iím sure that Haitink will have continued to ponder the score over the years itís quite possible that, having arrived at a very carefully considered view of the work by the early 1980s, he has seen no reason to change it. This would be of a piece with his sober, reflective style of music-making, a style which Iíve always found has a great deal to commend it.

However, if you prefer a warmer, more moulded and flexible stance, a romantic view, in short, you may find Haitink a little too objective for your taste. Personally, I like his way with Bruckner though Iím equally impressed with the more overt approach of, say, Giulini. review

In this latest recording Haitink builds the first movement with great patience and understanding. The climaxes, such as the one around 9í00", have grandeur and a sense of inevitability. Mind you, the sonority of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is a great boon. Thereís a tremendous richness to the string sound (e.g. around 12:00). As was proved when the orchestra visited the Promenade concerts in London earlier this month (September 2005) the players really are displaying a rich vein of musical form right now. So, with a foundation of wonderful string tone crowned by golden brass the final climax of this movement (from 14:27) has great power. On this occasion I donít feel that the coda is as desolate as it can sound - and as it did sound on the 1995 VPO recording. Rather, on this occasion thereís a resigned air to the music, which I find just as satisfying.

The scherzo is purposeful and strong. Haitink imparts a rugged sturdiness to the rhythms but he also shapes the more lyrical trio beautifully.

The huge adagio, arguably Brucknerís greatest single achievement, is at the heart of the performance, as it should be. Hereís where Haitinkís powers of concentration and his ability to take a sustained long view pay dividends. The whole movement is superbly controlled from the rostrum and is wondrously played. Brucknerís seemingly inexhaustible string lines are splendidly sustained and the brass plays with glowing tone. Haitink negotiates every transition in the music with admirable skill, weaving the movement into a seamless whole. The climaxes build inexorably and majestically and when the final climax arrives (at 21:55) it has been superbly prepared over several paragraphs and bursts forth in radiant majesty. The coda is quite splendid. The choir of Wagner tubas and horns is gently sonorous and the strings play with great eloquence.

The finale can sound the most episodic of the four movements but Haitink moulds one passage into another with the skill that comes from long experience and musical wisdom. His control of pace seems unerring - a comment which could equally well apply to each of the preceding movements. When the final peroration arrives he begins it in mystery and gradually escalates to a concluding blaze of power and majesty. Applause has been retained, rightly in my view, but it comes after a respectful pause and thereís no cheering; such a reaction would have been wholly out of place given the dedication of the performance.

This is a reading of nobility and integrity. It may yield in majesty and spirituality to the last recordings of Karajan and Wand and it doesnít have the same intensity that Giulini brought to the work. But thatís never been Haitinkís way and this reading is still a very fine achievement indeed and itís graced by superb playing. The recorded sound is very good. However, comparing this newcomer with the 1981 Concertgebouw version I found that on my equipment there seemed to be a bit more space and bloom around the sound on the earlier recording. Both versions were set down in the same hall but I assume that in 1981, when the recording was made under studio conditions, the hall was empty and I wonder if the orchestra was set out in the stalls area rather than on the stage. However, though the 2005 sound is a bit closer I felt it was fully acceptable and thereís no intrusive audience noise.

If you have one of Haitinkís other CD versions of this work I think you can rest content with what you have already. However, every Bruckner collection ought to contain at least one Haitink version of the Eighth so if you havenít so far acquired a recording by this great Brucknerian then this authoritative newcomer is very warmly recommended.

John Quinn



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