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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in C Minor (1890 version, ed. Nowak) [87:20]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
rec. 1984. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 415 124-2 [33:25 +53:55]
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in C Minor (1887 version, ed. Haas) [82:06]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried-Idyll (1870) [19:28]*
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 1976, 1977*. ADD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 419 196-2 [58:15 + 43:47]

 


Since Walter Legge persuaded Schnabel to record the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven for his new HMV subscription service, the classical music recording industry has been obsessed with the concept of the boxed set. This is especially the case for symphonies. While reviewers repeat the mantra that collectors will do better to pick up individual records rather than one-conductor symphonic cycles, the desire of music-lovers to have so-and-so’s Brahms and Beethoven has seen recording companies over the years compiling boxes of symphonies by just about every conductor you can name, from Abbado to Weller and back again.

One conductor who consistently bucked the boxed set trend was Carlo Maria Giulini. His repertoire was, like Carlos Kleiber's, restricted to a handful of works that he knew and loved. I believe that he never recorded a complete cycle of anyone's symphonies. Of Bruckner's canon, he recorded only the second symphony and the last three.

Nonetheless, Giulini acquired a reputation as a major Bruckner interpreter, and on the evidence of this recording of Bruckner's 8th, it is easy to see why. His conception of the piece is immense. It is undeniably slow, but utterly compelling.

The first movement is kindled into life like the fires of a massive locomotive, moving with inexorable momentum, though without speed. The brass chorales and explosive tuttis of the first movement have enormous rhetorical power, and Giulini allows them plenty of room to be intoned, pulling tempo right back at just the moments a Jochum would push ahead. There is also plenty of contrast between power and tenderness, as individual voices intone as in empty space after the last echoes of the tuttis have faded.

The mood of the scherzo is lighter than that of the first movement, but at slow tempi – he favours an andante over the marked allegro moderato – and with full, rich orchestral sound, it remains serious. He conjures an Italianate glow from the strings in the major modulations of the scherzo and a depths-of-the-forest sense of mystery from the minor key passages. In the trio, Giulini takes Bruckner's langsam marking very seriously and achieves a sense of rapture. The ascending arpeggios on the harp in the trio are gorgeous.

Then, the adagio. At 29:15 you may expect that the tension of the movement would be lost, but Giulini never lets it slacken. He shapes each harmonic block and creates a timeless glow. Listening to this is a very moving experience. The finale – the most satisfying in all Bruckner and a fitting culmination to this fabulous symphony – is gritty and powerful, but with moments of melting beauty. The Vienna strings sing out in the second subject, with a wonderfully bass up sonority that gives the music a feel of real depth and presence. Giulini's attention to dynamics is also superb, as he draws the most hushed of pianissimos from the orchestra even after the most vocal of passages.

In sum, this is a special reading of this most compelling of Bruckner's symphonies, and other than Celibidache's, it is the longest on record that I am aware of, and certainly the longest rendition of the shorter Nowak score. There are more viscerally exciting accounts – Tennstedt's with the London Philharmonic Orchestra leads the pack here (EMI Gemini 0946 3 81761 2 1) – and in terms of sheer orchestral brilliance the Berliners under Maazel (EMI 7243 5 69796 2 8) outplay the Vienna Philharmonic – but Giulini brings a spirituality to the score and a depth of emotion, especially in the adagio, that are unmatched elsewhere. The early digital sound is warm and clear, though some of the instrumental solos from the winds feel spot-lit rather than placed in their natural perspective. If you love this symphony, you owe it to yourself to hear Giulini's interpretation, either on DVD, on BBC Legends, or on this Arkiv release.

The other Arkiv release considered here is Herbert von Karajan's second of three recordings of Bruckner's 8th. Unlike Giulini, Karajan was king of the boxed set – who else can claim to have recorded the Beethoven symphonies four times commercially, not including his cycle on film for Unitel? This 1976 performance comes from Karajan's complete cycle of Bruckner's symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon. He may have been a boxed set conductor, and he may have recorded this symphony many times, but Karajan too had a special relationship with his fellow Austrian, Anton Bruckner, and with this symphony in particular. When the post-war ban on Karajan's live performances was lifted in October 1947, it was with Bruckner's 8th that he reintroduced himself to the Vienna Philharmonic and the Viennese public. He gave the score he used for that concert to boxed-set mastermind Walter Legge, who had taken advantage of Karajan's absence from the public podium to turn him into a recording artist. It was inscribed: “To my second musical self and dear friend in memory of a long-awaited day.”

It was for Legge that Karajan first recorded Bruckner's 8th symphony commercially. That recording was made in 1957, a year after his return concert, when he had just been appointed as Furtwängler's successor in Berlin. His third and final commercial recording of the 8th was one of the last recordings he made and marked something of a musical homecoming, as he conducted the 8th yet again with the Vienna Philharmonic under his baton. That version, which I have not heard, is widely regarded as the best of his three accounts and a reference version of the symphony. Prior to its release, though, this Berlin recording held the palm. It was definitely one of the high points of his complete cycle.

Putting the unknown - to me - Vienna account to one side, the comparison with the 1950s EMI recording is interesting. In the 1950s the orchestral sound is darker, the interpretation starker, more brooding and more spacious. By 1976, Karajan's view of the work had become leaner and more fully integrated. The sound of the Berlin Philharmonic is also different. The heavy, bottom-up sonority that Furtwängler cultivated is no more, and the trademark Karajan unaccented fortes are everywhere to be heard. This is slick stuff. Maazel with the same orchestra some 14 years later is slicker still, but Karajan has more depth. He also has the knack of making Bruckner flow, so that this two disc 82 minute rendition of the symphony slips by without you realising that time has passed. Unlike Jochum who picks up pace at the climaxes and Giulini who slows down for them, Karajan presses on with a consistent pulse.

His first movement has grandeur and beauty. There is brightness and a sense of release to the scherzo – though Maazel and Tennstedt create greater contrast between the darkness of the modulating minor and the explosions in to the major. Still, the playing of the Berliners is undeniably immaculate. The adagio sings sweetly, and though Giulini perhaps finds more emotion here, Karajan conjures beautiful sounds from his orchestra that are impossible to resist. The finale has fine impetus and strength, and again the brilliance of the orchestra's strings and brass are mesmerising. I find Giulini more stoic and defiant here, and Tennstedt more gripping as the winner of the more hard fought victory, but Karajan's grip on the symphonic argument is firm and this finale is of a piece with his interpretation of the whole work. Karajan's analogue recording is warmer and better integrated than Giulini's digital sound.

I should note that in mentioning Giulini, Maazel and Tennstedt in my discussion of Karajan's recording I am not really comparing like with like. All three of them use the Nowak score, while Karajan uses the Haas. Barenboim, who charts a course between Tennstedt and Maazel, uses the Haas score and is also well worth hearing. Whether you prefer his account to Karajan's will come down to personal choice between the dramatic (Barenboim) and the beautiful (Karajan).

The Karajan issue also includes a coupling – a light and sweet Siegfried-Idyll, which is warmly recorded and nice to have, without being particularly special.

Both Giulini and Karajan are major interpreters of Bruckner, and both demand to be heard in this symphony. Giulini's Vienna recording has the edge over Karajan's second Berlin recording in depth of feeling and spiritual nourishment, perhaps, but Karajan does not lag by much, and he brings orchestral playing of wonderful refinement, particularly from his strings. Choose between them if you must, but the better course is to buy both. Thanks to Arkiv, you can.

Tim Perry


 


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