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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No.8 in C minor 1887-90 [75:45]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
rec. December 1966, Sofiensal, Vienna. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9235 [75:45]
Experience Classicsonline

This Bruckner 8th reissue is a real feast with the spice of irony.
 
The orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic and most MWI readers will know how the orchestra sabotaged the composer’s Symphony No.1 in 1867 because the players disliked the shy composer from a humble background. He lacked the polish beloved by snobs.
The conductor here is Sir Georg Solti, Hungarian then naturalised British but from the same Austro-Hungarian semi-rural background as the composer and immune from the German shadow which has affected Bruckner’s reputation.
 
It is true that Bruckner found the orchestral language he needed in Wagner but let us ditch the idea once and for all that he imitated the German mega-star when the men were polar opposites in faith and morality. Might as well say that Stravinsky imitated Webern in his late works when an underlying ‘method’ was all there was, derived from Schoenberg but not apparent in the actual sound.
 
If you listen to Bruckner’s organ music it is clear that he was struggling towards large-scale expression of a sonic nature but bear in mind that Bruckner left no separate organ works of genius as Bach and Messiaen did.
 
My pet theory is that the slow developer Bruckner was far from being the dim prole of popular legend but knew what he wanted and achieved it supremely. For example can you listen to symphonies 6 to 9 without seeing a link to how later Russians used his orchestral style, hanging phrases and dynamics from Tchaikovsky through Rimsky to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. There is also more Bruckner than Brahms in Elgar if you listen with open ears.
 
Solti’s achievement on this classic Decca recording is Bruckner as the composer surely wanted it and is hard to fault.
 
Jochum’s legendary expertise and digging is what I know best and Solti knew his recordings inside out – the best (I think) being his penultimate canon, some in mono.

Karajan has to be considered and his last recordings were brilliant but a bit too swish for me, especially the Eighth, so this gorgeous Solti from 1966 hits the sweet spot, although earlier Karajan recordings are worth hearing, especially his Seventh.
 
Solti is sombre the first movement (Allegro moderato) until it gets to the brass and woodwind dialogues then he digs, enables and things take shape. Bruckner placed the Scherzo; Allegro moderato – Trio; Langsam second and Solti takes it briskly at 14:35 with cascading glory. There’s also a strong sense of fun and celebration emanating from the orchestra which Karajan lacked but which Jochum sometimes achieved. The third movement: Adagio: Feierlich langsam is Bruckner as written, running to 25 minutes. However what Solti does is to explore the layers of themes, harmonies, superb orchestral subtlety and pace without going too far. It’s easy to jump into a scented pool or a luxurious silken bed but Solti remembers that Bruckner was an austere man of strict faith. Sadly, Karajan’s last Eighth falls into the trap of grandiloquence when dignity and manifold emotions are quite simply built in … so no need for big gestures. Solti is especially successful (try about 16 mins in) when it comes to the slow ‘heartbeat’ undercurrent stated at the beginning before the music gains pace to a climax of sorts but not gaudy. Bruckner’s trademark of dropping to near silence is vital here because the coda in the last  four minutes is contrapuntal instead of ‘post-orgasmic’ as some conductors take it. Karajan nearly does but not quite. Solti’s disciplined Adagio really pays off in the contrast with the last movement of 21 minutes; shorter than many. The majesty of the Adagio needs room to breathe in the urgency of the Finale while retaining the huge sensual, musical and spiritual tension. Solti judges this perfectly - like Jochum in many performances with less famous orchestras than the VPO.
 
A conductor either has the secret of Bruckner or not and it is a subtle matter. The idea of thirty-plus years ago that Bruckner and Mahler could be paired in lucrative theses and books is as plain daft as suggesting that the said composers were ‘symphonic’ versions of Wagner from Central Europe. Mahler was a Moravian Jew and Bruckner an Austrian Catholic so we must think again.
 
Romanticism with a big R grew out of post-Enlightenment literature, visual arts and the age of revolution in America and France. This furnishes a direct link to Beethoven, Berlioz, British, German, French and Russian examination of history, landscape, endeavour and danger. We don’t need to get bogged down in Byron and Shelley disguising social revolution in parables any more than Goethe, Wordsworth and Coleridge choosing stark landscapes to represent human nature in a mere CD review. These are however the keys to the various doors – squeaking with gothic horror or not.
 
Wagner’s massive achievement was in advancing musical language as he did, as well as changing the orchestra in many ways. However Wagner’s chosen form was music-drama and style followed the dramatic needs to an extent which some writers seem to see as a disease. How many record sleeves and books mention escaping Wagner? Did Holst in ‘Savitri’ or Finzi in ‘Dies Natalis’? No but they had choices and chose as they did.
 
Wagner didn’t spring forth from the loins of Zeus but worked in his time on some failed and some moderately successful works using the language of those times from Beethoven, Berlioz, Weber and others. He just happened to be a genius in middle life in the genre of music-drama.
 
Wagner had a big ego and wasn’t all that nice to know in many ways but it’s illogical to associate the man with how other composers used his language in more traditional ways such as symphonies. Indeed, it is almost as stupid as branding a man who died in 1883 with Hitler just because Hitler liked his music. The dictator also liked wild west films so do we denigrate actors and directors?
 
I have made this point because it needed making and Solti’s Bruckner Eighth re-release gave me a critical excuse simply because it was made in 1966 when Solti was in the throes of recording the Ring Cycle with the VPO and with the same Decca producer, John Culshaw.
 
My point? Actually a crucial one because second rate conductors allow ‘leakage’ to occur between projects but Solti made no such error in this truly magnificent Bruckner Eighth. In some respects it is the most difficult to bring off well with large forces, harps in the slow movement needing forward placement and demands on engineers to capture the front-to back contours as well as the spread.
 
This well nigh perfect release has a few very low non-orchestral rumbles in III and IV but unless you have speakers pumped down low or the hearing of a blue whale it would be silly to miss the chance of buying this low price Australian Decca Eloquence pressing for the joy and reflection of it.
 
Jochum’s Bruckner is a link to the composer and Karajan’s various versions have much in their favour. However this issue will become a reference standard to scholars as well as being sublime, especially as new generation musicians are finding Bruckner in their own way.
 
Stephen Hall
 

 


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