Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F, Op. 93 (1811-2) [25:39]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor (1865-6) [46:15]*
Vienna Philharmonic/Claudio Abbado
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, November 1968, *December 1969
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 9890 [72:10]
Even in these days of extended CD program length, you don't generally see a Bruckner symphony issued with another major symphony as a makeweight. Granted, the Beethoven is built on a Classical rather than a Romantic scale, and Bruckner's early symphony is more concisely proportioned than his later ones. Still, you'd suspect something's up.
Claudio Abbado's handful of Decca recordings predates his familiar, long-standing association with Deutsche Grammophon; instead of the veteran conductor with the occasionally Karajanish instincts, we hear the conductor as young firebrand. To call Abbado's Bruckner "Italianate" perhaps too readily invokes stereotype; still, the forthright address of his performance, its emphasis on keeping things moving "horizontally," underlined by the occasional impulsive forward push, sounds both very youthful and, indeed, Italianate.
The direct manner pays some dividends at times, tapping an unsuspected vein of operatic drama in the outer movements. The brisk opening march - clipped and edgy, the rests clearly defined - is grimly ominous. Abbado relaxes slightly for the clear, expressive woodwind chorale, and the strings answer lyrically, before the music tumbles headlong into the tutti at 2:14. Similarly, the forthright start of the Finale is driving and fiery though the syncopated chords under the third subject tend to impede motion. The symphony's final coda is correctly jubilant.
The Scherzo, too, has a nice firm thrust, though Abbado jumps the attack conspicuously at 2:49; could this be a careless splice? The concluding shift to major isn't tuned carefully enough to convey the intended affirmation.
The limits of the conductor's approach become clear in his treatment of Bruckner's semiquaver passages: these may look like any other "runs", but in this music the individual notes are expected to carry real tonal weight, with the potential for expressive shaping. Abbado plays the runs conventionally, for mobility, scanting both harmonic and melodic interest. In the slow movement, the Andante second subject at 3:59 flows and sings sweetly. That said, the violins have neither the time nor, apparently, the inclination to caress their deftly executed semiquavers, which eventually become pure note-spinning. Similarly, all the runs that adorn the Finale, though accurate and incisive, proceed with little clear purpose; only very late in the movement, at 10:35, do the violin and viola "mirror" figurations finally acquire a sense of shape.
And Abbado's handling of details, other than rhythmic ones, is inconsistent. The conductor takes care, for example, over the tricky balances at 3:29 in the slow movement, ensuring that the first violins' low-range theme dominates the seconds' higher counterpoint. But he seems indifferent to the preceding passage, where surely the middle strings' quarter notes should have been kept out of the way of the first violins' segmented theme. In the Trio Abbado lets the principal horn scan the phrases incorrectly: the first note of each sounds like an upbeat rather than a firm downbeat.
The Vienna Philharmonic, at least, provides enough sonorous weight to balance Abbado's driving approach; as suggested earlier, the reed choir's transparency merits special praise.
If the conductor's youthful energy can seem misapplied to the Bruckner, it works nicely for the Beethoven. The recording had little U.S. exposure: it was never released on LP, though a "Contour Classics" cassette eventually turned up in remainder bins. It turns out to be one of the better recorded accounts.
The first movement balances a volatile temperament with some elegance; the second subject, held in tempo, is gracious but anxious. The development is suitably volcanic, with an emphatic sense of arrival at the recap. The light, pointed ticking of the "metronome" in the second movement throws the full-throated fortissimo outbursts into sharp relief; Abbado's care over details of balance, paradoxically, leaves an impression of utter naturalness. The Menuetto is mobile and flowing rather than dancey; a slight tempo relaxation for the Trio allows the horns and clarinet some breathing room. The strings' fast triplets in the finale aren't crisp, but the movement moves along, with Abbado again occasionally jumping the rests slightly at peak moments.
The Vienna players temper Abbado's driving impulse with full, resonant accents and sforzandos. The woodwinds are again excellent: unison and octave lines are cleanly etched, and the clarinet solos are particularly velvety and lyrical. There are some passing ensemble problems - the bass strings fall behind at the "usual" place in the first-movement development (here at 5:05), and the horns and clarinets briefly come unstuck in the Trio - but no deal-breakers.
Sonically, the old LP of the Bruckner struck me as just so-so - although "so-so for Decca" could still be superior to most other productions! - and it still does. There's plenty of color and some depth, with truthful timbres, but the trumpets cause congestion in the more fully scored passages; - for once, at least, the timpani aren't the culprits. The Beethoven, recorded a year earlier, has no such problems - it's rich and vivid.
At mid-price, you might try this for the Beethoven: Szell and Casals (both Sony) offer fuller, more accurate realizations of the same basic concept, but their performances don't sound quite as good as this one.
Stephen Francis Vasta
An Italianate Bruckner 1 and a rich and vivid Beethoven 8.