British conductors don't have much of a track record when
it comes to Bruckner. Perhaps Ivor Bolton is in the process
of bucking the trend. This is his fifth Bruckner outing with
the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and follows recordings of Nos.
5, 3, 7 and 9. As you might expect, the orchestra members clearly
know Bruckner like the backs of their hands, and I often get
the feeling in this recording that Bolton is the outsider bringing,
or at least attempting to bring, new perspectives to the familiar
He insists on keeping the tempos flexible, which gives much
of this music a vitality and unpredictability that is all too
rare from other conductors. But the cost is a lack of discipline,
both in terms of the music's architecture and in the ensemble
of the orchestra. Neither is fatal, but the lack of firm control
from the podium is what separates this from the greatest Bruckner
8s, whatever interpretive insights Bolton brings.
His first movement is slow; at 17.5 minutes even slower than
Haitink's recent recording with the Concertgebouw. The slow
pace allows Bolton to concentrate on the details, including
the dotted rhythms, which are almost all played double-dotted,
a nod perhaps to the shape of the opening theme. Both of the
outer movements suffer from loose ensemble, which reduces the
effect of many of the climaxes. Bolton often shapes phrases
with some fairly extreme rubato, which sometimes works, but
not always. The one place where it is really effective is in
the coda of the first movement. This is the only quiet ending
of an outer movement in any Bruckner symphony, and it is clearly
an interpretive challenge for many conductors. Bruckner doesn't
give any tempo indications here, and even though there is a
dim, there is always the danger that the music is just
going to stop without reaching a logical conclusion. But Bolton
carefully structures this page of music. He gradually slows
it down, and really focuses on the shape of each of the descending
motifs in the middle strings. It is the most convincing reading
of the passage I've heard, and is only slightly spoilt by a
messy last chord from the strings.
The Scherzo is a fairly standard reading. There are some intemperate
outbursts from the brass here and there, but order is more or
less maintained. The Adagio is a real treat. Bolton takes it
quite fast, relatively speaking, but aims throughout for clarity
of line and texture. This is in stark contrast to the opening
movement, where the tempos were slower and much more variable.
But as with the first movement, Bolton is clearly trying something
different here, an unsentimental approach where the notes are
left to speak for themselves.
In the Finale we are back to the big, brash textures of the
opening. If I've one complaint about the Finale it is a lack
of grandeur. We get plenty of volume from the brass in the climaxes,
and the build-ups are often carefully paced. But there is little
sense of architecture, of the climaxes informing and punctuating
the rest of the music.
The orchestra are on good form, although the ensemble in the
strings often leaves much to be desired. The brass have a big,
warm sound in the quieter passages - excellent Wagner tubas
in the Adagio - but can sound coarse in the louder sections.
The sound quality is reasonable for a live recording, but there
is little on the technical side of this disc to suggest the
audiophile reputation of the Oehms label.
Mixed feelings, then, about Ivor Bolton's Bruckner 8. There
are a few movements of staggering interpretive originality,
not least the coda of the first movement and the detail in the
Adagio. Bolton's variable tempos are behind many of these interpretive
insights, but they are also responsible for a lack of structural
logic in the outer movements and the reduced impact of many
of the climaxes. Probably the best Bruckner 8 you will ever
hear conducted by a Brit, although that isn't saying much.