The relationship between the Bavarian Radio
Symphony Orchestra and Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) formed a distinguished
part of the orchestra’s history and the conductor’s career. He
was principal conductor between 1961 and 1979, but worked for
the orchestra many times before that. Their recorded legacy is
notable for cycles of the Dvorák and Mahler symphonies, but their
work together in the symphonies of Bruckner was important too,
as evidenced by the interesting booklet notes that accompany this
issue of a live performance from 1977.
The conductor chose to perform to perform the revision of 1890 which represented Bruckner’s final thoughts, rather than the original version of 1887 as listed on the CD details. While the pedantry of Bruckner enthusiasts is well known around the musical world, it really is sloppy in the extreme to make a major blunder like this for what is an important release. Each alternative needs to be considered on its merits, and surely on this occasion the composer’s second thoughts were better than his first. True, if we only had the first version it would still rank as a masterly score. Moreover there is a danger that any listener will become familiar with one performance of one edition, inviting doubts when another is presented. Even so, for this reviewer at least, Bruckner’s 1890 Eighth is as great a symphony as the repertory contains, whereas the earlier version does not quite maintain the tension, build the sonorities and move the spirit to the same extent. So three cheers that what we have here dates from 1890.
Whereas many recordings of this great symphony take up more than a single CD, including the magnificent new version by Christian Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle (Hänssler Profil PH10031), Kubelik’s faster tempi break the 80-minute barrier. But in a good performance, and this is such, the music should make the listener feel that it could not possibly be otherwise. That said, the recorded market-place for Bruckner symphonies is a crowded one and comparisons are inevitable if decisions need to be made.
The cogency of Kubelik’s view is not in doubt. The music is never cheapened by vulgar exaggerations and the symphonic lines are sensitively and eloquently drawn. The orchestral playing too is exemplary, with each section confirming their international credentials. However, the recording is adequate and no more, sounding as though it dated from the later 1950s rather than the 1970s. The performance is not poorly recorded, but there is a lack of space and atmosphere when compared with more recent versions which serve the composer better, conducted by Thielemann (above), Günter Wand with the Berlin Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal 09026 68839 2) or Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 427 811 2).
Kubelik's was a great conductor and his love of Bruckner’s music is articulated throughout. Above all the sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the longest movement (III), Adagio
, is a miracle of its kind. He creates an urgency of emotion that matches that of Wand, with the result that the movement’s great climax replete with cymbals makes an overwhelming impression, as the composer intended it should. However, the scherzo is rather less compelling, since the rich sonorities of the brass-writing makes less impact than the score implies. Overall the intensity of feeling that is central to this music is always there, in the first movement and finale particularly. Listen for example to the climax that releases the death-watch coda of the former. The apocalyptic closing bars of the symphony represent a tour de force
of intellectual imagination and organisation, magnificently combining the principal themes of all four movements. While Kubelik makes this sound like a true apotheosis, a broader tempo might have ensured greater clarity and weight.