Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887 version, ed. Leopold Nowak) [95:00]
The Cleveland Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. live, August 2010, Severance Hall, Cleveland, USA
Bonus: pre-concert talk - Dee Perry, William Cosel and Franz Welser-Möst [17:00]
Picture: NTSC/16:9, 1080i Full HD
Sound: PCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Region: 0 (worldwide)
ARTHAUS MUSIK BLU-RAY 108 069 [112:00]
Bruckner’s Eighth is the composer’s most Olympian symphony, so it requires heroic interpeters to stride its vast, open spaces and scale its mighty peaks. Among its finest exponents are conducting gods and demi-gods of the past and present, among them Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Eugen Jochum, Sergiu Celibidache, Carlo Maria Giulini, Pierre Boulez and Günter Wand. The latter’s final recording for RCA is glorious, and the Berliners respond to the ageing maestro’s lofty vision with playing of incandescent reach and power.
Sadly that performance is on CD only, although it was also issued on SACD as part of a box that now fetches silly money on the Internet. On DVD, I’ve seen Boulez’s fine account with the Wiener Philharmoniker, but for all its felicities - and there are many - it’s surprisingly short on the epiphanies the work demands. Celibidache’s famous Munich performance - which I caught on a television arts channel some years ago - is another matter entirely; it may be rather long - even though he uses the shorter 1890 Nowak edition - but it never seems ponderous or self-defeating. His detractors will say otherwise, but for me Celi has a peerless control of the work’s daunting structure. I’m delighted to see these videos appearing on Blu-ray - his Berlin Bruckner 7 is on my desk as I write - and I’ll be particularly pleased to revisit that extraordinary Eighth when it appears.
So where does Franz Welser-Möst fit into this pantheon of Bruckner greats? I’ve not heard him in this repertoire; indeed, his troubled tenure with the London Philharmonic - which lasted from 1990 to 1996 - and several of his EMI recordings made very little impression on me. That said, he seems to have been much more successful since then, as musical director of both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera. His Zurich opera DVDs - some of them controversial - have done well too.
Back to Bruckner’s Eighth, and we have the perennial problem about which version is used. I tend to prefer Haas, but I have absolutely no problem with Leopold Nowak’s edition of the 1887 score, first published in 1972. The pros and cons of both are well rehearsed, and I won’t repeat them here. Suffice to say, it’s up to the conductor to convince us of the rightness of their choice, as all great Brucknerians invariably do. Having a top-flight orchestra at their fingertips helps - the Cleveland band are in that august group - but as Celi’s Munich Philharmonic so powerfully demonstrates that’s not necessarily a prerequisite in this work.
I’ll start with the pre-concert talk, if only to discover the cut of this maestro’s jib. It’s more of an informal chat, chaired by Dee Perry, a producer with Cleveland-based public media company ideastream. Also on stage is video director Bill Cosel, who introduces the audience to the various cameramen in the hall and talks a little about the challenges of filming large orchestral concerts. Perry’s questions to Welser-Möst aren’t terribly illuminating, and his self-conscious replies are rather awkward. It doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, and reminds me why I usually give these bonus tracks a wide berth. That said, I wholeheartedly agree with Welser-Möst that restless and inattentive audiences - all too often signalled by unguarded coughs and sundry interruptions - can change the dynamics of a performance quite dramatically. Anyone listening to this year’s BBC Proms - plagued with tubercular barks and loud throat clearing - will know whereof he speaks.
The primordial start of this symphony suggests that Welser-Möst’s reading will major on lucidity rather than loftiness, an impression confirmed by the forensic clarity of the work’s inner voices. Also, this performance isn’t as seamless as some, and it lacks the inexorable quality of Wand and the BP or the nobility and breadth of Celibidache and his Munich band. That worrying lack of cohesion makes the triumphal coda - one of the more controversial elements in this edition - seem much more arbitrary than usual.
At this point it’s an efficient performance rather than a great one. The Clevelanders produce a shiny, chromium-plated sound, but the brass are much too prominent in the mix. Instrumental balance and blend are just as crucial in these symphonies as tempi and phrasing; really, this presentation is just too bright, and it lacks essential warmth and weight. Otherwise the sonics - in PCM stereo at least - are adequate, but they fall far short of the best Blu-ray can offer. That said, visuals are sharp and colours are true. The camerawork is generally unobtrusive, although the use of split screens is distracting. stracting.
The Scherzo is much more problematic; for a start the very first appearance of that big, vaulting tune is marred by fractional hesitations - agogic pauses if you like - that snap the narrative thread. Also, phrasing is ungainly and articulation is less than crisp, which exposes the joints and seams that others so artfully conceal; deprived of all its coherence, Bruckner’s writing becomes little more than a series of rhetorical gestures. The strident brass doesn’t help, as it makes the big tuttis sound at once grandiose and gutless. Most damning is the complete lack of feeling here, the great journey - literal or metaphorical - without incident or epiphany.
If the Scherzo is disappointing the Adagio is dire. I’ve never heard the tread of this music drag so, or its grief transmuted into self-pity. Even allowing for the inevitable imprecisions of a live performance the playing is less than immaculate, the natural breath of this radiant music reduced to a series of ragged gasps. Brass intonation isn’t terribly good either, and those pounding timp figures sound remarkably like a steam train chuffing past at speed. Really, a more unlovely rendition of this glorious music would be hard to imagine; as for those majestic climaxes - and Nowak’s almost inaudible cymbals - they’re just a mélange of tangential textures. Even that most profound and beautiful genuflection at the close - usually so affecting - left me completely unmoved.
Bruckner’s symphonies, like Mahler’s, are deeply personal, so a performance that’s as distant and inscrutable as this is doomed to fail. And fail it does, spectacularly, in the last movement. Welser-Möst reduces the long spans to a string of non sequiturs, the mighty perorations - each meant to be more uplifting than the last - made to sound unbearably loud and vulgar. Even more distressing than this hideous performance is the frankly second-rate playing of what used to be one of America’s finest orchestras. And to think Welser-Möst’s contract with them has been extended until 2018.
Atrocious; a gift to Bruckner’s army of detractors.
Dan Morgan  

Atrocious; a gift to Bruckner’s army of detractors.