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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 (Variant of 1888, ed. Carragan) [85:42]
Otto KITZLER senior (1834-1915) & Otto KITZLER junior (1863-1931)
Trauermusik
(1906) (orch. Gerd Schaller) [13:37]
Philharmonie Festiva/Gerd Schaller
rec. Abtekrike, Ebrach, July 2012
HÄNSSLER PROFIL PH13027 [61:14 + 38:15] 

Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is a journey from darkness to light, and it cost him the greatest artistic and emotional strain of any of his works. Just as the dark visions of the first movement are eventually overcome by the blazing peroration of the finale, so the process of the work's composition overcame conflicts whose magnitude tore at the heart of his inner creative assurance.
 
In 1884 the Symphony No. 7 had been triumphantly received, first in Leipzig under the direction of Artur Nikisch, then in Munich under Hermann Levi, whose performance Bruckner particularly admired. At last the composer felt that wider recognition awaited him, and his works were gaining performances across Europe and in America. Thus it was that when he completed the epic Symphony No. 8 in 1887, he sent the score to Levi, whom he called his 'artistic father'.
 
However, Levi found that the new work eluded his complete understanding, and his equivocal response to the score sent Bruckner into a deep depression, bordering on breakdown. He set about revising not only this score but also the existing versions of his earlier symphonies, with the result that a second, ‘final’, version of the Eighth appeared in 1890. The differences included a new coda for the first movement and a new trio for the Scherzo, structural changes in the Adagio and finale, and considerable re-scoring.
 
This new Hänssler recording from Gerd Schaller and the Philharmonie Festiva is particularly interesting therefore, since it deals with Bruckner’s thoughts as they progressed along the journey from the 1887 version to the 1890 version. The latter was given in Vienna under Hans Richter in 1892, and was the premiere performance of whichever version of the symphony.
 
William Carragan has done as much as anyone in recent years to enhance our knowledge and understanding of Bruckner and the various editions of his symphonies. It is he who has assembled this score of variants of each movement from circa 1888. The description as listed with the CDs is very careful and particular: ‘Variant of 1888’: it is not a finalised version of the score from that time. Carragan is at pains to point out that we are dealing with work in progress as far as the individual movements are concerned, rather than a version of the symphony as a whole. Therefore this remains a snapshot of Bruckner's work in progress, not a finished edition of the score.
 
That said, Gerd Schaller conducts an altogether rewarding performance. Tempi always feel absolutely appropriate, with contrasts powerfully drawn and phrasing and dynamics sensitively handled. The orchestra, the Philharmonie Festiva, is very much of Schaller’s making, created in 2008 for his summer festival at Ebrach and comprising musicians from the leading ensembles in Bavaria. No wonder the playing standards are so high.
 
This is a live performance from the abbey church of Ebrach, whose acoustic suits Bruckner well. The resonance is warm but not as cavernous as some church acoustics. The recorded sound is atmospheric and pleasing, with a well balanced range of dynamics. The winds, and especially the oboes, are placed somewhat forward, although they are not excessively spot-lit.
 
Anyone who knows either version of the symphony - that is, from either 1887 or 1890 - will recognise the similarities of Bruckner’s symphonic journey as found here, while the differences when they arrive make a sometimes startling impression. The musical line hardly wavers, and if one immediately begins to think that the composer’s first or last thoughts were best, a natural enough assumption, such considerations need be tempered by the realisation that if we know and love a work we tend to do so with expectations that we have built up over a period of time, often from repeatedly listening to a single performance.
 
On the whole this Variant of the Eighth Symphony is closer to 1887 than to 1890. Thus the first movement concludes fortissimo, not the hushed Totenuhr close that Bruckner decided on later. Nor is there the new trio as in the 1890 scherzo movement. The great climax of the extensive Adagio third movement very much feels as if it is ‘work in progress’, though it still makes its powerful mark. Above all, the same is true of the finale’s conclusion, since in this ‘variant’ sonority seems to triumph over the powerful logic of a great symphonic peroration that is the composer’s ultimate achievement in this magnificent and wonderful symphony.
 
As makeweight to the main agenda there is a tribute to Bruckner by Otto Kitzler father and son, ‘Trauermusik, Dem Andenken Anton Bruckners’. Bruckner admitted that no-one helped him learn more about the techniques of orchestration than Kitzler senior, so this is certainly an appropriate appendage to the recording of the symphony. Written around 1906, the score was orchestrated with the assistance of Kitzler’s son, while the present performance is in a sensitively drawn re-orchestration by the conductor, Gerd Schaller. Inevitably this invites a certain disappointment, but the results are very successful, being wholly sensitive to the work of the fine musicians involved.
 
Terry Barfoot 

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 8

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