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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No 8 in C minor (1890)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/William Steinberg
rec. live,. 9 January 1962, Sanders Theatre, Harvard University.
Region Code: 0; Picture Format: NTSC 4:3; Black & white. Sound: Enhanced Mono

Experience Classicsonline

No, I haven’t made a mistake in the header to this review. This performance of Bruckner’s Eighth really does last for just 66 minutes! The reason is nothing to do with eccentrically fast tempi - though speeds are often too fleet for my taste in the finale. The fact is that William Steinberg presents here a sadly truncated version of the score.
The question of Bruckner editions is, frankly, vexed enough without conductors further complicating things. I’m afraid I can’t really tell you exactly what version of the score Steinberg plays. In his generally very informative note Richard Dyer tells us that the programme book for this concert stated that Steinberg would be offering the 1890 revision of the score, in which Bruckner was heavily assisted by Josef Schalk, but that the announcer for the broadcast - who we don’t hear - indicated that the performance would be of an edition by Steinberg himself. For what it’s worth it says on the DVD box that this is the “2nd revised version”.
Just to deepen the mystery a little further, I have in my collection another, later performance of the symphony by Steinberg and the BSO, which is contained in the orchestra’s own Symphony Hall Centenary Celebration box of discs. That recording is of a performance given a decade later on 26 February 1972 and it lasts for 74:42. The booklet accompanying that performance contains the following statement: “The version of Bruckner’s Symphony No 8 used by William Steinberg in this performance is his own, using some emendations to the orchestral parts based on the edition of Leopold Nowak and effectively recreating the edition of 1892 in a way that Steinberg felt best achieved the composer’s intentions.” Are you nicely
It’s possible that Steinberg re-thought his approach to the symphony in the ten years between the two performances in question. More likely, I think, is the theory advanced by Richard Dyer that he was obliged to fit the symphony into the tight scheduling requirements of the television station. Dyer goes on to say that Steinberg made the same cuts in other, un-televised performances of the work during the same series of concerts but, actually, I suspect his thesis holds good and that Steinberg simply decided to be consistent for this particular run of performances.
It’s interesting to compare the movement timings for the 1962 and 1972 performances:


So far as I can tell the discrepancy in timings for the scherzo is not due to cuts in the 1962 performance: it’s in the last two movements that the damage is done. The cuts disfigure Bruckner’s score, I’m afraid and the finale is a particular travesty.
That’s a pity because much of what is played is done very well. The first movement is successful and Steinberg injects good vigour into the scherzo. His treatment of the Adagio is spacious and noble and here the Boston strings really distinguish themselves. However, in this movement I began to be irritated by the piercing tone of the principal trumpeter who seems to make no effort to blend in with what’s going on around him - and this problem intensifies in the finale; I wonder what his BSO colleagues felt. I’m afraid, however, that I part company with Steinberg in the finale. Too often he presses the music too urgently to such an extent that the slow, solemn build-up to the final peroration seems at odds with what has gone before. I sense no majesty in this reading of the finale.
What about the technical side of the presentation? The sound is satisfactory, if a bit limited, for the first three movements but in the finale it sounds more congested. The black and white pictures offer a pretty conventional presentation of the concert; one must remember this broadcast took place fifty years ago and camera techniques have moved on a lot since then. Unfortunately, the picture is subject to quite a bit of instability in the third movement and, to a lesser extent elsewhere: I suspect the source material was starting to decay after so many years.
To be honest, I’m not sure that this performance justifies its archive reissue. So far as one can tell the Boston Symphony plays very well - the trumpeter excepted. Steinberg’s direction is unfussy, direct and thoroughly musical; he was, after all, a fine conductor, as we know, for example, from the ICA release of his performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (review). However, the cuts in the symphony hobble this issue and one suspects - nay, hopes - that there are better examples of Steinberg’s work in the BSO archives which would have stronger claims on the attentions of collectors. With the best will in the world this release has only very limited appeal.
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Bruckner 8

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