This latest release in the Unitel Thielemann/Dresden series is particularly important. It was in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony that Thielemann stepped in to conduct the Dresdeners when their booked conductor had to pull out. The results were so strong that they invited him to become their new principal. Thielemann gave this concert as he was just about to take up that post, and you can tell from the audience response that part of the purpose of this concert was to welcome him as part of the Dresden family.
As a performance it’s very good indeed, crowned by the sensational Dresden strings. Hearing them in the flesh last February, it was the string sound that struck me most forcefully, and the same is true here. They are absolutely perfect for that rich, dark brown, Germanic sound that Bruckner exemplifies in so many ways. They are at their very finest in the massive Adagio
, perhaps Bruckner’s single greatest movement. There is a gorgeous warmth to that opening string sound, as the violins stutter out their theme against the luxurious bed of the accompaniment. The best performances I’ve heard of this movement give an impression of gazing out into infinity; not this one, however. Instead the sound is overwhelmingly one of closeness and intimacy, not qualities one would naturally associate with this movement, and this is reinforced by the cellos when they enter with the second theme. The brass also generate a tremendous sense of excitement in the wave-like passages that build towards climax - the Wagner tuba soloist even gets two very well deserved close-ups. That excitement can be felt especially in the last and greatest climax at the 54-minute mark. In its final iteration the violins really soar above that harp passage in a way that seems to signify journey’s end.
The opening of the symphony is surprisingly slow, but extremely well crafted nonetheless. The whole performance is an indication of just how comfortable Thielemann already was with this orchestra. There is a questioning tone to the violins’ second subject in the first movement, which becomes infinitely richer in recapitulation. This becomes gorgeously lush in its final appearance, and the third subject sounds strong enough without losing the sense of a triple time dance.
The scherzo begins with a purposeful legato, and sounds a lot smoother than you might expect. There is a lovely depth to the horn sound throughout, and the quicker sections sound very comfortable in their own skin. The violins then lift it onto a much more spiritual plane at the start of the trio with beautifully clean sound.
The trombones and horns give the opening of the finale a tremendous kick and the string lines mesh beautifully in the second theme. There is an inevitability about the unfolding of this great musical structure, and something unarguable about Thielemann's vision of it. The slowdown towards the end of the movement brings, if anything, an intensification rather than a relaxation, though some will quibble at the sheer scale of the rall
that Thielemann invokes for the final bars.
Throughout the performance it’s fascinating to see how great an effect Thielemann gets while doing surprisingly little — less is more; evidently the effect of some intense rehearsal time. The DVD sounds great, with enveloping surround sound in DTS, especially complementary to the strings, which is no bad thing. The picture quality is excellent, too. Mostly they focus on individual musicians, with the occasional pan out on the big climaxes. As with their Wagner bicentenary recital, though, I wonder if DVD is really the best format for a release like this? After all, the pictures don’t add that much more. It’s the surround sound that makes this stand out, but even then it doesn’t quite match Sony’s film of Karajan conducting this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein. It’s the same 1988 performance that DG released on CD, but the re-jigged surround sound, together with the pictures, make that probably the best performance of this symphony you’ll find in any format.
Masterwork Index: Symphony 8