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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (version of 1890) [75:26]
Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Mario Venzago
rec. live, 29 October 2011, Konzerthaus Berlin, Germany
CPO 777 691-2 [75:26]

On the CPO label Zurich-born conductor Mario Venzago is currently recording a complete set of the Bruckner symphonies using several orchestras. It was the Basel Symphony Orchestra that commenced the series in 2010 with Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7. Venzago used the Tapiola Sinfonietta for Symphonies Nos. 0, 1 (review) and 5 (review in hand), the Northern Sinfonia for Symphony No. 2 (review) and the Berner Symphonieorchester for Symphonies Nos. 3 and 6 review. and 4 and 7 (review). Now for this recording of the monumental Symphony No. 8 in C Minor Maestro Venzago has recorded the excellent Konzerthausorchester Berlin in live performance at the Konzerthaus Berlin in 2011.

One of the last great Romantic symphonies this multi-faceted masterwork was once berated by the critic Eduard Hanslick for its “nightmarish hangover style” (Cambridge Music Handbook: Bruckner Symphony No. 8  by Benjamin J. Korstvedt, Cambridge University Press, 2000). Bruckner’s last completed symphony, lasting over an hour contains music of awe-inspiring majesty which seems to chronicle the history of the world from Creation to Armageddon.

I take every opportunity to attend concerts of Bruckner symphonies. Only a couple of months ago in September 2014 at the Musikfest Berlin I reviewed a fine performance of the Eighth in the Philharmonie, Berlin by the SWR Sinfonie orchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under François-Xavier Roth who used the Robert Haas version. A few days later at the Philharmonie I reported on the concert by the Konzerthausorchester Berlin under Iván Fischer playing Mahler’s First Symphony and I can attest to the quite magnificent form of this major orchestra.

Bruckner completed a first version of his Eighth Symphony in 1887 and dispatched it to Hermann Levi. He trusted Levi on account of his having successfully directed the Symphony No. 7 in Munich. To Bruckner’s dismay Levi rejected the score saying although many of the themes were “magnificent and direct” he found it “impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form”. Hurt and disillusioned it was well over a year before Bruckner in 1889 found the motivation to undertake serious revision. In 1890 he finished a new version the score. The 1890 version contained a considerable number of changes from his 1887 original, for example the score is 160 bars shorter and contains a completely new trio section in the Scherzo. It also has a number of revised passages designed in the interests of conciseness of design. Cuts are made in the Finale and the triple woodwind and eight horns (four of which double as Wagner tubas) are extended to all four movements.

Things began to look up for Bruckner as Emperor Franz Josef I agreed to be the dedicatee of the Eighth Symphony. In 1892 Bruckner eventually managed to find a publisher. After difficultly in arranging a first performance and finding a willing conductor Hans Richter premièred the Eighth in December 1892 at the Musikverein, Vienna. Many eminent audience members were present including it seems Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss and Hugo Wolf as well as detractors such as Eduard Hanslick. The critic didn’t stay for the whole performance saying that the work “as a whole, alienated, even repelled him”. Not all press comment was negative; one reviewer commented that the symphony was “the crown of the music of our time”.

For this new CPO release conductor Mario Venzago chose to play the 1890 version. He considers that posterity has a debt of gratitude to Hermann Levi for spurring on Bruckner to “make a revision from which the work greatly benefited”.

Under Venzago the Konzerthausorchester Berlin valiantly accepts the challenge of Bruckner’s magnificent compositional and spiritual dimensions. The orchestra plays with a strong and engaging commitment. The structure of the symphony feels rock solid in its foundation. I concur with this conductor's tempo choices - always fundamental, indeed vital, to the realisation of Bruckner scores.

In the opening Allegro moderato I was drawn immediately to its directness of impact. Remarkable are the sonorities of the instruments, notably the golden sheen of the strings including harps and the opulent tone of the prominent brass. The woodwind chorus can often be overshadowed in Bruckner but this interpretation reveals plenty of fine detail. The second movement with its glorious sounding Scherzo feels hard driven yet with firm control exercised and an especially lovely and lyrical trio section. Here I was reminded of the vigorousness of the reading from Jochum/Berliner Philharmoniker (1964). In the massive Adagio, lasting here almost twenty-five minutes, the tension builds successfully with the playing achieving an elevated spiritual quality that comes close to the interpretation by Wand/Berliner Philharmoniker (2001). Jochum wrote that in the Eighth Symphony “the ‘point of culmination’ comes at the end of the Finale”, exceeding the climax in the Adagio. Convincing and compelling, the Finale boasts potent energy with Venzago moulding mighty surging climaxes that rise to epic summits. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin comes across as extremely well prepared for this live recording. This reading imbues the many monumental passages with both nobility and romantic warmth. Lingering long in the memory are those superb Wagner tubas that certainly add to the sense of occasion.

Give the difficulty Bruckner had during his lifetime in getting taken seriously as a composer and obtaining performances of his works it’s pleasing today that there are a considerable number of high quality recordings. For its concentration and spiritual intensity my benchmark recording of the Eighth Symphony is the live 2001 Philharmonie, Berlin account from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Günter Wand on RCA Red Seal. Of the older accounts made under studio conditions, for its thrilling sense of occasion, I admire Eugen Jochum with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1964 at the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon.

I found the sound quality from the Philharmonie, Berlin satisfying being clear and reasonably well balanced. The only thing about this release I can grumble about is the cover-art which seems to be a picture of a breeze-block painted brown and green. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin under the baton of Mario Venzago reveals its credentials as a Brucknerian orchestra of repute.

Michael Cookson