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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 8 in C minor WAB 108 (Ed. Haas 1890)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. 2-5 November, 2010, Kölner Philharmonie PROFIL PH16061 [74:38]
This is the first release of a recording of a Bruckner symphony by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, although he has conducted several in concert performance. Why its appearance has been so long delayed I do not know, but it certainly marks an auspicious Bruckner recording debut; during the last of several hearings of this, my favourite not only of Bruckner’s symphonies but perhaps of all symphonies in the classical canon, I found myself just as gripped as on the first.
That listening experience is indubitably much enhanced by the quality of the recorded sound. I am especially struck by the impact of the timpani as it cuts through the warm aureola of the strings; the brass playing is likewise first rate throughout and the Wagner tubas are glorious. I believe this recording was made for radio broadcast; there is no applause, I certainly cannot hear any audience noise, nor can I detect any of the blips or flaws one might expect to encounter in a live performance and the recording dates spanning several days seem to indicate that some patching from rehearsals was used.
The choice of edition is interesting, harking back to a more traditional preference, insofar as Saraste employs the Haas edition of the second 1890 version which incorporates some sections from the original 1887 score; he defends his selection on the grounds that it is “more condensed and classical” and to my ears he makes a huge success of it.
This is a swift, taut account, one of the fastest on record, similar to those made by Heinz Rögner in 1985 but not as pacy as Schuricht’s 1963 recording with the VPO, which is a mere 71 minutes. However, Saraste’s tempi are by no means unusual, as comparison to recordings by a host of conductors, such as Barbirolli, van Beinum, Boulez, Haitink, Kubelik, Mravinsky and Rosbaud, will attest. Furthermore, his forward momentum is by no means relentless; he understands the importance of pauses and phrases sensitively. There is no sense of hurry; indeed there are many moments where the music is suffused with rapture, such as in the still serenity of the solo horn and oboe passages five minutes into the first movement at the beginning of the development section. The carillons of the Scherzo are propulsive and energised but also nuanced, framing a genial Trio. Perhaps the Adagio builds to an ecstatic climax more akin to the pantheistic rhapsody of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony than the spiritual or transcendent revelation that Bruckner had in mind, but it is still mightily impressive.
For some, the headlong dash in the finale might be a bridge too far. Saraste is not the first conductor to adopt these shock tactics: Leinsdorf clocks in at an almost ludicrous 17’41 and Schuricht and Rosbaud are both faster than Saraste by a couple of minutes. The aggressive pace adopted here is certainly faster than a conventional gallop; the effect is thrilling but does it risk bordering on vulgar sensationalism? There remains something of a disparate contrast between the fast and slow sections but the “homage to ‘Das Rheingold’ ending” is simply magnificent, so I am reluctant to criticise such an overwhelmingly strong and committed performance.
[This review is posted on the MusicWeb International website by kind permission of the Bruckner Journal, who commissioned it]