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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1890 version) [74:18]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm
rec. live, 26 November 1969, Philharmonie, Berlin
TESTAMENT SBT1512 [74:18]

Karl Böhm had a close relationship with the music of Anton Bruckner throughout his career which dated back to the late 1920s. He made his first recordings of the composer’s music in 1936 when he set down the Fourth Symphony in Dresden. A year later it was the Fifth. These two inscriptions were made for EMI’s German associate Electrola, and their aim was to promote the publication of the new Robert Haas editions. In 1937 the conductor performed the Fourth Symphony in London with the Sächsische Staatskapelle, today’s Staatskapelle Dresden, using the Haas edition. Ten years later he recorded the Seventh for Vox. In the 1970s he set down versions of the Third and Fourth Symphonies for Decca, the latter prompting a positive review in Gramophone from the Bruckner specialist Deryck Cooke, who remarked that Böhm had been "hiding his light under a bushel in recent years as a Bruckner conductor".
This live airing of Bruckner’s Eighth from the Philharmonie, Berlin, dated 26 November 1969, is the earliest of four available performances Böhm recorded. It is previously unpublished. The commercial recording of 1976 with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG is flanked by a 1971 recording from Bavarian Radio on Audite, and a live 1978 traversal from Zurich on the Palexa label. This latter has received some rave reviews and I would love to hear it, but in the UK it is difficult to track down.

Böhm here uses the 1890 version. Deryck Cooke and Robert Haas have suggested that the 1890 revision was made by the composer at the suggestion of some of his friends and colleagues. One such was Josef Schalk, and Cooke has termed it the "Bruckner-Schalk revision". Leopold Nowak, on the contrary, saw only the hand and intention of Bruckner in the 1890 manuscript. It was published in 1955 in an edition edited by Leopold Nowak. It is more richly scored than the 1887 version, with the woodwind writing, for instance, being more subtly crafted.

At 74 minutes, this live account shaves a full six minutes off his DG recording, most noticeable in the Adagio which is three minutes quicker and in the finale two. The slow movement is also two minutes faster than the Audite version. Gottfried Schmiedel, who was acquainted with Böhm in Dresden, spoke of certain salient features of his conducting style. He simplified complexities, shed new insights on the music he was presenting, and directed with clarity, eschewing exaggerations. These are certainly winning attributes here, where he is not only convincing, but pliant, exciting, rhythmically propulsive and never over-indulgent.

So, the performance is middle-of-the-road as regards tempi. Böhm’s grasp of the architecture and structure is particularly evident in the monumental, granite-like first movement. As well as expressing the grandiloquent, he can also turn on the tenderness as at 2:09, one of the more lyrical moments in the score. He never allows the music to sag, despite the many transitions, and I felt a sense of forward momentum and being carried along. There’s plenty of vitality and energy in the Scherzo. The monumental Adagio is glowing and powerful and tugs the heart-strings. The impassioned theme on the cellos at 5:00 is fervent and gloriously declaimed. The finale is apocalyptic and explosive. Böhm coaxes an atmosphere of great intensity from the orchestra and the atmosphere is electrically charged. It’s an overwhelming experience.

The performance is decently recorded, and audience presence can be detected at quiet moments. Richard Osborne’s excellent notes provide background and context, translated into German and French. As a lover of Bruckner symphonies, I shall be returning to this traversal often. This is a visionary interpretation of rhetorical eloquence.

Stephen Greenbank



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