Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No.8 in C minor
WAB 108 (1890, 1887/1890) mixed versions, ed. Robert Haas, 1939)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
rec. live 2 & 5 November 2010, Kölner Philharmonie PROFIL PH16061 [74.38]
Bruckner’s Eighth can be conducted in many ways, but I’m not sure I really want to have to listen that often to a conductor who so thoroughly robs this symphony of shape and atmosphere as Saraste does in this perfunctory performance. In 2007, the conductor gave a concert in Oslo using the Nowak edition of Bruckner’s score (on the Dirigent label and similarly given a matter-of-fact performance in my view); three years later, in Cologne, he has turned to Haas’s edition, with equally unimpressive results.
Historically, some of the greatest Bruckner conductors have started with Haas and then reverted to Nowak (Jochum and Furtwängler, for example) and their arguments for doing so have usually been performance-based, that Nowak better reflects Bruckner’s original intentions. Saraste’s views on the Haas edition stem principally from his belief that the Haas additions make the work both richer and more imaginative, as well as preserving elements of Bruckner’s personality (difficult as this is to prove). Saraste’s view that the 1887 version is more “improvisational fantasy” whilst the 1890 is “more condensed and classical” doesn’t reflect enough on the evidence that Haas only really made significant changes to the Adagio and Finale of the symphony (and nowadays it’s debatable whether, as Benjamin Korstvedt has said, Haas’s interventions even here “exceed reasonable limits of scholarly responsibility”). No, the problem with the Saraste performance comes down less to a matter of edition and what the composer intended than to the simple equation of a conductor who is often in defiance of Bruckner’s tempo markings - often very much in defiance of them - and who displays a willingness to dismantle almost anything atmospheric and magical about this astonishing work. I found it very hard to like much about this Bruckner Eighth at all.
Let’s start at the very end, with the coda. Günter Wand, in a magnificent recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bells of St Florian CD AB6/7) takes just over three minutes for his coda; Saraste takes just over two minutes. Bruckner marks it Ruhig (calmly, quietly) which is precisely the way that Wand takes it; he gives both horns their full semibreve length and ensures they play pp (even if they sound somewhat inaudible in the first bar). Saraste, however, ignores the Ruhig marking entirely, neither of his horns is anywhere near a full note and it would be hard to say they observe the pp marking at all. Whereas Wand’s cellos and double basses, again playing full notes, and observing Bruckner’s markings and tempi for the first thirteen bars of the coda sound almost like the pedal of an organ, Saraste’s sound diminished so when we reach their first crescendo at the fourteenth bar you can hear the difference in string tone for Wand. For Saraste it’s simply missed, as indeed are the multiple mf and p that Bruckner calls for. Whereas Wand observes a crescendo, with Saraste you feel you’ve been riding the wave of one for several bars. One could almost have forgiven Saraste for taking such a gallop through the coda if he had at least done something interesting with it – but he doesn’t. There is nothing so daring as Otmar Suitner attempts in Tokyo with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, for example. And what is one to make of the thundering timpani tattoo at 5:26 in this movement in the Saraste? I’m not sure I’ve heard a faster performance of this passage, though Wand for all his spaciousness in this symphony was apt to take this section quickly as well. Saraste’s coda ends where the symphony had begun – diverging from the score.
If there is any upside to this performance then it’s in the two middle movements which show the conductor to be less wilful than he is elsewhere. The scherzo is both robust and well balanced, and the Adagio maintains a semblance of nobility without being over-indulgent, though the tendency to shorten the bow length on the violins, and a lack of vibrato, suggests a conductor who sees the intensity of the Adagio as something not to be replicated from Bruckner’s innate sense of structure. At times it is almost icy, with strings not always as rich as one associates with this orchestra, and much more fragmented and less flowing than usual. If the strings lack character, I don’t feel the woodwind or horns necessarily do in this movement but this is typical of this conductor’s Bruckner.
Given the large number of excellent Bruckner Eighths in the catalogue this one is unrecommendable.