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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, WAB 108 [82:57]
(Edition Robert Haas, 1939)
Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 14 September 2009, Semperoper, Dresden
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, volume 31
Reviewed in CD stereo
PROFIL PH10031 SACD [58:46 + 24:51]

In my opinion Bruckner is by far the greatest composer of symphonies since Beethoven.” Hermann Levi (1891)

This broadcast recording of the live 2009 Dresden performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony under Christian Thielemann is not a new release. It was issued in 2011 but not reviewed on MusicWeb-International at the time. Thielemann has, I believe, produced an important recording that demands a review. One of the last great Romantic symphonies, this multifaceted masterwork is Bruckner’s last completed symphony. Lasting here just under an hour and twenty-three minutes, the Eighth contains music of awe-inspiring majesty. It could be said to chronicle the creation of the world through to Armageddon.

Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony has been subject to substantial alterations, such as revisions and cuts, often made at the behest of well-meaning friends. Of all his symphonies, his Eighth is the one that has the largest number of available versions when it comes to the preferences of various conductors. The Web site abruckner.com has divided its discography of the Eighth into seven full orchestral versions, a list dominated by editors Leopold Nowak and Robert Haas.

Bruckner completed the first version of his Eighth Symphony in 1887 and dispatched it to Hermann Levi, a conductor whom he trusted after Levi successfully performed the Seventh Symphony in March 1885 at Munich. (Arthur Nikisch had given the première of the Seventh in Leipzig in December 1884.) To Bruckner’s dismay Levi rejected the score. He said that he found many of the themes “magnificent and direct” but it was “impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form”. Hurt and disillusioned, Bruckner waited well over a year before in 1889 he found the motivation to undertake serious revision. In 1890. he finished a new version of the score, containing a considerable number of changes from his 1887 original. On the abruckner.com site David Griegel, in his article Bruckner Symphony Versions, provides a helpful explanation of the main differences between Bruckner’s two versions and gives the rationale behind the Haas edition (1939).

Matters began to look up for Bruckner as Emperor Franz Josef I agreed to be the dedicatee of the Eighth and in 1892 Bruckner eventually managed to find a publisher. After difficulty in arranging a first performance and finding a willing conductor, Hans Richter finally premièred the Eighth in December 1892 at the Musikverein, Vienna. Many distinguished audience members were present, including, it seems, Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss and Hugo Wolf as well as detractors such as critic Eduard Hanslick who did not stay for the whole performance but wrote he found the work “interesting in detail but strange as a whole and even repugnant”. Not all press comment was negative; one reviewer commented the symphony was “the crown of the music of our time”.

One of the oldest orchestras in the world, the Staatskapelle Dresden, has a long and continuing tradition of performing Bruckner. It began back in 1885 performing the Third Symphony under Ernst von Schuch at the Semperoper. The Eighth was first given by the orchestra also under Schuch at Semperoper in 1907. On this 2009 Profil recording of the Eighth, German conductor Christian Thielemann has chosen to “perform the version published in the first complete edition of Bruckner’s works edited by Robert Haas, as first performed in Vienna in 1939 by Thielemann’s role model Wilhelm Furtwängler”. It is described sometimes as the “original version” and also the “mixed version”. Thielemann is essentially conducting a combination of the first and second versions, which has found favour with conductors such as Karajan, Wand, Barenboim and Haitink.

Thielemann says: “the Haas version is philologically not quite correct. Robert Haas after all reinserted passages that Bruckner had actually deleted in the second version. However, I find that this benefits the architectonics of the work. For me this version is simply more convincing and stringent. And that is what is ultimately decisive in performance.” It was fortuitous that Thielemann came to conduct this September 2009 Dresden concert, stepping in at short notice for the indisposed Fabio Luisi, the orchestra’s general music director. Not part of the original programme, it was at Thielemann’s own request that Bruckner Eighth be performed. Incidentally, after this Semperoper performance the Staatskapelle Dresden players overwhelmingly voted Thielemann, who first conducted the orchestra in 2003, as their principal conductor from the 2012/2013 season.

Under Thielemann the Staatskapelle accept the manifold challenges of Bruckner’s magnificent compositional and spiritual dimensions. They play with stylish engagement, energy and sterling concentration. With Thielemann’s interpretation, the overall concept of the structure of the symphony feels rock-solid in its foundation, together with judicious tempo selection, so fundamental and vital in Bruckner scores. Throughout I am strongly reminded of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s live 2010 Cologne account on Profil, although Thielemann’s players provide both additional polish and heightened dramatic and spiritual expression. In the turbulent opening movement Allegro moderato, containing the Todesverkündigung and Totenuhr (Annunciation and hour of death) there is a directness of impact, and the tension and drama generated is at an elevated level, together with first-class playing. In the second movement marked Allegro moderato, a glorious sounding Scherzo, Bruckner was evidently portraying an archetypal Deutscher Michel (a nickname for a rural, plain and honest German). Strongly driven Thielemann exercises masterly control over his responsive players, delivering an especially lovely and lyrical trio section. It takes here twenty-seven minutes to complete the massive Adagio movement. The tension builds successfully. The Staatskapelle’s playing achieves a sense of spirituality which comes close to equalling Günter Wand’s live 2001 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker on RCA. Eugen Jochum wrote that in the Eighth “the ‘point of culmination’ comes at the end of the Finale” exceeding the marvelously played climax in the Adagio (point 21:44). I always feel this movement contains some of the most attractively memorable music Bruckner wrote, including the sublime hymn-like passage for strings and harp (points 22:56-23:21) just prior to the coda. Entirely compelling, the Finale produces a potent energy. Thielemann provides judicious tempo pacing, convincingly moulding the mighty and surging extended climaxes, which rise to epic summits, and ultimate transfiguration. Overall Thielemann’s stylishly accomplished reading conveys considerable romantic warmth and a spiritual quality to Bruckner’s monumental passages. The clarity of Thielemann’s interpretation reveals plenty of fine detail from this stamina-sapping score. Enduring in the memory is the impact of the Dresden brass, crisp, glowing and unified. It certainly adds to the sense of occasion. Remarkable too is the bright and attractive sheen of the strings including harps and the distinction of the woodwind chorus that can often be overshadowed in a Bruckner performance.

Recorded for radio, this live Semperoper Dresden concert was broadcast by MDR Figaro. In the renowned acoustic of the Semperoper the sound team excels providing on admirable clarity, presence and satisfying balance. Evidently, after the conclusion of the actual concert no one wanted to break the spell. The silence lasted around a minute before applause broke out. In the booklet, there are excellent essays detailing the conception of Bruckner’s Eighth and its versions, and the long-established tradition the Staatskapelle Dresden has of playing the work.

Given the difficulty Bruckner had for much of his career in being taken seriously as a composer and obtaining performances for many of his works, it is gratifying that today there are a considerable number of recommendable recordings of the symphonies in the catalogues, including a number of complete sets. This live 2009 account by Christian Thielemann on Profil is awe-inspiring and one that can be spoken about in the same breath as my benchmark recording of the Eighth for its profound spiritual intensity: the live 2001 Philharmonie, Berlin account by Günter Wand with Berliner Philharmoniker on RCA Red Seal. Incidentally, Wand is using a 1890 version, edited by Haas (1939) similar to that used by Thielemann. Of the older accounts made in studio conditions, for its bold and thrilling atmosphere I admire Eugen Jochum with Berliner Philharmoniker from 1964 at Philharmonie, Berlin (using the 1890 version, edited by Nowak, 1955) on Deutsche Grammophon. Worthy of admiration too is the dramatic live 2010 account by Jukka-Pekka Saraste on Profil with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, also employing the Haas edition (1939).

Michael Cookson

 

 




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