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“In my opinion Bruckner is by far the greatest composer of symphonies since Beethoven.” Hermann Levi (1891)
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 website abruckner.com has divided its discography of the Eighth into some seven full orchestral versions; a list dominated by editors Leopold Nowak and Robert Haas.
On this 2016 Profil release of the Eighth Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste has chosen to play the so called ‘mixed edition’ from 1890 of the second version by Robert Haas published in 1939. Saraste feels it includes some enthralling sections contained in Bruckner’s original version of 1887 which he feels makes the score richer and more inventive whilst conserving aspects of the composer’s individualism. Mario Venzago, who has recorded the score for CPO using the 1890 version, edited Nowak 1955, feels that posterity owes a debt of gratitude to German conductor Hermann Levi for spurring on Bruckner to “make a revision from which the work greatly benefited.”
One of the last great Romantic symphonies, this multifaceted masterwork the Eighth Symphony in C minor was once berated by critic Eduard Hanslick for its “nightmarish hangover style.” Conversely Saraste expresses the opinion “What marks the Eighth Symphony so special to me is the richness of its atmosphere.” Bruckner’s last completed symphony, lasting here just under an hour and fifteen minutes, contains music of awe-inspiring majesty which could be said to chronicle the creation of the world to Armageddon.
Bruckner completed a first version of his Eighth Symphony in 1887 and dispatched it to Hermann Levi a conductor whom he trusted after successfully performing 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 saying although he found many of the themes “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 and in 1890 he finished a new version of the score. The 1890 version contained a considerable number of changes from his 1887 original, for example the score is 160 bars shorter, contains a completely new trio section in the Scherzo, has a number of passages revised for conciseness of design, cuts are made in the Finale, extending the triple woodwind and eight horns (four of which double as Wagner tubas) to all four movements.
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 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 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 the symphony was “the crown of the music of our time.”
Under Saraste the Cologne players gratefully accept the challenge of Bruckner’s magnificent compositional and spiritual dimensions and play with stylish engagement and robust commitment. In Saraste’s reading the overall concept of the structure of the symphony feels solid in its foundation together with impressive tempo selection, so fundamental and vital in Bruckner scores. In the turbulent opening movement Allegro moderato, containing the Todesverkündigung (Annunciation of death) there is a directness of impact and the tension and drama generated is at an elevated level together with such first-rate 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). Robustly driven Saraste exercises masterly control over his charges delivering an especially lovely and lyrical trio section. Taking here twenty-four minutes to complete in the massive Adagio movement the tension builds successfully with playing by the Cologne orchestra achieving a near spiritual quality which comes fairly close to the interpretation by Wand/Berliner Philharmoniker (2001). 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 just prior to the coda. Eugen Jochum wrote that in the Eighth “the ‘point of culmination’ comes at the end of the Finale” exceeding the climax in the Adagio. Entirely compelling the Finale produces a potent energy with the assured Saraste providing judicious tempo pacing and the convincing moulding of the mighty surging climaxes, which rise to epic summits, and ultimate transfiguration. One strongly senses that the Cologne orchestra is extremely well rehearsed for this series of live Philharmonie concerts in its home city. Overall Saraste’s stylishly assured reading conveys considerable romantic warmth to Bruckner’s monumental passages. Remaining long in the memory is the impact of the opulent Wagner tubas crisp, glowing and precise that certainly adds to the sense of occasion. Remarkable too is the golden sheen of the strings including harps and the woodwind chorus that can often be overshadowed in a Bruckner performance. This interpretation reveals plenty of fine detail from this stamina sapping score.
Recorded at live concerts at Philharmonie, Cologne and broadcast on Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) the sound team excels providing admirable clarity, presence and balance. In the booklet there is a concise essay on the Eighth written by Wolfgang Teubner and a shorter note providing some thoughts by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, both fairly interesting articles, but in truth serve only to whet the appetite for additional information.
Given the difficulty Bruckner had for much of his career in being taken seriously as a composer and obtaining performances of many of his works it’s gratifying today that there are a considerable number of recommendable recordings of the symphonies available in the catalogues including a number of complete sets. This live 2010 account from Jukka-Pekka Saraste on Profil is high quality and one I will play often. However, my benchmark recording of the Eighth for its superior concentration and spiritual intensity remains the live 2001 Philharmonie, Berlin account from the Berliner Philharmoniker under Günter Wand on RCA Red Seal (incidentally Wand is using a similar 1890 version, edited Haas, 1939 to that used by Saraste). Of the older accounts made under studio conditions, for its bold and thrilling atmosphere I admire Eugen Jochum with the Berliner Philharmoniker from 1964 at Philharmonie, Berlin (using the 1890 version, edited Nowak, 1955) on Deutsche Grammophon.
Bruckner’s Eighth is remarkably well served by this live 2010 recording from Jukka-Pekka Saraste with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln.