Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 8 in C minor, revised version ed. Nowak (1890)
Royal Danish Orchestra/Hartmut Haenchen
rec. 2017, Royal Danish Opera House, Copenhagen GENUINGEN18622 [69:20]
Bruckner's Eighth Symphony is a journey from darkness to light, and it cost him the greatest artistic and emotional strain of any of his works. Just as the dark visions of the first movement are eventually overcome by the blazing peroration of the finale, so the process of the work's composition overcame conflicts whose magnitude tore at the heart of his inner creative assurance.
In 1884, the Symphony No. 7 had been triumphantly received, first in Leipzig under the direction of Artur Nikisch, then in Munich under Hermann Levi, whose performance Bruckner particularly admired. At last the composer felt that wider recognition awaited him, and that his works were gaining performances across Europe and in America. Thus it was that when he completed the epic Symphony No. 8 in 1887, he sent the score to Levi, whom he called his 'artistic father'.
However, Levi found that the new work eluded his complete understanding, and his equivocal response to the score sent Bruckner into a deep depression, bordering on breakdown. He set about revising not only this score but also the existing versions of his earlier symphonies, with the result that a second, ‘final’, version of the Eighth appeared in 1890. The differences included a new coda for the first movement, a new trio for the Scherzo, structural changes to the Adagio and finale, and considerable re-scoring.
Now in his mid-70s, the conductor Hartmut Haenchen is embarking on a new Bruckner series, having maintained an association with the composer across several decades. He opts for the composer's revised version of 1890, which was first performed in 1892 by the Vienna Philharmonic and Hans Richter, in Leopold Nowak's edition. There are many recordings of this version of the score. John Berky's admirable Bruckner website (www.abruckner.com) lists recordings by no fewer than 84 different conductors using this edition, and Haenchen is the only one of them to break the 70-minute barrier! Bernard Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra takes 80 minutes, for example.
What are we to read into this? Undoubtedly Haenchen prefers to adopt faster tempi than most conductors, though there are several - Karl Böhm, for instance - who are not much over 70 minutes. And of course there is more than one way to perform a great symphony.
In fact, it should be the case that when we submit as listeners to a fine performance, the music should sound as if it could not possibly be otherwise; and for the most part this is true with Haenchen and his admirable Danish orchestra. While his default position is to move things along, the music does convey a sense of mystery and inwardness, or of magnificence and grandeur, when Bruckner requires it. Just occasionally however, for example in some of the sequential passages of development in the great slow movement and finale, the phrasing seems rushed. In the finale, the recollection of the work's opening theme is a moment of great significance both structurally and emotionally, as it opens the door on the approach to the great coda, and it does not gain much from Haenchen's somewhat rushed release in the sequences leading up to it.
The recorded sound, like the orchestral playing, is atmospheric and resonant. Sometimes more detail among contrapuntal textures would have enriched the experience, as in the underwhelming counterpoints of the horns in the finale and in particular the peroration in the magnificent coda. But in the lively rhythmic Scherzo there is much to admire, and the faster tempi of the outer sections bring the benefit of offsetting the atmospheric trio, with its wonderful writing for the harps.
All in all, this is a most interesting interpretation of one of the greatest symphonies ever written. Haenchen's preference for swift tempi serves the music well enough amid its ebb and flow of tension and release.
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