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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor WAB 108 (1890)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Mariss Jansons
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich, November 13-18, 2017
BR KLASSIK SACD 900166 [80:07]

There are some orchestras it is simply a luxury to hear in SACD sound – and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of them. The good news is that this wonderful orchestra sounds absolutely tremendous in Bruckner’s Eighth under their music director, Mariss Jansons. The bad news is this new recording is only available from Japan as an SACD.

BR Klassik have given this conductor and orchestra some excellently engineered discs – notably a thrilling Alpensinfonie – and the sound on this new Bruckner disc is unquestionably sumptuous and beautifully detailed. Listening to it is like looking at a perfectly exposed photograph. Left and right channels are in perfect balance, there is a near ideal range between the lower and upper tiers of the orchestra, and the clarity of the instrumental sound is often breath-taking. Especially in the Adagio, I was blown away by the orchestra’s ability to play in such a way that you simply don’t hear woodwind or brass players breathe between their notes – it’s the kind of poetic, lyrical playing that is so rare to hear in a Bruckner symphony. Jansons – not always the most strenuously meticulous musician when it comes to score markings – observes only some of Bruckner’s string phrasing and so this sounds a less heavy performance than some, though the engineering (done by Wilhelm Meister and Winifred Messmer) certainly doesn’t under-define the sound of the lower strings, which is rich, if not overwhelming; if you want a Bruckner Eighth where the accents are stronger you need to look elsewhere (Gunter Wand or Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, for example). There is an upside to this, however, and it is that there is absolutely no fierceness to the upper strings – what we have here is a recording which has somehow managed to make the entire orchestra sound an incredibly immaculate tonal instrument.

Just as remarkable is the tight balance between the brass and the strings – in no way do the former overwhelm the latter, which can so often become a problem in this symphony. The control is magnificent, so much so that you almost forget that the first movement’s dark crisis is a prevalent feature of the performance, or that the Bavarian orchestra’s combined forces are a feature of the turbulence that inhabits the movement’s development. Crescendos have a way of just being absorbed into the surrounding soundscape without sounding unduly hazy or compressed (mm.125, for example) – and yet at the other extreme the most intense pianissimo can be captured with incredible depth (mm.205). There is no lack of atmosphere to the recording either – the harps in the Adagio, for example, are magical (4’09 onwards and again at 20’29).

Despite the wonderful sound of this orchestra I am much less sure about the merits of the performance itself. To be frank, it comes across as distinctly unengaging at times; this conductor’s tendency, sometimes too apparent in Bruckner, to appear efficient and competent just won’t wash in this symphony. Jansons – despite his many years leading orchestras in Europe – has never really deserted his Latvian roots, and it shows in his Bruckner, which is closer to Mravinsky and Svetlanov – though it often lacks the brilliance and intensity of either - than it is to a more central European view of Bruckner’s symphonies, too. In some ways, Jansons’ performance is quite a disturbing recording, prone to elements of menace and jaggedness – though that doesn’t by any means imply there isn’t a sense of structure to his reading, because there certainly is – contriving to emphasise Bruckner’s more dramatic and dissonant scoring. This is not a performance that is rooted in anything at all profound or elemental, however.

Go back thirty years, to another Bruckner Eighth (on the Bells of St Florian label) in beautiful analogue, stereo sound with the same orchestra, but conducted by Gunter Wand, from a performance given in June 1984, and we have one of the greatest Bruckner Eighth’s ever recorded. Here we have a recording which is astonishingly powerful (the depth of tone of the strings from 7’48 in the final movement, even when they are playing at pianissimo at 8’10 is simply staggering – but entirely symptomatic of this performance). Some contrast might be enlightening. Both Jansons and Wand take a very similar view of the blazing timpani and brass passage in the Final movement (6:10 in Wand, 6:20 in Jansons) but what a different effect it has – Wand is seismic and crushing, giving it almost unendurable weight and tension. Jansons, however, at a similar speed, sounds flaccid, controlled and constrained. The coda to the Final movement is even more extreme. Wand, in one of the two greatest codas I’ve ever heard in a Bruckner Eighth (the other is with Otmar Suitner), takes a magnificent three minutes of cumulative power to get through its extraordinary crescendo (and the power of the Bavarian basses is unique in my experience); Jansons takes just under 2’40 to accelerate through a coda that seems to be intent on tearing up orthodoxy; there is little in the way of darkness, no mystery in the playing of the strings, or a sense of finality to the closing bars. If Wand’s coda ends ablaze, Janson’s ends under an eclipse.

I think it is difficult to recommend the Japanese SACD over the more widely available CD version simply because the performance seems so uninvolving. Gunter Wand, with the same orchestra, is just one conductor, among many others, to have made much greater recordings of this symphony; and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1984 was as peerless then as it is today, perhaps even more so.

Marc Bridle

Previous reviews (CD): Michael Cookson ~ Dan Morgan

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