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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Symphony No. 8 (1890 version, ed. Haas) [82:55] Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Couleurs de la Cité Celeste [21:05]
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, Barbican, London, 14 April 2016
Sound Format PCM Stereo, 24bit-48kHz; Picture Format 16:9, BluRay1080i; Region free: DVD Region 0 LSO LIVE LSO3042 DVD/Blu-ray [104 mins]
This concert from the Barbican in London was filmed live in April 2016 as a co-production between LSO Live and the French company Mezzo. The video director was Corentin Leconte. The two discs are identical in content, one being DVD and the other Blu-ray. The price is advantageous, even for a single disc issue.
The order of the performances is the opposite to that of the concert, with Bruckner coming before Messiaen. Reviews of the live concert commented about a twenty minute first half followed by an interval with a long second half. Many performances of Bruckner's Eighth offer no first half at all, and it is tempting to wonder whether a short first half plus interval have something to do with boosting the bar takings. At any rate, as offered here these matters do not apply, and the presence of Messiaen merely offers an interesting bonus addition to one's collection.
With the distinguished French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the centre of proceedings, the Messiaen interpretation has great authority and precision, with alert direction from Rattle. It also fares better in terms of the video direction (of which more anon). The precision of the score, the instrumentation and of the filming do give an excellent idea of Messiaen's special sound world and artistic priorities, so that anyone coming new to the piece will benefit from this.
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 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 version of the Eighth appeared in 1890. The differences included a new coda for the first movement and a new trio for the Scherzo, structural changes in the Adagio and finale, and considerable re-scoring. The edition of the score edited by Robert Haas, which Rattle performs here, dates from 1939. It is essentially based on the 1890 version, though with a passage from the 1887 Adagio reinstated. Haas also restored some passages from the autograph score of the 1890 Finale that originated from the 1887 version, while also cutting a few measures from the revised score.
Rattle and the LSO perform the Eighth Symphony with the utmost conviction, and the rich orchestral colours of the fully scored passages are very impressive: more so, perhaps, than they might have sounded in the acoustic of the Barbican Hall itself. The pacing of the music is expertly judged, and the balancing of textures allows details of orchestration to come through. The rhythmic thrust of the second movement scherzo is powerfully projected, and the profound inwardness of the slow movement is compelling; likewise the performance has a wonderfully developed intensification into a powerful climax replete with cymbal clashes.
All this makes for an impressive performance, and the powerful finale complements it, with its lyrical Gesangsperiode extending the expressive range. The LSO strings sound wonderful, and some of the finest camera work pays them tribute visually too. Above all the movement has a strong sense of symphonic purpose and direction, so that a recapitulation alone cannot be enough, and the final phase is heralded by the fulfilment brought by the return of the first movement's opening subject. The magnificent coda follows, majestically combining themes from all four movements in a blaze of C major sound, and representing the ultimate and most radiant affirmation of Bruckner's devout faith.
The abundant strengths of one of the greatest symphonies ever written are undoubtedly projected by the LSO and Rattle: the playing is very fine throughout the orchestra, and the conductor's direction covers the ebb and flow of tensions and relaxations across the work's 80-minute duration, always with a clearly articulated sense of direction.
However, the video presentation does not quite emulate these standards, even if it cunningly succeeds in making the microphone placements on the stage all but eliminated from view. There are six cameramen, as opposed for example to nine for Christian Thielemann in Symphony No. 4 at Dresden, and the same for Claudio Abbado at Lucerne in No. 5. And this does make a difference to the options and angles available. Perhaps the shape of the stage was a limiting factor, but even so it is the lack of views of the full orchestra in action that is a real disappointment. And as the performance proceeds, so the darting hither and thither around the orchestra becomes irritating, with a second or two here, a second or two there. Nor does the video direction consistently anticipate key moments in the score, for example the Wagner tubas in the slow movement, and the timpani in the finale.
LSO Live has a well-established history of SACD issues and surround sound, but this collaboration with Mezzo issues the performance in 24-48 rather than the more common 24-96 audio format, and only in stereo. Although the sound is well integrated, there could have been greater clarity, and the decision to lose the option of surround sound seems surprising. Terry Barfoot