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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C Minor, WAB 108 (Edition Robert Haas, 1939)
Wiener Philharmoniker/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, 5 & 13 October 2019, Musikverein, Golden Hall, Vienna
SONY 19439786582 [81:28]

This is the first instalment of a projected complete Bruckner symphony cycle from these artists on Sony. Thielemann’s previous recording of this symphony with the Dresden Staatskapelle made in 2009 was generally well received despite being on the ponderous side. This recording made a decade later with an equally celebrated Bruckner orchestra is a couple of minutes faster … but seems slower, being somewhat flabby and lacking in momentum.

This is a composite, live recording derived from two performances but there is absolutely no audience noise I could divine. However, that might indicate the muddiness of the recorded sound; the engineering as not as good as Profil gave Thielemann in Dresden, as there is a lack of dynamic range, the brass and woodwind are too prominent compared with the recessed percussion, and there is a general opacity and sponginess about the whole sound picture – Jansons was much better served by his engineers in his live recording of the Seventh in the same venue a couple of years previous to this.

The problem is that the whole recording exudes a general air of routine competence but seems devoid of true tension. The repeated “Announcement of Death” theme generates little terror every time it reappears; its climactic restatement thirteen and a half minutes in before the coda of the first movement is limp and…well, anticlimactic. One can revel in the beautiful playing of the VPO but listen in vain for the kind of transcendence Karajan achieves with the same orchestra twenty years earlier in his final, spectacular, digital version. Normally, when I sit down to listen to this, my favourite of all symphonies, I am transported; here I feel as if I am a railway passenger observing a sequence of mildly impressive landscapes through the window as I pass through the countryside and it wouldn’t much matter if I dozed off for a while.

I never tire of intoning that Bruckner’s Scherzos are bombproof in merely competent hands, which is in no sense meant to denigrate music but rather to applaud the composer’s craft, and so it proves here – it all works but again distanced percussion is an issue. However, the Adagio is the core of this symphony and again, I found it mundane and earthbound. I cannot pretend to be able to isolate and identify accurately what it is about Karajan, Giulini, Furtwängler and Sinopoli which distinguish their accounts from this beyond vague allusions to a “spiritual” quality, some inner tension in the phrasing, a sense of concentration and cohesion which eludes this recording. The orchestral playing here is undoubtedly smooth and glowing, but when solo instruments are highlighted, they sound episodic and divorced from what should be a mighty, slow-moving progress like the inexorable flow of a glacier. At times, Thielemann almost descends to stasis and stall – for example, at 15:45 – which is precisely where Karajan surges ahead. Above all, and unforgivably, the great cymbal climax is a non-event.; there is no frisson for the listener – it just occurs, vapidly. Of course, there are moments of beauty but this performance bespeaks gesture over content.

As is often the case in listless performances, matters perk up a bit in the finale but that cannot redeem the preceding hour and, in any case, the same torpor pervades and intermittently militates its effect. In truth, it is boring; the brass gallop at 13:30 is so pusillanimous and the coda succumbs to the same point-making which marred the Adagio.

Ultimately, set against so many superlative competitive recordings, this is workaday. Essentially, whatever passion Thielemann might privately have for this music, he has failed to imbue his orchestra with the same sense of wonder and the result is anodyne.

Ralph Moore

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