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Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony No. 8 in C minor WAB 108 (ed. Nowak 1890 version)
Bruckner Orchestra Linz/Markus Poschner
rec. 5 & 7-9 February 2018, Rehearsal Hall, Musiktheater, Linz
Bruckner 2024 - The Complete Versions Edition
CAPRICCIO C8081 [76:16]

This is the second recording to be issued in the Bruckner 2024 series which, as with Gerd Schaller’s own Bruckner project, aims to complete in time for the bicentenary of the composer’s birth.

A very lucid and readable essay by series consultant Paul Hawkshaw sets out the origins and evolution of the Eighth Symphony into its second version, and the case for preferring the 1890 Nowak edition as it is played here, with the passages restored by Haas removed. He also narrates the triumph of its premiere – including mention of the persistent, blind prejudice of critic Eduard Hanslick “who made a show of walking out before the finale” - no doubt immediately to begin work on the “vituperative review” which ensued. What an ass history now shows him to be. The booklet also details of what is to be included in this series, amounting to eighteen recordings covering “all versions published or to be published under the auspices of the Austrian National Library in the Neue Anton Bruckner Gesamtausgabe.”

Both my review and that of John Proffitt in response to the recording of the Sixth Symphony, the first in this series, were qualified and even tepid; we both questioned the conductor’s assertion that “little or none” of the tradition of playing Bruckner “with epic breadth, much incense, and plenty of projected grand awesomeness…actually stems from the musical text”. Ignoring or neglecting those qualities in the Eighth is surely playing with fire. Here, Poschner’s timings here are decidedly middle-of-the-road – but the performance itself achieves distinction.

Indeed, I certainly respond much more positively to this recording of the Eighth than I do to his Sixth, primarily because whatever his philosophy implies, Poschner gives what I would consider to be a mainstream performance which acknowledges the need for grandeur as well as momentum in this monumental symphony. The first two movements strike me as wholly satisfactory, the first beginning with palpable drive and purpose, although occasionally the faster passages border on the rushed and breathless where I would like the phrases to breathe a little more - but that is a passing observation as that manner generates excitement. The Deutscher Michel theme of Scherzo starts fleet and furious, but the pianissimo second section restatement is especially delicate and dextrous; the delivery of the Trio is a little galumphing but it is in any case surely meant to be predominately rustic in character and contrasts tellingly with the heroic ardour of the outer sections.

It is in the concluding two movements, however, where I think we hear the best of this recording. There is great poise and tenderness in the sublime Adagio, the core of the symphony; the brass provide warmth and stateliness, and the bass strings furnish a deep cushion of inky tone while the upper strings soar – this is lovely playing. The beautifully balanced sound has a big, broad acoustic quality which enables us to hear properly all the instrumental lines in this dense score, but the contribution of the harp in particular comes through ideally - which is not always the case in recordings of the Eighth. Poschner’s control of the shape and dynamics of long, arcing phrases within the movement ensures the listener’s concentration and the climactic release at 19:19 is as overwhelming as it is minutely prepared and the coda is rapt and tender, the horns once again sounding exceptionally luminous.

The finale has plenty of fire about it, while avoiding the erratic, stop-go sensation more frenetic recordings engender. There is menace a-plenty, too, in the plodding, four-square march of the third theme, alternating beguilingly with the lyrical second subject and although for some tastes tempi might be a tad too brisk and Poschner’s attack from about six to eight minutes in is slightly too restrained. He recovers, however and the sheer racket this orchestra makes in the fugue and coda, enhanced by the clarity of the sound engineering, is simply glorious; the conclusion is both numinous and hieratic - perhaps only Jansons and Karajan apply a more majestic touch of rubato there, before the climax is hammered home.

I have already mentioned the excellence of the booklet notes and presentation as a whole is attractive – but I do wish that recording companies would dispense with superfluous cardboard slipcases over the plastic case – indeed, most have moved towards slimmer, recyclable cardboard digipacks.

Ralph Moore

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