Australian World Orchestra’s Guest Conductor helps shed light on the Eighth Symphony of the Austrian behemoth.

Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony can’t claim to be his longest – that distinction belongs to the first version of his feral Third. Nor is it his technically most demanding – the Ninth requires that orchestral musicians plunder technical resources they don’t necessarily know they have. But Brucknerheads of the world unite over the idea of the Eighth as providing the ultimate Bruckner fix; music to get inside your veins, opening the doors of perception to heightened sensory awareness. 

When Simon Rattle was deciding what to bring to Australia for this summer’s tour with the Australian World Orchestra – three concerts, two in Sydney and one in Melbourne – Bruckner’s Eighth pretty much chose itself, without Rattle needing to ponder the issue for too long. “Wherever I go,” he deadpans, “I bump into Australians who say ‘I’m coming to play with you in the summer!’ and there is clearly something very special about coming home to Australia.” The AWO operates by inviting ex-pat Australian musicians who are gainfully employed by some of the world’s stellar orchestras – the Berlin Philharmonic, the LSO and Chicago Symphony Orchestra included – back to Australia to work alongside principals from the country’s own leading orchestras.

Australian World Orchestra

Bruckner Eight, Rattle says, absolutely plays to the strengths of this situation: “It’s a piece that is terribly hard for the conductor, but not so ridiculously tough for the orchestra. It can come together orchestrally quite fast, but it’s up to the conductor to make sense of that epic journey. When I played the Eighth for the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic Academy – our scheme where we invite young professionals who have left college to play in the orchestra; and for the anniversary we invited them all back – the electricity generated could have powered a small South American state. That concert, too, was about returning home, and I like to think of the AWO as a youth orchestra full of people with grey hairs – which sounds like a paradise to me.”

“I like to think of the Australian World Orchestra as a youth orchestra full of people with grey hairs”

Making sense of that epic and imposing symphonic journey, both the piece itself and the great symphonies that surround it, means beginning at the end. The day Bruckner completed the first draft of his Eighth in 1885 was, indeed, a happy one. “The Finale is the most significant movement of my life,” he wrote to his friend the conductor Franz Schalk. Hitherto Bruckner had been plagued by what has latterly been termed his ‘Finale problem’ – the insinuation that he had a tendency to deploy bombast as a means of carrying the kinetic weight of earlier movements towards their conclusion, rather than achieve closure through musical argument. But now everything had come right – and Bruckner knew it. Disparate themes, gesturally and harmonically, turned the heel, knitting seamlessly together as the symphony found its way home.

Eighty minutes earlier, Bruckner throws us ear-first into an angsty harmonic wilderness. The first movement Allegro moderato begins with that archetypal Bruckner scene-setting gesture: violin tremolos, a faraway sightline that serves immediate notice of Bruckner’s ambitions of gradation and scale. Then, in violas, cellos and basses, a seedbed of melodic context emerges – an ‘on the up’ theme, hectic with dramatic silence, twisting like a brittle strip of wire around tonality-busting semitones. And this line asks big questions, more than enough to sustain the next 80 minutes. Harmonic sleights-of-hand create the illusion that ultimate resolution is improbable. High-wire chromaticism propels the line forward and upwards… until a dramatic descent, which Bruckner, no coincidence, anchors around that other melodic interval guaranteed to undermine tonal certainty: C Natural falling to F Sharp, outlining a tritone.

The lettering on the front of the score is clear-cut, blaring out tonal allegiance like a neon light: “BRUCKNER – SYMPHONIE VIII IN C MOLL/DO MINEUR/C MINOR”. And yet during this opening section, C Minor feels more like an aspiration than anything harmonically concrete. Bruckner’s themes flirt with the idea of C Minor – but relish playing hard to get. The structural epicentre of the first movement, where usually you would expect to hear an orchestral argument raging, fragments instead into one of the oddest orchestral textures Bruckner would ever concoct. A solo flute, circling high in the orchestral register, is left to prop up the symphonic argument as underneath – a whole five octaves underneath in fact – the double basses prowl those chromatic semi-tones of the opening, not so much accompanying as interrupting the flute. Encasing these ripples of uncertainty, funereal trumpets puncture the already stark inscape, leading towards the movement’s swan song: a nervy twitching in the violas which Bruckner likened to a death rattle. 

But the genius of Bruckner’s symphony lies not only in its composer’s capacity to connect those conflicting signals during the Finale – but how forcefully experiencing that Finale obliges the sensitive listener to think about what it is they have already heard; Bruckner’s apparent liberties with form and his harmonic waywardness are justified in retrospect. The music continues to resonate long after the final notes decay. In the Finale, Bruckner pushes open the harmonic aperture: the interval of the semitone, upon which the opening movement feasted, is stretched to a tritone – making good the implication of that first melodic descent in the strings. And Bruckner makes a key strategic decision following the conceptual monkey-puzzle of his first movement. To re-root the symphony back in songs of the earth, he places his rootsy Scherzo before the slow movement for the first time in his sequence of symphonies, allowing his wondrous Adagio to act as a bridge towards the Finale. 

The last time I spoke to Simon Rattle about Bruckner – in 2012 when his recording of the Ninth Symphony with a reconstructed fourth movement Finale was about to released on EMI – we eyeballed each other over tea in his Vienna hotel room. Now Rattle is back in Vienna and I’m at home in Oxford, and down the phone line I remind him of a memorable gem from our earlier encounter. Rattle reported John Phillips (one of the musicologists closely involved in the painstaking rebuilding of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony Finale) telling him that really the movement was about a Catholic losing his faith because “patently this is what’s happening to Bruckner.”

“This Finale is not hell – it’s purgatory, this desperate obsessive repeating, of climbing over rocks and thorns”

And from this Rattle concluded: “This Finale is not hell – it’s purgatory, this desperate, obsessive repeating, of struggling through, of climbing over rocks and thorns,” and I wonder if there is any sense of that approaching crisis of faith in the Eighth? “Only in a roundabout way, because the Eighth is a very different thing,” Rattle says. “The first movement is very much to do with death. He talks about the death clock at the end of the movement ticking away in the violas, which is one of very few pictures he ever gave us about his symphonies. But what is astonishing is how the symphony resolves into an enormous calm. It actually works itself to something more elevated and calm than you could ever have imagined.”

How would Rattle define this calm? Resigned or transcendent? “It’s characteristic Bruckner – a transcendent calm. And here is a very different way of creating a symphony by taking an enormous amount of very unstable material and, by the end of the piece, making it stable. The symphony has the naturalness of a journey. The first movement throws down a powerful gauntlet, and surprisingly perhaps, it puts me in mind of the emotional journey of a great Shostakovich symphony. The first movement says to the rest of the symphony, okay, make sense of that, and there is something chemical about how the journey of the first movement affects the rest of the piece. At the heart of it, as ever, is the slow movement, which is one of the most profound things Bruckner ever wrote.”

The Adagio begins with 4/4 subdivided into irregularly grouped triplet beats. Another example of Bruckner’s instability? “The movement is a fascinating rhythmic hall of mirrors,” Rattle explains. “But it’s very important one should hear the opening string music as setting a clear pulse. I really have no time for what Germans call ‘Gummy-Bruckner’. Günter Wand once put it very well – in Bruckner, he said, yes, the
harmony is Romantic, but the rhythm and the form are Classical. Please, no rubato, I heard him tell the Berlin Philharmonic during a rehearsal. Never pull the pulse apart. Find a basic pulse and everything you do must begin from that. Discipline is everything – rubato, and attempting to drag the pulse, will only distort the proportions.”

And proportion is one of the reasons Rattle opts to perform Robert Haas’s edition of the score, published in 1939. When Bruckner sent his completed score to the conductor Hermann Levi in 1887, he was fuelled by hope. Levi had recently led exultant, game-changing performances of the Seventh; but the Eighth puzzled and defeated him, and Bruckner’s view of his symphony had evolved considerably by the time of the Vienna Philharmonic’s eventual premiere in 1892. Levi rejected the piece as unplayable but, paradoxically, Bruckner delivered a structurally and harmonically more radical score in time for that first performance. The first movement had originally ended in a blaze of major key glory; and now its final bars fragmented. Haas collated Bruckner’s final thoughts, making a workable performance edition.

“With the Eighth,” Rattle tells me, “I don’t think choosing which edition to play is too much of a problem, although we all wait with considerable interest to see what the forthcoming Urtext edition will reveal.” Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave the first performance of Bruckner detective-musicologist Benjamin Cohrs’ new Urtext version of the Seventh in April, and Rattle’s respect for Cohrs’ is absolute. “He’s the most trustworthy Bruckner scholar there’s been, a man uninterested in painting his own boat into the picture. In the Seventh, for instance, he unearthed a whole passage where the basses ought to be playing 8th notes rather than quarters, and the music is suddenly motored by a double-tempo engine. Elsewhere, the first violins have a crescendo and diminuendo where nobody else does, which might feel like a small thing but is a whole other colour. There are occasional different notes, plus lots of revised dynamics and articulation, and it’s the accumulation of small things that are so fascinating.”

“But here’s a strange thing: I’ve played Bruckner Seven with the Berlin Philharmonic many times, but if you get a new edition, and the players have new parts, it actually sounds different immediately. It sounded very clean – so clean that we had to put the dirt back in. Psychologically I’m not certain why a different copy should make so much difference to the sound, but with an orchestra that sensitive the difference is immediate.” Next year, Rattle tells me, he will tackle the Sixth for the first time, but even since our interview the ground has shifted – buried deep in the St. Florian monastery in Austria, where Bruckner worked as an organist, a whole set of period orchestral parts has just been unearthed. Whatever strategies Rattle had for the Sixth might be about to change.

Related: Magdalena Kožená on growing up Czech, managing diaries and bringing up a musical family

In Sydney and Melbourne, the Bruckner will be preceded by Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune and a set of Ariettes Oubliées [Forgotten Songs] orchestrated by Brett Dean for Rattle’s wife, the mezzo Magdalena Kožená. And I wonder when Rattle, his ears used to the permanent positions of the Berlin Philharmonic, will feel when, at the first rehearsal, he looks out at this orchestra assembled specifically for this tour. Will there be work to do to define an orchestral sound? “Well, if that doesn’t happen it’s always the conductor’s fault! But we will find the right mixture of darkness and transparency quickly, I’m sure. 

“The reason for choosing Debussy was that we wanted to begin with something very different. Brett’s idea of orchestrating songs for Magdalena was wonderfully seductive and, actually, Brett suggested we do Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune. Bruckner and Debussy were not so far apart in terms of time, and Bruckner loved French music, Berlioz in particular. He kept a score of the Symphonie Fantastique on his writing desk. I might be wrong, but I don’t think Bruckner would have minded being paired with Debussy.

Simon Rattle conducts the Australian World Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House on July 29-31, and Arts Centre Melbourne on August 1

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