Sometimes you experience a hitherto completely unfamiliar piece of music, which not only opens up another universe, both musical and spiritual, but also leaves an imprint that becomes a template for all subsequent accounts. One such experience for me was Herbert von Karajan’s 1958 recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Karajan had recently succeeded Furtwängler as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and made little secret of the fact that he (and a number of others) considered the appointment as his “Manifest Destiny”. This recording was a calling card to demonstrate what he was capable of with his new orchestra. I had no knowledge of the composer, but I’ll never forget the cataracts of sound which poured from my speakers. Karajan build like a Mughal emperor but finished like a Fabergé jeweller and his is still probably the slowest version in the catalogue. He recorded it twice subsequently and while these were both superb, neither quite replicated its aura.
Nelson’s Leipzig Bruckner has been rightly lauded (except perhaps the Seventh) and this Eighth and the unjustly neglected Second are no exception. The Second is often nick-named the “Symphony of Pauses” for self-evident reasons but Nelsons somehow manages to makes these silences “sing” – especially at the end of the first movement. I raved about Thomes Dausgaard’s version (performed by a “chamber” orchestra of 38 musicians without any hint of Bruckner Lite!) but, on hearing the Leipzig Gewandthaus’ heft, I think this approach is more appropriate.
I particularly loved the suave almost seductive (not words one readily associates with Bruckner) schwung which alternates between an inner radiance and coolness. The slow movement, altered from adagio to andante by the composer, is poignant (unlike Karajan’s later reading, which over dramatises it) and the trio of the scherzo is celestially beautiful. Even in Nelson’s hands, the finale is a little discursive, but this doesn’t detract from the structure.
In the Eighth, Nelsons has the work’s measure. He allows it to unfold perfectly by establishing a convincing pulse (always essential in Bruckner) which he knows how to re-calibrate when necessary. It’s wonderful to hear a conductor who just gets everything rights and misses nothing on my mental check list. I was enthralled by the performance, recording an interpretation.
Nelsons really allows the fabulous woodwinds to convey the mystery, loneliness and tragedy in this work which was often known as “The Apocalyptic”. The sudden ferocity in the first movement is quite terrifying and the silkiness of the strings at the end is almost sinister, against the balm of the clarinet. One of my few quibbles is the tempo of the scherzo where the orchestra doesn’t unleash its might as masterfully as it does with Karajan. In the slow movement, the haloes of strings are miraculous, and the harps create a truly celestial radiance. The tempos here are perfect.
My other quibble is with the tempo at the beginning of the finale, possibly the most violent passage in all Bruckner (which, for once he accurately described as depicting Cossacks thundering along the Russian Steppes): it’s a little fast. However, the rest of the finale is admirably handled, including the expertly graded climax, perhaps the greatest in all symphonic music.
This is one of the best Bruckner Eights I’ve heard in a long time.
Works: Symphony No 2, Symphony No 8
Performers: Leipzig Gewnandhaus Orchestra/Andris Nelsons
Label: DG 4839834 (2CD)