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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

Symphony #8

  • Symphony #8 in C minor (Haas, 1890)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon 459678-2 DDD 76:14
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France has not had much use for Anton Bruckner, and it is only in recent decades that his music has been performed at all. Conductor Pierre Boulez has hardly been swimming in the musical backwaters for the past 45 years, yet even he has refrained from committing himself to the mystical Austrian's music. Boulez's Wagner and Mahler are on disc, but Bruckner? None, that is, until now. This CD was recorded in 1996 in the Abbey Church of St. Florian in Linz. Four years earlier, Boulez was asked to perform the work by the Managing Director of the Vienna Philharmonic, and it was only at this International Bruckner Festival that the suggestion became reality. The location was significant, because the composer himself is buried beneath the Church's organ. If a critic wanted to make comments about Bruckner turning over in his grave, this would have been the perfect occasion!

The location is also significant because of the challenges that it presents to the conductor (who demands clarity of texture) and to the recording engineers; churches are often tricky concert venues, given the long reverberation times. Conductors can compensate for this, at least in part, by choosing slower tempos, but of course this can have a deadening effect on the music. Boulez has had unfortunate experiences with church acoustics, and he also prefers to spend some time performing a work "live" before recording it in a studio. For Boulez, the plan was to rehearse the work "at home" in Vienna, rehearse it again in Linz, and then to play it in concert on September 21 and 22. I assume that this recording is a composite of the best movements or passages from those two concerts. Everyone concerned has done a thorough job of taming St. Florian's acoustics. In fact, I think most listeners would be hard-pressed to note sonic differences between this recording and just about any other recording completed under more usual circumstances.

Boulez has chosen to use the "original" Haas edition of this symphony; other conductors prefer Nowak, which is cut. Predictably, Boulez is superior when it comes to making architectural sense of this sprawling symphony. This is a tremendously logical and objective interpretation. I do not find it to be a notably spiritual one; this is Bruckner for agnostics. For those who find Bruckner's mysticism a smoke screen, or otherwise intolerable – and those people do exist – Boulez's reading will be a tonic. (I am reminded of the story about Brahms, who, inspecting one of Bruckner's scores, covered up most of the tempo indication Misterioso with his finger, producing the word Mist [trash].) The Vienna Philharmonic plays well and makes the most of its opportunities. Paradoxically, this is not a major addition to the Bruckner discography, but it is a major addition to the Boulez discography.

Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle