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CD Review

Anton Bruckner

Zürich Philharmonia 105

Symphony #8 in C minor
(Original Version, 1887)

Philharmonia Zürich/Fabio Luisi
Zürich Philharmonia Records PHR0105
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It's generally accepted that Bruckner's Eighth is his greatest symphony. On completing the "original" version in 1887, the composer sent the score to Hermann Levi, who had premièred the Seventh, only to receive it back with dauntingly negative comments from the conductor. Although Levi wrote, "Don't lose your courage", he also exhorted Bruckner to: "…take another look at your work, talk it over with your friends, with Schalk, maybe a reworking can achieve something… [because] … I find it impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form. I just can't make it my own! As much as the themes are magnificent and direct, their working-out seems to me dubious; indeed, I consider the orchestration quite impossible." Within a year Bruckner had allowed himself to agree with Levi to revise the monumental work. In March 1888 he began work on the revision, completing it one year later.

Of the 130+ recordings of this great "cathedral" (for once the simile is apt) most are of the revised version. So this release starts with an advantage, if not of novelty, then certainly of freshness. It doesn't take the listener long to begin to appreciate such advantages. The excellent brass and strings of the Philharmonia Zürich emerge with a superb blend of dignity and gravitas strapped to an almost (entirely appropriate) awe-struck respect for and successful elevation of the immensity of Bruckner's achievements in melody, tonality, texture (between timpani and strings at the start of the second movement [CD.2 tr.2], for instance) and above all the relationship between the overall structure and its components, as elements of great beauty. Their achievement is to persuade without resorting to rhetoric.

Italian conductor Fabio Luisi was born in 1959. Originally a pianist (a pupil of Cicciolini), his decision to add operatic conducting to his considerable skills attracted much approval and many accolades from the 1980s onwards. His intention in forming the Graz Symphony Orchestra when he was barely 30 was in part to broaden yet further his understanding of (purely) orchestral music. His recording career really dates from the period during which he was music director of the Suisse Romande Orchestra – for the five years from 1997. Spectacular recordings of Strauss while at the Dresden Staatskapelle and Vienna Symphony cemented Luisi's reputation as an interpreter and technician who could be relied on consistently to produce performances with the twin merits of great originality married to imaginative insight that was both fresh and genuinely new.

Luisi has an acute sense of what works with Bruckner, given that the latter may have regretted diluting his original concept. The conductor clearly supports and loves the earlier version, reveling in many aspects of the scoring which he deems quite satisfactory in the original (1887) version: double as opposed to the later triple woodwind, for instance, are enough.

So it is with this recording of the Eighth: however well you know the work, you're highly likely to see new aspects, gain new perspectives and find new depths. These come not from a thrashing around with the aim of reshoveling the immense mound of material out of which which Bruckner necessarily built this monument; that would be relatively easy for anyone to do. But from rethinking the sense of purpose, the unity and direction which over 90 minutes of music takes. Luisi both treats it as a whole and yet lingers – without langor – at every corner and path. He brings us, in short, totally inside the music.

Although the highpoint of the music is surely the half-hour long Adagio [CD.2 tr.1], the scherzoallegro moderato second movement, actually the shortest in the work at 17 minutes illustrates Luisi's approach well. Nothing is hurried or rushed. Yet the movement seems to pass without the slightest sense of stasis. Something has been happening the whole time. Even while you are reflecting on this momentum, you are struck by the fact that you have been invited to pass comment on a multitude of colors, senses, sensations and delights as though you had taken in the huge varieties of a hundred market stalls with fresh, vibrant, nutritious produce which is somehow both permanently available to you for consumption, yet was placed there inadvertently to suggest variety and choice. But most significantly, will be there tomorrow, no matter how much you buy and consume today.

The way that the adagio third movement comes upon us is further indication of Luisi's conception of Bruckner's Eighth as a whole. And of the Philharmonia Zürich's strengths in execution and comprehension of such a vision. It's taken very slowly; indeed, it seems to emerge from nowhere and end almost in dissolution, which adds to the sense of true mystery which Bruckner surely intended. Similarly, the crushing finale leaves one for a few seconds wondering at the very relationship between notes on the staff and the essence of sound. This is a huge achievement by Luisi and his forces. But, listen again; and it was not an illusion. Most striking of all, it has been achieved through sheer adherence to the qualities of empirical examination of the score followed by strict discipline in its transmission into sound. The climax 12 or so minutes into the adagio [CD.2. tr.1], for example just is. There is no histrionic, no extra rush of musical gesture and no sought effect or dressing. That Luisi and the Philharmonia Zürich sustain this penetration into the essence of the symphony – indeed, into late nineteenth century symphonic writing as a phenomenon at all – is quite remarkable. By the end of the four movements you're tempted to question whether Luisi sees this as Romantic music or as music looking some considerable way into the future.

In his contribution to the documentation that comes with the CD, Luisi refers to the Eighth's "primeval forces" and to its qualities as a "hige puzzle", how the late works defy explanation and are about transcendence, belief and being. These would be warning words indeed, were the music in the hands of a lesser conductor; an excuse for excess and overblown spectacle. On the other hand, someone more openly "practical" might seek to downplay the extent to which Bruckner reaches for something way beyond the symphonically illustrative (as perhaps can be claimed for Mahler or Strauss). Luisi's balance satisfying all aspects of the music's purpose and execution is accordingly admirable and likely to satisfy most thoughtful listeners. Significantly, Luisi is equally thoughtful about Bruckner's "program" for the Eighth, suggesting that it would be naïve to take it too literally. If for no other reason than that – as the conductor writes – Bruckner was a "fairly simple soul". In some ways, it's precisely this quality of transparency and total acceptance of what Bruckner wrote (even to the extent of using his first thoughts on the symphony at all) on which Luisi's interpretation is based. So he neither asks nor gets from the Philharmonia Zürich swirls of smoke or rolls of thunder. Light is allowed to shine not as something to be striven for as one traverses the storm; but as part of the storm itself.

The acoustic of the Kultur Casino in Bern is ample yet respectful of the myriad of detail which Luisi prizes so highly from start to finish. The recording's engineers have not allowed the immensity of the work to be lost or clouded by spuriously grandiose atmosphere; nor yet to be dampened by miking that's too close. The result is just right. The slim booklet in German, English and French which comes with these two CDs has a pointed interview with Luisi, a brief sketch of both conductor and orchestra but little else. No matter. This is a superb achievement and one which ought immediately to find its way onto the shelves of any Bruckner collector, certainly. And – further – of anyone interested in the symphonic repertoire who wants to enjoy the simultaneous thrill of experiencing what Bruckner famously called a "mystery" ("Meine Achte ist ein Mysterium") more deeply; yet lifting a few veils through playing that's as clean and precise as it is clever and passionate. Warmly recommended.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey